BAR HARBOR — Ever tried to draw a circle on an Etch A Sketch?
You are excused if the exercise ended with flinging the iconic red children’s toy toward the nearest trash bin.
“I can’t draw a circle on an Etch A Sketch either,” admits artist Andrea Tilden.
She can, however, draw intricate likenesses of the human form using a single line controlled by the toy’s two dials.
By day, the Ellsworth native works as a computational biologist. Currently on sabbatical from her teaching job at Colby College, she is working as a visiting professor at the MDI Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor. She is collaborating with biologist James A. Coffman in his research into the effect of early exposure to the stress hormone cortisol on zebrafish embryos.
Tilden, who lives in Waterville, draws parallels between her professional and artistic pursuits.
“I’m the type of person who can sit and focus on one thing for a very long time,” she said.
Her scientific work involves analyzing large sets of data. Her art, while also meticulous, can feel relaxing in contrast.
Once an Etch A Sketch design is laid out, the actual execution can be almost “mindless,” Tilden said. She can spend an hour on the shading of a tiny quadrant and up to 70 hours per piece.
She is constrained by both the size of the Etch A Sketch (the screen is 6.25 by 4.5 inches) and the fact that the entire piece must be composed of a single continuous line. Imperfections are inevitable.
“The inability to lift and move the stylus requires that I be both highly controlled and tolerant of chaos,” Tilden wrote in a blog post about her art. “Every line is permanent; there is no erasing or reconfiguration. The works are therefore full of imperfections that can be seen on close inspection. I work millimeter-by-millimeter, achieving different levels of shading by varying the distance between lines and by retracing multiple times over small regions.”
“Other than some basic outline lines, everything is a horizontal or vertical line,” Tilden said.
She first ventured into Etch A Sketch art in 2010, after purchasing the toy to entertain her young son during a snow storm. He was more interested in Legos, so Tilden began experimenting with the drawing toy.
After a few frustrating early starts, she was hooked.
“I kept improving and I figured out how to get dimensionality and form and shading into my image,” Tilden explained.
As her work improved, she wanted to preserve it. To do so requires an understanding of how the toy works.
The glass plate of an Etch A Sketch is coated with sticky aluminum dust. When you shake it up and down, tiny plastic beads deposit this dust on the glass. The Etch A Sketch’s knobs control a stylus on a pulley system. As the stylus moves, it scrapes the dust off the glass, producing dark lines that create the drawing.
To prevent her art from being erased or drawn over, Tilden disassembles each Etch a Sketch, removes the drawing mechanism and carefully vacuums out the plastic beads. Then she puts it back together.
As she delved deeper into the field, Tilden connected with other Etch A Sketch artists via social media. Some of the more well-known artists include “Princess Etch” Jane Labowitch and “The Etch Man” Christoph Brown.
Jeff Gagliardi, one of the pioneers of Etch A Sketch drawing, describes it as “a quintessential American art form, where the medium truly is the message. I love creating works that you wouldn’t expect to see — like a reproduction of a Renaissance master’s work, or the corner of a five dollar bill. It’s a totally familiar subject, but it now has an element of disbelief.”
Tilden’s Etch A Sketch drawings are almost entirely of the human body. She did do a series on Barbies, inspired by the dolls her daughter used to have around the house. The dolls make good models.
“Barbies will sit there for me for 70 hours straight and not complain,” Tilden said.
She’ll sometimes work on the Etch A Sketch alongside her now 12-year-old son William Thomas as he plays the video game Minecraft.
Her interest in art began growing up in Ellsworth. Among her mentors was Surry artist Scarlet Kinney.
“She was a prominent influence in my art early on and taught me a lot about form and line and other things that have served me well in this career,” Tilden said.
Tilden, who owns hundreds of Etch A Sketches, plans to continue her drawings.
She said she hopes to one day create a large-scale multi-panel Etch A Sketch installation, perhaps with the help of Colby students.