Andre Cassagnes and the Etch A Sketch
SOME 100m red plastic easels, branded by the Ohio Art Company as Etch A Sketches, have been sold since 1960. Judging by Amazon reviews and online comments made following the death of Andre Cassagnes, its 86-year-old inventor, in Paris last month, at least some of them now lie unloved in dark corners collecting dust, discarded by frustrated children in favour of other, less challenging, toys.
Even today the Etch A Sketch is commonplace in children’s birthday boxes and Christmas stockings, with children both marvelling at its technology and cowering at its steep learning curve. Making anything passably artistic by dragging the orthogonal stylus through a fine coating of aluminium powder often seems nigh-on impossible. Some take to it and thrive, but many try it, struggle and consign it to the back of the cupboard.
The Ohio Art Company nearly did the same. It flirted with then dumped Mr Cassagnes, then in his early 30s, at the 1959 Nuremberg Toy Fair. The history of the toy, at that point called L’Ecran Magique (The Magic Screen), could have ended there. But like fickle but intrigued children, they soon came back to Mr Cassagnes, took his invention to market and were duly rewarded for their persistence.
The recent announcement of Mr Cassagnes’s death has cast many minds back to their childhood. Those children who are now parents themselves may look back with admiration at the toy: before the Etch A Sketch, parents of budding artists would have to contend with a mess of paint pots, glue and scattered pencils. After it, a single box allowed children to sketch out their imaginations without the risk of ruined furniture.
And it turns out it is indeed possible to make something resembling art on an Etch A Sketch. Mr Cassagnes’s death has thrown a light on those foolhardy few who didn’t throw away their toys in frustration. George Vlosich, an Ohio-based artist, has been creating professional work on the toy for years. His highly detailed pieces are astounding works of craftsmanship and patience, not least because even small errors in simple drawings cannot be fixed on an Etch A Sketch, and a simple shake of the toy wipes the whole slate clean.
Mr Vlosich is quick to list the challenges of his chosen medium. “You can’t exactly pick up your stylus and start somewhere else on the screen,” he says. And works on an Etch A Sketch are missing lighter tones; darker tones are achieved by retracing the same line over and over again, but “there’s only so dark you can go”.
When one of Mr Vlosich’s works is completed, it is often after 150 hours or more of hard graft—and some careful planning about how he will twist the two white knobs to wind his path over the easel. Still, he likes the restrictions of the medium. “It’s a challenge,” he says, “and it’s kind of cool to overcome the restrictions.”
Though some may see the easel as nothing more than a toy, serious collectors pay upwards of $10,000 for intricate drawings that push the strict limits of this strangely memorable toy. (To prevent the rough handling of the postal system from shaking away their hard work, professional Etch A Sketch artists will unhinge the back of the toy and remove any excess aluminium powder before dispatching their work.) Despite the limitations of the medium, Etch A Sketch art has an emotional resonance, expressing the struggle of taming a toy that touched 100m childhoods.