Generally acknowledged as the only original American art form, scrimshaw as we know it was born during the golden age of whaling during the 18th century. Whalers had an abundance of ivory teeth taken from the Sperm whale, which they hunted for its oil. The whalers also had an abundance of idle time on board ship and out of it developed an art form in which a jack knife, sharpened nail or canvas needle was used to scratch a design on the polished surface of an ivory whale's tooth. The most common subject matters included ships, whaling scenes, and the girl at home. The white scratched design was rubbed with lamp black, squid ink (sepia) or India ink; the ink was then wiped off and only the scratches held the ink this greatly contrasted with the white polished ivory.
From these crude beginnings scrimshaw has evolved into a fine art form with colored inks now being used and photographic quality work possible with the use of magnifiers. Scrimshaw on ivory is unique as an art form in that the artwork is done on a rare and inherently beautiful "canvas" that is itself appreciating in value!
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