The Mona Lisa…On An Etch-A-Sketch?

If you follow politics, you’ve probably noticed that a certain character with classic good looks and black-and-white views (a bit square, you might say) has drawn a lot of attention this week. No, not that guy…we’re talking about the Etch-A-Sketch! The classic toy is famous for its transience—just shake it to start afresh—but did you know it can also be used as a more permanent medium? Jeff Gagliardi of Lyons, Colorado has been making and selling Etch-A-Sketch drawings for over 35 years.

Courtesy of artist Jeff Gagliardi

So, there’s such a thing as a professional Etch-A-Sketch artist? How did you become one?

It basically happened to me. I didn’t seek it out. When I was young, maybe 18, my nephew had one and I picked it up and started drawing the Taj Mahal. I set it aside and kept playing, but when my sister saw it, she said “Oh my God, where did this come from?!? “ So I started to see what I could draw on it, exploring. It’s funny—I went to the New York School of Visual Arts and I’m a painter, but people would push past my paintings and want to see these Etch-A-Sketch pieces. In one way it was a little bit frustrating, but in another way it was amazingly freeing: If people look at it and laugh out loud, that’s okay. I’m not trying to be serious. I’m just trying to see how far I can push this, how much I can do. I’ve specialized in reproducing famous artworks. People buy them, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them in museums.

What do you do after you’ve completed a piece? How do you preserve it?

The first few I did, I sold as is. People just hung them on their wall – you can tilt them sideways to hang it on a wall, just don’t shake them! To make the permanent ones, at first I started drilling out the back and shaking the powder out. You make a tremendous mess doing it yourself. My wife has been very patient! Fortunately, after a few years the Ohio Art Company that makes them gave me a special type of ‘master’ Etch-A-Sketch that you can easily take the back off and move to a different backing that has no powder or mechanisms, so it’s completely sealed and perfect.

It must take a lot of patience to make such detailed drawings using continuous lines.

Yes, a good deal of time is in the plotting of it. One of the real stretches is doing things in portrait mode, like the Mona Lisa—you have to draw it sideways. I always try to do the hardest part first, and I think, if I can get that right, everything else will follow. With the Mona Lisa, it was her face, her smile. I didn’t care if it looked positively like her, I just wanted to capture the spirit. And there’s one with the cast of the Wizard of Oz, the first thing I did was kind of this arc of the sunset behind everyone. There’s a lot of false starts, a lot of trial and error.

Your work has been displayed in museums. How do viewers react?

There’s this moment of disbelief and I just love that. You shouldn’t see the Mona Lisa on an Etch-A-Sketch! I’ve heard people say things like “Oh, he did it with lasers,” or other explanations of things which would be much more complicated than what I actually did.

And I understand you helped set a Guinness World Record?

Yes, last year in Lyons, my neighbor and I organized a “Sketch-A-Palooza” that set a world record for the most people (372) Etch-A-Sketching at the same time. It was really fun, we had people from very young to as old as 94, sketching Steamboat Mountain from the park here. Some of them were very good, I was really impressed.

Are you currently working on anything?

Well, two years ago I had a terrible accident and fell off my roof and broke both my arms at the wrist, so my Etch-A-Sketching days are behind me. I can’t help but see the irony and humor in this: Of all the injuries to happen to all the people, the Etch-A-Sketch guy breaks his wrists! So I don’t much work in that medium now, but painting’s not a problem, and I do graphic design for a living.

Courtesy artist Jeff Gagliardi

What’s the last piece you did?

It’s based on Picasso’s Guernica, using three Etch-A-Sketches in a triptych. I used to joke that Picasso’s work already looks like it was done on an Etch-A-Sketch; a bunch of squiggly lines and strange shapes! But this is actually the only serious thing I ever tried, inspired by September 11. It’s disconcerting to see an act of heinous inhumanity depicted on a child’s toy. I’m hoping to exhibit it someplace.

Any advice for would-be Etch-A-Sketch artists?

The real secret of it is the ability to retrace a line. And it can be very frustrating, as you can imagine. If you mess it up in any way, you just gotta shake it and start all over. There are times when I’ve gotten right to the end of something and made a mistake, and I’ll be honest, you just wanna cry. But hey, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

–Amanda Fiegl

Human Journey

I'm an associate editor at NGM, where I write and edit stories for both our print and digital editions.