Scratching the surface

Artist, John Agnew explores crocodilians in precise detail

By: Yohana de la Torre, Chief Editor

New Guinea Crocodile

New Guinea Crocodile

John Agnew explores crocodilians as studies in texture and form.  His medium is recognized as scratchboard, an illustrative technique using sharp knives and tools for etching into a thin layer of white China clay that is coated with black India ink.

Highly detailed, precise and even textured, Agnew’s work is like a sketch in time.  To the artist, the scratchboard technique draws from the engravings in early texts about zoology, and its ability to treat the species in exquisite detail.

A collection of his work is coming to the Center for the Arts of Bonita Springs in October, and the exhibit represents the beginning of a project to illustrate all 23 species of crocodilians, which will eventually become a book.  Throughout the exhibit, the contrast of black and white lines is notably well suited for showing off in-depth details of a crocodile’s scaly texture.  Intimate portraits plus scenes from daily crocodilian life and even interactions with humans are all subjects explored in this exhibit.

GCT checked in with Agnew to chat about his medium, his affinity for crocodiles and his artistic influences.  Here’s what he had to say: 

YD: What inclined you to be an artist?  How did you get started?

JA: “My parents met in art school, so I grew up in a home filled with art and photographs.  I started drawing the things that interested me (reptiles and dinosaurs), and received a lot of encouragement from them.  Originally, I thought I would become a zoologist, but discovered that I could combine art with my interests, and have a career without the need to take calculus and organic chemistry in college.  As a high school kid, I had the good fortune to get a job at our local natural history museum, where I eventually put my artistic interests to work in their exhibits department, making dioramas and models of animals.” 

YD: What inspires your work?  And can you expand a little on the scratchboard technique?

JA: “Scratchboard is a drawing technique that utilizes a white clay-covered board that is then coated with India ink.  The ink is scratched off with a sharp instrument to reveal the white underneath, making the image.  I initially started drawing caves with this technique, as I felt that it emulated the deep shadows and sharp highlights that one experiences in a cave with headlamps and lanterns.  I like to use it for drawing reptiles because of the intricately detailed textures that I can achieve with the technique.  Some of my inspiration for these drawings comes from 19th century zoology texts, which were illustrated with engravings.  I love the way the artists used line to delineate form and shadow and to achieve subtle shading while using just black and white lines.” 

YD: Take us through your creative process and tell us what had you gravitate towards this style of work.

JA: “I start with photographs that I take.  Photography is an important source of imagery for me.  For scratchboard, I look for subjects with a lot of interesting texture, and lighting situations that emphasize it.  Once I have an image of an animal that excites me, I put it in an appropriate environment in a sketch.  I do a highly detailed sketch that I transfer to my scratchboard surface, and then begin the engraving process.  My museum work has given me an appreciation for scientific illustration and accurate depictions.  My art training gives me the ability to give scientifically accurate work an artistic presentation.” 

YD: Your affinity for crocodiles is impressive.  What is it about the animal that interests you & how much research goes into working on a given piece?  

JA: “My interest in crocodilians is directly related to my interest in dinosaurs.  They are survivors of the dinosaur eras, and give us a vision of what the world of giant reptiles might have been like.  To do a particular species, I like to visit it in its natural habitat.  I’ve been to the Amazon, Africa, Malaysia, Borneo, Thailand and the Everglades to look at crocodilians, but in the end, one of my primary sources for the images in this exhibit was the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, where they have all of the 23 species of crocodilians on display.  Chasing crocs in their natural habitat is not always practical or successful.  I spent weeks in the Borneo jungle unsuccessfully looking for the Sunda Gharial, but ended up photographing them at a croc farm in Kuching, Sarawak.”

YD: Do you have a favorite artist?  Why and what have you learned from them?

JA: “One of my animal art heroes has been Robert Bateman, a Canadian artist famous for his realistic animal portrayals, who was also heavily influenced by the abstract expressionists.  His paintings are highly realistic, but his composition leans heavily on what he learned from abstracts.  Other influences include Francis Lee Jaques, Carl Rungius, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Andrew Wyeth, and John Singer Sargent (Sargent painted alligators in Florida, too!).”

YD: In a world saturated with images, how relevant is your work?

JA: “I don’t worry much about that.  I do like to portray animals that are unusual for the animal art crowd, which would include crocodiles and alligators.  I also do snakes, lizards, turtles and amphibians, and insects.  Most sales in this genre seem to happen with the cute and fuzzy creatures, but there is a niche market for the “unlovables.”  Generally, if it is good art, the subject is of less importance than what the image evokes.”

– From October 7 – December 31, Crocodilian Scratchboards by John Agnew will be on display at the Center for the Arts of Bonita Springs.  An Opening Reception will take place on October 7 from 6 – 8 pm.  For more information, visit 


Boogie for a great cause

Arts for ACT “Disco Ball” Gala

Courage by Sherry Rohl

Courage by Sherry Rohl

On October 29, Lee, Hendry, and Glades Counties’ first and only licensed and certified domestic and sexual violence center, will host its Arts for ACT “The Disco Ball” Gala and Fine Art Auction at Harborside Event Center in Downtown Fort Myers.  

The event, presented by Bill Smith Appliances & Electronics, will feature an extended cocktail reception to commemorate the nonprofit agency’s 38 years in the community.  

“There is no other organization in the three county area served by ACT that provides the comprehensive list of services to abuse victims. ACT is a vital part of our community,” shared Earl Smith, president of Bill Smith, Inc. the premier event sponsor. “ACT saves lives and gives hope for a better life to so many. This is why I and my company continue to support ACT every year.”

Additionally, Harborside Event Center will be completely transformed into a massive 30,000+ square foot discotheque, featuring a nightclub atmosphere reminiscent of the 1970’s era of disco entertainment and dancing.  A live performance from The Original Studio 54 Band will complement the night’s festivities.

Playing that funky music for dance lovers to shake, shimmy and dance the night away isn’t the only thing in store. In addition, event patrons can expect exceptional featured art during the live auction, conducted by Scott Robertson, and silent auction, as well as gourmet food. The silent auction, with prizes valued at $20,000, will use sophisticated mobile bidding technology to simplify bidding and add to the excitement of the event. 

Event organizers have announced the jury selection of featured artist Sherry Rohl for this year’s 28th Annual Arts for ACT “The Disco Ball” Gala & Fine Art Auction.

Rohl’s “Courage” piece, a 70” X 50” oil on canvas painting will be featured as a hallmark piece for the live auction. Additionally, the announced lineup at this year’s gala includes artwork from showcased artists, such as Jan Ellen Atkielski, David Belling, and Christine Reichow.

Sherry Rohl, who is originally from Michigan and then later Ohio, New York and Fort Myers, Florida studied art while attending the College of Design, as well as Art and Architecture at the University of Cincinnati. Having received Best in Show at EquiFest in 2007, which is an exhibit of international horse artists, Rohl’s work is prized by both horse and art lovers alike. She was also selected in 2008 as the featured artist at the Deland Museum’s Equine Event in Deland, Florida. A passionate creator of equine paintings, drawings and monotypes, Rohl’s work is currently featured at the Watson MacRae Gallery on Sanibel. 

With more than 75,000 clients served at ACT since 1978 in Lee, Hendry, and Glades counties, the nonprofit is hoping to draw its largest crowd since the passing of major supporter Robert Rauschenberg. In 2015 alone, ACT provided 5,654 people with services. 256 were victims of sexual assault, 125 of which received the forensic examination for rape. 650 clients stayed in the residential shelters (nearly half were children).

– On October 29, boogie for a great cause at the Arts for ACT “The Disco Ball” Gala and Fine Art Auction at Harborside Event Center.  Tickets for the event are $150 per person, with sponsorships available for tables and business branding recognition.  For ticktes or more information, call (239) 939-2553 or visit