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The Artist and the Little Red Toy

Ben in the Box: One of Keith Drake’s detailed sketches.

When eight-year-old Keith Drake C’77 sat down to draw the family piano using his first Etch A SketchTM, his parents were not expecting the detailed picture, complete with 88 tiny piano keys, that he created. Today, Drake has sketched renditions of everything from the Mona Lisa to the Statue of Liberty to Thomas Edison—all of which, he says, leave his acquaintances with one reaction: “How did you do that?”

Drake, who has made the little red toy his lifetime hobby (http://www.wanderline.com), admits that it’s difficult: with a continuous line following the artist’s every move, it’s impossible to make changes or erase. “You can’t lift your pencil; you have to think ahead,” he says. It’s a “one-of-a-kind medium.”

Another challenge lies in preserving the artwork: a single shake of the plastic frame clears the screen. The toy is really “a box full of fine aluminum powder which sticks to the glass,” he explains. “When you draw, you scrape that
aluminum off,” but when the box is shaken, the drawings refill with powder.
To keep his pictures intact, Drake drills holes in the back of the plastic to empty the excess aluminum.

Before Drake came up with his trick for safekeeping the sketches, he had to take care not to tip them over. For sentiment’s sake, he has managed to carry around level for 23 years three of his earliest and most favorite works—including a portrait of Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris. “They’re kind of like antique cars,” he says, “still in original operating condition after all these years.”

Drake just finished a 20-year stint as a technical artist for Bell Laboratories, and now devotes his time to his new freelance-illustration company, Keith Drake Design. On the side he recently finished his first commissioned sketch, a portrait of NASCAR racer Jeff Gordon, and is looking “to be an entrepreneur with Etch A Sketch work.”

Generally, Drake spends only 20 minutes designing each drawing; he once sketched Abe Lincoln in four minutes while being interviewed on a television program. Of friends who jokingly lament having been able to draw only steps on their childhood Etch A Sketches, Drake notes that “they’re locked into turning one knob at a time. Turn both and you get angles and curves.” Admitting, however, that no circles and curves are ever perfect, he notes that the medium “has its own look.” It’s always “more difficult than pencil,” he says, “but you can do it.”

—Sarah Blackman C’03

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