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Sgraffito: Art & Artists

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Sgraffito is more than just fun to say, it's fun to do. In this lesson, we'll examine this technique and see how different artists have used it in various media throughout history.

Sgraffito

What do scratching your head, vandalism, and fine ceramics have in common? The Italian language. Sgraffire is an Italian word that means ''to scratch.'' So, graffio la mia testa would be ''I scratch my head.'' That same word, however, can be used to refer to scratching something onto a wall, or even painting something onto a wall, from which we get the word ''graffiti.'' As a final meaning, sgraffire is also the root of the word sgraffito, which like graffiti implies decorating a surface, but this time in a very specific way.

Sgraffito is an artistic technique in which a top layer is scratched off in order to reveal a layer of a different color underneath. Just think of it as the fine art of scratch graffiti. Che bellissima.

Sgraffito in Ceramics

There are multiple ways that we can use sgraffito, but one of the most common is in ceramics. Sgraffito ceramics are very old, and in fact date back to ancient times. They were first popularized by Islamic artists in medieval West Asia, however, where decorative arts were a big deal. The technique entered Europe largely through Italy (hence the Italian name for it), and can be seen used to some degree in the Italian Renaissance. But it didn't really become popular in Europe until the 18th century, at which point it even made its way to the American colonies alongside German ceramicists.

14th-century sgraffito bowl from Egypt
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To make sgraffito ceramics, you'll need to start with clay that's hard enough to maintain its shape against pressure, but also isn't too dry. You're looking for a leathery texture. Next you'll want to clearly trace your design onto the ceramic. With sgraffito ceramics, the incision is generally meant to be visible even once the piece has been fired, so use clear and solid lines.

Next, you'll apply the glazes. Underglazes and colored slips are the best materials to use for this technique. The sgraffito technique involves scratching off a top layer to reveal a bottom layer, so you'll need to add at least two different colors. Even if you'd like the bottom layer to be the natural color of the clay, a clear underglaze should be used so that the ceramic fires evenly.

When the slip or underglaze dries, you should still be able to see the outline of your design. Now, get scratching. Various wire styluses can be used to scratch off the top coat, revealing the color underneath. Keep in mind that scratching with different tools and different pressure, and even in different directions, can change the way that the bottom color is revealed. Some artists like to keep this uniform, while others like to use variations for a dynamic aesthetic. Once your design is ready, you can apply a clear glaze and fire it.

Sgraffito vase by Josef Eckberg
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Sgraffito in Other Media

Sgraffito is most associated with ceramics, but the same basic principle can be applied to other art forms as well. In wall painting, for example, two colors of paint or plaster can be applied to a surface, with one scratched off to reveal the other. In stained glass windows, two thin layers of glass are set over each other with the top scratched away to reveal the one below.

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