Sgraffito is an Italian term that means, “To scratch.”
In using this interesting and fun technique, the artist scratches through wet paint to reveal preceding layers.
The layer may be a dried layer of paint on the surface of the canvas or paper.
Sgraffito adds texture and dimension to a painting and many tools can be used to achieve different consistencies.
A Tool For Every Job
Look around the studio, kitchen or garage for interesting tools to use in sgraffito. A palette knife or the end of a brush is always at hand, but many objects can make interesting marks on your painting. A comb, spoon, fork or a fingernail are usually readily available and just might make the perfect mark on your canvas.
Be inventive and make a practice piece to try out and notate different types of tools. By having a reference of how objects mark your canvas, you can easily be prepared to render different textures without further experimentation. Keep a selection of chisels, toothbrushes and other tools specifically chosen to use for sgraffito in your tabouret. There is no need to pilfer yet another fork from the kitchen drawer, causing the wrath of the Kitchen Maven to be rained down upon you.
When using instruments with sharp edges or points, the student must use them carefully to avoid piercing the canvas or paper.
Textural lines suggest movement or vigor and can be used to animate a painting. If a painting is too staid, it may not be considered serious, but merely boring. By using textural lines to enliven the area, the artist draws attention from one area of the painting to another. This energizes the painting and the viewer perceives it to be more interesting.
The artist can also use sgraffito to emulate the textures of the objects he is depicting in the painting. Wood grain is often imitated using sgraffito. This technique is also used for bringing out highlights, when the underpainting or canvas is light in color.
Sgraffito can be used throughout the painting process, each layer being scraped to reveal the last layer. Large areas can be scraped away, leaving small traces of the current color to subtly color the earlier layer and leaving a great deal of texture from prior applications.
Color Your World
The artist should plan his paint layers to achieve the desired results. To draw the eye, use highly contrasting colors for the layers. Very dark colors over very light tones will direct the viewer immediately to the area of focus.
In a like manner, using complementary colors will have the same effect. A red underpainting beneath a green meadow will readily draw attention.
If the student uses colors adjacent on the color wheel or which are similar in light intensity, the effect will be subtle. This may be the desired effect, but will not draw attention to that area of the painting. Drama requires high contrast to be effective.
All About Style
Sgraffito can be used with every style of painting. To the abstract artist, it adds a level of happy accidents, as one never really knows how the exercise will turn out.
The representational artist will find that the addition of small touches of sgraffito lends a painterly quality to his work, and keeps it from appearing too photographic.
The impressionist probably uses this technique on a regular basis, whether or not he is familiar with the term. As an artist gets comfortable with his paints and equipment, it is most natural to become more organic with the paint and prodding or pushing color around is almost innate.
The Child In All Of Us
Children love to create, and sgraffito produced with crayons is just the ticket for a budding young artist.
Provide inexpensive, but sturdy drawing paper for the child, along with thick, stubby crayons. A hodge-podge of color should be applied to the paper. When the surface is well covered, a layer of black crayon is applied thickly over the colors. If the paper is sturdy enough, black tempera paint may be used instead of crayon. When using tempera paint, the paper must be thoroughly dried before doing any scratching. A hair dryer can be used, so the little ones will not become too fidgety waiting.
Scratching tools must not be too sharp or pointed. Exuberant children tend to poke holes in both paper and skin, and both scenarios should be avoided. Plastic or wooden sticks and other implements abound in craft departments and dollar stores. Other creative items can be found around the house.
The amount of supervision a child needs for this activity depends on the age level and patience of the individual. If a child is quite young, you might have the sheets ready to be scratched. If the child is older and more patient, they should be able to complete the preliminary work themselves. By doing this, they have the satisfaction of an art piece that is completely their achievement, and you have extracted an extra half hour of quiet time.
Sgraffito is a little-used term that describes a popular method in painting. A variation on the theme is fun for children and adults as well, and fills a rainy afternoon with an entertaining activity.
This interesting technique is simple to learn, and can take much time to master. It can add life to a tired painting and should certainly be added to your repertoire of artistic skills.