Sgraffito, Pottery and van Gogh

Hi Everybody,

Today, I am going to talk about sgraffito, from the Italian word to scratch. This is a form of decoration made by scratching through a surface to reveal a lower layer of a contrasting colour, typically done in plaster or stucco on walls, or in slip on ceramics before firing.

The sgraffito definition can be more closely traced back to the ancient Greek and Italian languages. In ancient Greek dialect, the verb meaning to write was used to describe the method by which designs would be printed onto a pottery surface, as if to write on them with a sharp tool or carve a line to form a design.

During the Middle Ages, it found its application in panel painting and illuminated manuscripts, with gold leaf applied as the ground layer that appeared through scratching.

Using the method in pottery involves painting two or three layers of decorating slip onto leather-hard clay, then scratching through one layer of the slip to create a pattern.

However, sgraffito is not just used by potters. Painters also use the technique, for example the famous painting “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt uses sgraffito to create intricate patterns and designs on the surface of the painting. As did Vincent van Gogh with his painting ‘Starry Night’, where he scratched through the paint layers to create the swirling patterns in the sky and the texture of the cypress trees. (By the way, the above photo was taken at the Van Gogh Experience in Bristol last year.)

So, what I find interesting here is that you can take a simple pottery technique and then adapt it for other arts and crafts and even technology and it serves as a reminder that in pottery simplicity is sometimes best. 

Why not have a go yourself and see where it will take you and your work?

Happy potting

Barry