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What is Sgraffito?

By Donn Saylor
Updated May 16, 2024
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Sgraffito, sometimes known as scraffito, is a painting technique in which a surface layer is scratched to expose the color or colors underneath. This style of painting is typically used on wall decor or ceramic works of art. Everyone from artists to home builders make use of the unique mode of artistic layering.

The technique has a rich and diverse history, centered mostly in Italy and immensely popular during the 16th century. Sgraffito's roots, however, stretch much further back than the Italian Renaissance; there is evidence of this type of work on many ancient African artifacts. The technique was often used by artists during the Art Nouveau period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it remains consistently popular and widely employed.

The name is derived from the Italian word sgraffire, which means "to scratch." The Italian term is descended from the Greek word meaning "to write."

Typically applied to paint and plaster, sgraffito can be performed on any number of surfaces. After applying the top layer, an artisan uses a simple tool — which can be anything from the handle end of a standard paintbrush to a sharp painting knife — to create a series of scratches through the exterior. The resulting cracks reveal the colors and surface of the layer concealed by the top coat.

Like stucco, terrazzo, and Venetian plaster, sgraffito is used as a way to add texture and depth to a surface. One benefit for artists working in this method is a degree of control not typically seen in other types of techniques. When applying the layers to surfaces and wall coverings, the artisan has a significant amount of power over where the scratches are placed and the design they ultimately take. With a technique like Venetian plaster, for example, plaster is applied with a trowel instead of a hand tool, allowing for far less control over the design of the finished product.

When housepainters apply a sgraffito surface, their scratches reveal the color underneath the top coat. This creates a highly unique effect, a multi-colored collage of nicks, wisps, or swirls. If the craftsperson uses different combinations of tools to imbed the scratches, an even more dynamic effect will result.

Sgraffito is also extremely popular in the creation of pottery and ceramics. With the right tools, the scratches imprinted onto a bowl, vase, or other work of art can be made in a variety of styles. Potters and craftspeople also cite the advantage of greater control when applying intricate designs to a piece.

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