Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Sgrafitto – Oil painting technique

Sgrafitto is a technique borrowed from ceramic makers and plastor. The top layer of the painting is scratched while fresh in order to reveal the colour underneath.

The sgrafitto technique

In oil, you would:

  • Lay the light colour first. Let it dry.
  • Lay the dark colour on top.
  • Scratch the surface of the dark colour while the dark colour is still wet in order to reveal the dark colour underneath.

You can use many tools to remove the upper layer of paint, provided they are not blunt and likely to damage the canvas. Two tools I found that work well are the tip of a brush handle and a shaper.

Uses of the technique

  • This technique is most useful to obtain a light colour drawing on a dark background. For instance, if you want to draw some railings on a dark background or a window frame.

  • This technique can also be used to create texture in your painting.

  • When painting thick, in particular if you use painting knives, sgrafitto effects participate to the texture of the painting and can be done “in the fresh”, revealing the layer beneath you last application of paint.

  • This technique can help painting high grass. If you use the tip of the brush handle to draw the blades of the grass, some paint will be dragged along to draw the grass while, at the same time, a sgrafitto effect will create texture at the base of the grass clump.

I used the sgrafitto technique in a recent plein air painting done alla prima (e.g. in one go). This was done to create highlights in plants as well as to evoque grass blades and twigs in the foreground.

Sgrafitto technique used in the foreground of the painting "The red meadow"

The French painter Eugène Carrière was using the sgrafitto technique to sign his oil paintings. I have also seen the technique used in many paintings by Matisse.

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