A potter, and most artists I would think, never stop challenging themselves or trying new techniques. Several years ago I played with Sgrafitto, a technique where you scratch in clay. I am revisiting it again!
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A few years ago, at an art show, I stumbled upon a potter whose design appealed to me a lot. It was a coffee Mug, in black and white, and the design was scratched in clay.
It didn’t just appeal to me it BLEW ME AWAY. I was so totally drawn to it in a way I had not been drawn to a piece of pottery before and “cheap old me” bought one of her pieces. https://carolynyoungceramics.com
It was a coffee mug and it soon became a favorite.
What appealed to me most was the sharp contrast between black and white, and when I touched it I could feel the design, every stroke the artist made. As I gazed at the design I could almost FEEL AND SEE the artist making her art.
The design, which was scratched into the clay, changed from one side of the mug to the other and drew my eyes in. I could see and feel the mark of the artist and knew that no one, NO-ONE, HAD A MUG LIKE MINE
I knew I had found a technique I could really wrap my arms around.
After some research I discovered the technique was called Sgraffito, an Italian word meaning “to scratch”. In a nutshell, underglaze or slip is applied to a semi-wet (known in the potters world as “Leatherhard” piece and then the surface is scratched into the clay to reveal a pattern.
Scratched in Clay-It isn’t all Black and white
I have always been drawn to high contrast, rich colors and carving so when I saw this I knew it would be a perfect place to take my pottery. Black Underglaze over white Clay is and will probably always be, my favorite combination but I have played around with other colors.
I also love to scratch through Red, Orange and Royal Blue. Again, I have these in Amaco underglaze but I have just started using these colors in the Speedball Brand. In fact, as I write this, I have a kiln load of primarily Speedball Underglaze so I will see which colors I like best. I started my exploration of Speedball with this tester pack and liked them well enough to buy the 16oz bottles of some of the colors! I love the pink most!
Hints and Tips for scratching in the Clay – aka Sgrafitto
- With Sgrafitto you have to have a contrast between the glaze and the clay body. I use white clay so black, brown, dark blue, red etc works well for me but I have seen some gorgeous sgrafitto work on dark clay with a white slip or underglaze over it.
- The best time to scratch or carve is when the piece is at the drier end of Leather hard. If the clay is too soft the carved off stuff will clog things up. Too dry and all you are doing is scraping off the glaze, which may be what you want, but sgrafitto is super cool when you show carved marks in the clay.
- REMEMBER that when you paint on the underglaze you are adding moisture to the piece.
- I suggest using three thick coats of underglaze for an opaque coverage.
- You can keep your pieces is a state of semi-moist using a Wet Box, which I have made myself several. These are plastic storage containers with a layer of Potters Plaster on the bottom. It creates a humid environment and keeps your pieces moist.
- After doing all your carving, let the piece dry and Bisque fire it. For the glaze firing a good clear coat will really bring out the colors.
This is the clear recipe I use. Its worked for me and my clay…. no blushing. I dip my pieces.
F4 Feldspar 47.3
Gerstley Borate 29.3
My Favorite Products for Sgrafitto
- Amaco Velvet Underglazes – These wonderful Underglazes work on Greenware and bisqueware. I use Amaco Velvet Jet Black primarily in my Sgrafitto Work but have also used Royal Blue and Red. I apply three heavy coats to make it opaque.
- Banding Wheel- This is not a necessity but it sure comes in handy if you don’t want to handle your piece to much. I have the Shimpo Banding wheel which is amazing. It spins really freely and is heavy. It is expensive but worth it. Very high quality
- Carving Tools – I have a large assortment of tools which I carve with, My favorite is this inexpensive Wire Stylus tool by Kemper. The tip is a pretty thin wire and I love that it carves smooth but it breaks often and I have to replace it often.
- I have this set of Ultimate Carving Tools by Xiem. I use the round time and the teardrop tip often but have not had the opportunity to use the other two. They are well made and seem to stay pretty sharp. These are more for taking off big amounts of underglaze and clay, which is pretty much what I use it for. They also make nice strokes in the clay.
- When you get serious about Sgrafitto the Zebra Carving Tools by DiamondCore are the Cadillacs of tools. As of this writing I just got my order of two carvers and have not yet tried them. I bought the P12 Straight V and the L1 Diamond Stylus Tool. I work with rather fine lines so this made sense for me but they have all kinds of interesting carvers and stylus.
- Brushes – I love these Hake brushes for applying my underglaze. They hold a ton of material and they are super cheap!!
I hope that I have inspired you a little to play around with Sgrafitto!!! It’s so much fun, very artistic and striking! If you have a favorite technique or tool you like to use do leave a comment and let us know.
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