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Of Sgraffito Work

The Italian words Graffiato, Sgraffiato, or Sgraffito, mean "Scratched,"
and scratched work is the oldest form of graphic expression and surface
decoration used by man.

The term Sgraffito is, however, specially used to denote decoration
scratched or incised upon plaster or potter's clay while still soft, and
for beauty of effect depends either solely upon lines thus incised
according to design, with the resulting contrast of surfaces, or partly
upon such lines and contrast, and partly upon an under-coat of colour
revealed by the incisions; while, again, the means at disposal may be
increased by varying the colours of the under-coat in accordance with
the design.

Of the potter's sgraffito I have no experience, but it is my present
purpose briefly and practically to examine the method, special
aptitudes, and limitations of polychrome sgraffito as applied to the
plasterer's craft.

First, then, as to method. Given the wall intended to be treated:
granted the completion of the scheme of decoration, the cartoons having
been executed in several colours and the outlines firmly pricked, and
further, all things being ready for beginning work. Hack off any
existing plaster from the wall: when bare, rake and sweep out the joints
thoroughly: when clean, give the wall as much water as it will drink:
lay the coarse coat, leaving the face rough in order to make a good key
for the next coat: when sufficiently set, fix your cartoon in its
destined position with slate nails: pounce through the pricked outlines:
remove the cartoon: replace the nails in the register holes: mark in
with a brush in white oil paint the spaces for the different colours as
shown in the cartoon, and pounced in outline on the coarse coat, placing
the letters B, R, Y, etc., as the case may be, in order to show the
plasterer where to lay the different colours--Black, Red, Yellow, etc.:
give the wall as much water as it will drink: lay the colour coat in
accordance with the lettered spaces on the coarse coat, taking care not
to displace the register nails, and leaving plenty of key for the final
surface coat.

In laying the colour coat, calculate how much of the colour surface it
may be advisable to get on the wall, as the same duration of time
should be maintained throughout the work between the laying of the
colour coat and the following on with the final surface coat--for this
reason, if the colour coat sets hard before the final coat is laid, it
will not be possible to scrape up the colour to its full strength
wherever it may be revealed by incision of the design. When sufficiently
set, i.e. in about 24 hours, follow on with the final surface coat,
only laying as much as can be cut and cleaned up in a day: when this is
sufficiently steady, fix up the cartoon in its registered position:
pounce through the pricked outlines: remove the cartoon and cut the
design in the surface coat before it sets: then, if your register is
correct, you will cut through to different colours according to the
design, and in the course of a few days the work should set as hard and
homogeneous as stone, and as damp-proof as the nature of things permits.

The three coats above referred to may be gauged as follows:--

Coarse Coat.--2 or 3 of sharp clean sand to 1 of Portland, to be laid
about 3/4 inch in thickness. This coat is to promote an even suction and
to keep back damp.

Colour Coat.--1 of colour to 1-1/2 of old Portland, to be laid about
1/8 inch in thickness. Specially prepared distemper colours should be
used, and amongst such may be mentioned golden ochre, Turkey red, Indian
red, manganese black, lime blue, and umber.

Final Surface Coat.--Aberthaw lime and selenitic cement, both sifted
through a fine sieve--the proportions of the gauge depend upon the heat
of the lime: or, Parian cement sifted as above--air-slaked for 24
hours, and gauged with water coloured with ochre, so as to give a creamy
tone when the plaster dries out: or, 3 of selenitic cement to 2 of
silver sand, both sifted as above--this may be used for out-door work.

Individual taste and experience must decide as to the thickness of the
final coat, but if laid between 1/8 and 1/12 inch, and the lines cut
with slanting edges, a side light gives emphasis to the finished result,
making the outlines tell alternately as they take the light or cast a
shadow. Plasterers' small tools of various kinds and knife-blades fixed
in tool handles will be found suited to the simple craft of cutting and
clearing off the final surface coat; but as to this a craftsman finds
his own tools by experience, and indeed by the same acquired perception
must be interpreted all the foregoing directions, and specially that
ambiguous word, dear to the writers of recipes,--Sufficient.

Thus far method. Now, as to special aptitudes and limitations. Sgraffito
work may claim a special aptitude for design whose centre of aim is
line. It has no beauty of material like glass, no mystery of surface
like mosaic, no pre-eminence of subtly-woven tone and colour like
tapestry; yet it gives freer play to line than any of these mentioned
fields of design, and a cartoon for sgraffito can be executed in
facsimile, undeviated by warp and woof, and unchecked by angular tesserae
or lead lines. True, hardness of design may easily result from this
aptitude, indeed is to a certain extent inherent to the method under
examination, but in overcoming this danger and in making the most of
this aptitude is the artist discovered.

Sgraffito from its very nature "asserts the wall"; that is, preserves
the solid appearance of the building which it is intended to decorate.
The decoration is in the wall rather than on the wall. It seems to be
organic. The inner surface of the actual wall changes colour in puzzling
but orderly sequence, as the upper surface passes into expressive lines
and spaces, delivers its simple message, and then relapses into silence;
but whether incised with intricate design, or left in plain relieving
spaces, the wall receives no further treatment, the marks of float,
trowel, and scraper remain, and combine to make a natural surface.

It compels the work to be executed in situ. The studio must be
exchanged for the scaffold, and the result should justify the
inconvenience. However carefully the scheme of decoration may be
designed, slight yet important modifications and readjustments will
probably be found necessary in the transfer from cartoon to wall; and
though the ascent of the scaffold may seem an indignity to those who
prefer to suffer vicariously in the execution of their works, and though
we of the nineteenth know, as Cennini of the fifteenth century knew,
"that painting pictures is the proper employment of a gentleman, and
with velvet on his back he may paint what he pleases," still the fact
remains, that if decoration is to attain that inevitable fitness for its
place which is the fulfilment of design, this "proper employment of a
gentleman" must be postponed, and velvet exchanged for blouse.

It compels a quick, sure manner of work; and this quickness of
execution, due to the setting nature of the final coat, and to the
consequent necessity of working against time, gives an appearance of
strenuous ease to the firm incisions and spaces by which the design is
expressed, and a living energy of line to the whole. Again, the setting
nature of the colour coat suggests, and naturally lends itself to, an
occasional addition in the shape of mosaic to the means at disposal, and
a little glitter here and there will be found to go a long way in giving
points of emphasis and play to large surfaces.

It compels the artist to adopt a limited colour scheme--a limitation,
and yet one which may almost be welcomed as an aptitude, for of colours
in decorative work multiplication may be said to be a vexation.

Finally, the limitations of sgraffito as a method of expression are the
same as those of all incised or line work. By it you can express ideas
and suggest life, but you cannot realise,--cannot imitate the natural
objects on which your graphic language is founded. The means at
disposal are too scanty. Item: white lines and spaces relieved against
and slightly raised on a coloured ground; coloured lines and spaces
slightly sunk on a white surface; intricacy relieved by simplicity of
line, and again either relieved by plain spaces of coloured ground or
white surface. Indeed they are simple means. Yet line still remains the
readiest manner of graphic expression; and if in the strength of
limitation our past masters of the arts and crafts have had power to
"free, arouse, dilate" by their simple record of hand and soul, we also
should be able to bring forth new achievement from old method, and to
suggest the life and express the ideas which sway the latter years of
our own century.


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