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 r
sulting 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.