Sgraffito

This summer, I saw some wonderful street art in Lisbon made by the artist Alexandre Farto, also known as Vhils. He creates portraits on the facade of buildings by chipping away at the plaster surface and revealing the underlying layers of bricks and stones. You can have a look at this video to see him working. 

Portrait of Brad Downey by Vhils. Lisbon 2011

It was very impressive and had me wondering how this could translate into a project for children. Abandoned buildings…power tools…not practical directions to take! But those wonderful layers had me thinking about sgraffito. Sgraffito, which comes from the Italian word sgraffiare, means to scratch. It is a very old technique which involves applying 2 or more layers of tinted plaster on top of each other. A variety of tools are then used to scratch away sections of the uppermost layer, revealing the underlying colours, which add depth and texture to the work. It’s primary use was for wall decor and ceramics, and while it was explored in many parts of the world, it became immensely popular in 16th century Italy. While traditionally made with plaster, it can also be created with paints and oil pastels.

Materials

  • plastic containers eg. sour cream, margarine
  • plaster of paris
  • water
  • food colouring or paint
  • stirring tool eg. chopstick
  • scratching tool eg. awl or metal skewer
Instructions

1. Like sgraffito, we will be making two different coloured layers of plaster, and scratching out a design on the uppermost layer which will expose the underlying colour. In order to do this, prepare some plaster of paris following the directions on the container. To add colour, put a small amount of food colouring or paint and mix well. Pour a small quantity into a plastic container. This first layer can be as thick as you like, but should be at least 1/2″ so it doesn’t break easily. Allow to dry overnight.

2. Mix more plaster of paris to pour on top of this dried layer. Make it a different colour. Once it dries, you will be using a metal tool to scratch through the surface, revealing the underlying colour, so make sure this second layer is not too thick. An 1/8″ will do it.

3. Once this second layer has dried, gently bend the sides of the plastic container, and turn it upside down in order to release the dried plaster. If the edges are a bit rough, you can easily sand them down. Use a metal tool like an awl or metal skewer to scratch out a pattern or design. Don’t be too rough since chunks of the plaster can break off. As you scratch areas off, you will be able to see the underlying colours.

Pour first layer of plaster into plastic container.

Pour second layer on top of first layer which has dried.

Scratch design deep enough to expose second layer.

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