4 April 2014

Sgraffito – starting from scratch

Here’s a drawing technique I’ve recently used on a table top which I simply love and have done ever since I started delving into decorative techniques!

A little known fact is that my “Annie Sloan” signature logo was also created using this 

So have you guessed what the technique is? Yes, it’s sgraffito and it actually dates back to the Middle Ages, and quite simply translates from Italian as ‘scratched’ or ‘scratch work’. It can be applied in painting, pottery, and glass.

The yummyness of it
Essentially, if you are a painter, then at some point or other you are going to put paint on and then turn your brush round and scratch out some of the paint with the handle tip or similar. So effectively you are drawing into the paint by taking it off. I’ve always liked the texture and the yummyness of it.

With sgraffito, you generally apply layers of contrasting colour to a surface, and then scratch through a pattern or shape through the upper layer to reveal the colour below.

For Medieval palaces and churches, where money was no object, gold leaf often provided the base colour. Other colours were applied over the burnished gold and then the decorative design was scratched into the paint layer with a wooden stylus. It was fairly crucial that the paint had not dried completely so that it could be neatly removed without damaging the delicate gold layer underneath. Although we’re not likely to be doing a gold brocade decoration, the same ‘not-quite-dried’ technique applies today.

My jumping off point for my table top project was this 1940’s woodcut (I upcycled this years ago from an IKEA box). I’d Instagrammed a picture of this piece some time back and got lots of comments. I love that black and white look, and that's what I was going for initially. But I soon found that trying to transpose woodcut into sgraffito doesn’t really work!

A simple sgraffito character step-by-step
But I was on a mission and I had another inspiration – a quirky stick figure I drew on a cabinet in my house in Normandy.

The technique used to create this incised character is a variation of sgraffito and is also how I essentially created the sgraffito tabletop.

So I’ll take you through a few simple steps to show you the basics of this technique (for more detail, go to my Colour Recipes for Painted Furniture book (Cico, 2013):

1 Paint the entire piece with Chalk Paint® in one colour (here I used Graphite). Then paint the panels in a second contrasting colour (here Old White).

2 Now paint a smaller area in your first colour over the panel. Use thin strokes.

3 Almost immediately – while it is still wet – start to draw your design into the paint with the tip of the brush. Press and draw firmly, working into the wet paint to reveal the colour below.

4 When it’s all dry, add a coat of wax with a wax brush and lightly dab with a cloth to give a matte finish. Et voilá.

Grayson's inspiration


While I was revisiting this technique for my table top, I was reminded that it’s a technique also used by Grayson Perry. He does it on his pots, scratching into the clay. I love his work and it gave me the inspiration to experiment with figurative drawing rather than the usual patterns and scribbles, doodles and motifs I so often do. 

Perry works straight from the heart, which is the ideal springboard to create and try something new. He is a fantastic observer of contemporary life – be it political, satirical or more personal. He presents his view of the world much like William Hogarth did in the 18th century. To me, he is very English, very special and quite different.

I’ve certainly been inspired by him and I would like to develop even more Perry-inspired,
sgraffito-style pieces.

PS I ought to add that to achieve the colour effects on the tabletop (you can see above and at the top of this post), I smudged different colours on to it with my thumb – again applying the paint slightly wet so I could change it, if I felt it wasn't quite right!)

What do you think?

Yours, Annie

[All project photography by Christopher Drake]


  1. Absolutely beautiful, I love it:)

    1. Thanks! I hope you have a go at this too. Annie

    2. Yes Annie, I wannt :) you are my source of inspiration, thanks for sharing :) hugs Biljana

    3. My first sgraffito :)

  2. Hello Annie,

    I was very lucky....my art teacher in elementary school taught us this technique back in the 60's. He was a wonderful and talented young man. So ahead of his time as an art teacher. You have made me realize how advanced he really was. Great post ...many thanks for all the inspiration.
    See you in New Orleans!!!!

    Janet xox
    The Empty Nest

    1. Janet, a good art teacher at school is so important and many people don't get one. He stood you in good stead!! xx

  3. Love this! Thinking of pieces to try this on as I type!
    Thanks, Annie!

  4. You hold a wealth of inspiration Annie, thanks for sharing!! xo

  5. Fantastic idea! thank you for the inspiration....

  6. I absolutely love the table top!! Were the bits of color in the base coat or added to the top? I can hardly wait to try this technique! !

    1. Good point Thori. Yes they were added when it was dry. I sort of smudged them on.

    2. Thanks for the quick answer! I think the pops of color are wonderful!

  7. This very similar to what we did with crayons when I was a child! It was always so fun! Never occurred to me to use your chalj paint which by the way I absolutely live!!

    1. The great thing about this is they if you make a mistake, while it's still wet, you can repaint and do it again!

  8. interesting technique, my son will be delighted to remind me that graffiti has been art for ages now. On a side note, is it just a trick of the camera angle or is that cabinet painted with some red striping? Your technique posts are my favorite of your blog ... I love seeing that chest of drawers in your shop window, the one which was a subject of another technique post. fun to have an inside peek into the artist's inspirations....

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  10. annie, I understand that you used old white as the underneath color for your cupboard stick figure but what about for the beautiful sea and boats and waves on the table top. I'm supposing that you used different colors to make the blue water, white waves. How did you know when to change the colors? Also, if I want to do this to a clear glass top table, do you think it would work?

  11. I remember this technique from school too--on paper with crayon and black paint. I love the technique. We inherited a simple, plain, homemade hutch and I'm working on upgrading, and adding more wood detail. This technique will be awesome on the two doors on the base unit. Can't wait to try it.