parts of a surface layer (as of plaster
or clay) exposes a different colored
ground. Popular in Europe since the
thirteenth century, it was used as an
alternative to painting and for adding decorations to building façades.
Today, this traditional technique is
used by contemporary Native American potters and other ceramic artists
such as Marianne Baer in distinctive
and personal ways.
To prepare for this process, students painted their saucers with two
to three coats of black underglaze and
left them to dry more. The aim is to
have the pots become very leather
hard, although some did dry to the
The rest of class was devoted
to sketching ideas for the sgraffito
design. Requirements included an
abstract style containing a variety
of contrasting shapes and lines, the
inclusion of three patterns, full use
of the surface, and strong contrast
between black and white areas. In
some cases, students incorporated
their initials into the design.
When ready to apply the sgraffito
technique, everyone prepared his
or her workspace with newspaper, a
bowl of water, a small paintbrush,
and a wooden stylus. Carefully holding the saucer, students used the
stylus to scrape the
design into the dark
surface, revealing the clay
underneath. Repeated strokes
created solid white areas.
It is important to prevent any clay
dust from circulating in the air. For
this reason, everyone was shown how
to delicately brush the scrapings into
the bowl of water as they created their
design. A strong request was made
to avoid blowing the remnants from
the surface and all students followed
this directive. To further prevent any
breathing problems, I walked around
with a squirt bottle and sprayed water
into the air to bring down any dust
circulating in the air. An occasional
spritz to the saucer itself proved helpful for those that had completely
dried prior to adding sgraffito.
carefully prevented any problems.
The saucers continued to dry fully
and were fired once to a Cone 05 setting.
Though simple in shape and process, the bold visual impact of the
finished saucers elicited questions:
“Were they complicated? “
No, quite easy!
“Did it take a long time?”
No, it was a short project, just under
four 86-minute blocks.
“Can I take mine home NOW?
No, later . . . I want to display them.
Just a few more antonyms to consider!
Getting Ready to Fire
To save time, a transparent glaze
was applied prior to bisque firing.
Students took special care to gently
dab the glaze on rather than swipe
the brush back and forth. Doing that
would smear the underglaze and ruin
the design. Explaining this technique
Mary Coy teaches at Spry Middle School
in Webster, New York, and is a contributing editor for SchoolArts. mary_coy@
Students make connections between
visual arts and other disciplines.