A freshly made form, ready to decorate, etch, and carve, is an invitation to play. It’s such a pleasure to activate the surface with drawings and pattern. One of my favorite techniques is sgraffito, etching through underglaze to the clay body beneath.

If you’re new to sgraffito, you may wish to start with a relatively flat surface, such as a tile, plate, or platter. A smooth clay with minimal grog is also helpful. I usually work with Laguna’s B-Mix, firing to cone 5 in oxidation. When working on a plate or a platter with a foot ring, I like to make holes in the foot, so that the fired piece can hang on the wall while not in use (see 9).

Consider Your Main Image

When I’m teaching this technique, I encourage artists to think about their surface as having a foreground and a background. You don’t need to plan out the entire piece. Instead, take the first step by identifying the image or subject matter you want to be in the foreground, taking center stage as the most visible in the piece.

To get started, I suggest silhouette images in profile view (like the crow in the sample piece). A good source for images is to search for copyright-free images online. Or, you can use your own photographs or drawings as a resource. Once you have the image, print it out or make a black-and-white copy to the scale you’ll need for your tile or platter, then trace the major outlines onto tracing paper. Set it aside to prepare your piece (see 2).

Begin with Leather-hard Form

I work on the surface when it is leather hard, at the stage when it’s dry enough to hold its form and have some resistance to the pull of a drawing or etching tool (1). At the same time, there should be enough moisture in the piece to assure that the tool will not scratch the surface. Though the term sgraffito actually means “to scratch” in Italian, we don’t want to actually scratch at the surface, which would create unwanted dust.

Like most pottery processes, it’s important to work with the piece at the appropriate time. If you try too early when the clay has not dried sufficiently, your sgraffito attempt will result in muddy marks. If you start too late, you’ll be scratching through dry underglaze to dry clay.

Apply Underglaze

The first step is to define the area to be decorated and coat it with a layer of underglaze. I almost always start with black underglaze. I have found it most effective to apply the underglaze in one coat, rather than brush on multiple layers. I have had the most success using Amaco Jet Black Velvet underglaze.

Starting the Decoration

When the underglaze loses its shine, you’re ready to start the etching process of your primary subject matter in the foreground of your piece.

Lay your traced image over the form and go over the lines with either a ball-stylus tool or regular pen/pencil (2). In this step, you’re not actually transferring pencil or ink onto the clay. Instead, you’re following the lines of your original to make an indented line, embossing your drawing into the surface as a guide for the next step.

1 Start with a leather-hard piece made from very smooth clay. Then apply a layer of black underglaze over the surface.2 Choose an image to use in your design, then trace over the image with a ball stylus or a pen/pencil.

Remove the tracing paper and see the indented line of your foreground image. Tip: If it’s difficult to see the line, try adding a very light spray of water and hold it close to a light source. Next, take a sharp sgraffito tool and etch along the indented line. If your clay is at the right consistency, your tool will pull ribbons of underglaze and the sides of the line will be relatively smooth. If you’re pushing too hard, or the piece is still too wet, the lines will be irregular and the material will clump up as you etch into the surface (3). Pause at regular intervals to remove the etched material from the surface. I keep a container of water nearby to lightly brush the pieces into.

As the clay dries (always wear a dust mask and work in a well-ventilated area), there are some things you can do to mitigate dust from taking over your studio and prevent your piece from drying out:

Spray your piece lightly if it becomes dry. Spray only when no clay bits are on the piece. You don’t want to spray and have them adhere to the surface.

If you’re working on a large piece, do a section at a time and keep other areas covered with plastic as much as possible to help the piece retain moisture.

Put newsprint down on your work table before you begin. You’re likely to get little bits of clay on the table and the newsprint makes it super easy to clean up in between sessions. Just spray the surface with water, then crumple up and dispose of the paper, replacing it with clean paper for the next round. Add extra layers to cushion your piece as you work on it.

Have a soft brush, such as a make-up brush, and a shallow container of water nearby (4). As you remove bits of material from the sgraffito surface, you can lightly brush the bits into the water. All that’s needed is a very light touch to lift the bits into the container. Unless my piece is large or heavy, I often work right over the container of water so the bits fall directly into the container.

Once the outline of your foreground image is done, it’s time to consider how you will divide up the remainder of the surface. This is the fun part!

3 Remove the tracing paper, then follow the indented line with an etching tool.4 To mitigate dust as clay dries, brush small bits of removed clay into a tub of water using a soft brush.

Creating Depth and Perspective

By layering images and pattern, you can create the perception of depth and the feeling of movement on the surface.

Start by considering the addition of elements in back of and around your primary image source. In my piece, these would be the thistle images and the moon/sun form at the top left (5). You can either freehand draw these images onto the piece or return to a traced image and create the indented guidelines to follow. Once all of your images are in place, you will have what appears as a white line drawing on a black surface.

Adding a Border

Now, consider how you might be able to add borders to your piece. And, rather than centering your images within the borders, consider how you can bring your foreground image forward by placing the borders in back of a section of the foreground image. Draw in your borders, making sure not to etch through a foreground image (6).

I have a palette of patterns I return to regularly for border designs, including a checkerboard pattern (7) and a series of circles and waving lines (8). Experiment with multiple patterns, and see where it takes you.

5 Carve in decorative elements behind your primary image with the same etching tool.6 Map out borders around your primary and secondary images with patterns and designs.7 Experiment with patterns and designs that will unify your piece into a whole.8 Create motion and perspective with patterns. I prefer a series of dots and wavy lines.

Removing the Background

Once the borders are in place and the etching is finished in those areas, put your attention into the black spaces between the images. Possibilities include:

  • Keeping the black as-is, leaving your images as white line-drawings on a black background.
  • Removing all of the black underglaze in between your images, leaving only the carved impressions made by your sgraffito tool on the clay surface.
  • Removing the black underglaze in a pattern that creates a texture and movement of marks. In my piece, you can see that I’ve used a fine-tipped sgraffito tool to remove the black and create a feeling of movement in the background of the center of the piece (see 11). For contrast, see the top of the piece, where I’ve used a wider tool and etched upward in one direction, leaving enough black to create the feeling of a woodcut.

Consider Your Bottom

Yes, we ceramic artists love our bottoms! Consider carrying your imagery/narrative over to the flip side of your piece. I often will etch a complimentary image onto the bottom of my pieces, along with my signature (9).

9 Use a variety of tools to create contrasting patterns that define and highlight specific areas.10 After bisque firing your carved platter, brush on an even coat of clear glaze.11 The finished platter, fired to cone 5 in an electric kiln. Note how the sgraffito decoration can create surface movement.Finished owl platter.

A Final Look

Before considering the piece done, look it over for any adjustments that need to be made. I often will reinforce or clean up major lines by going over them again with a ball stylus. I’ll also re-apply black underglaze in areas that might have dulled or been marred during the process.

Bisque and Final Glaze

Once the piece has slowly dried to the bone-dry stage, it’s time to bisque fire. I fire a slow bisque to cone 04. Note: When unloading the kiln and handling the bisque, I wear protective gloves so I won’t leave any oils from my hands on the surface, which can act as a resist when glazing.

In preparation for glazing, wipe your piece with a damp sponge to remove any sgraffito bits that may still be on the surface. I cover my sgraffito-decorated areas with a food-safe clear glaze. I’ve found it most effective to brush a thin layer of glaze over the etched area (10), rather than dipping or pouring. I like my surface to be protected without muddying the design, which can happen if the clear glaze is applied too thickly.

I glaze fire my pieces to cone 5 in an electric kiln, with a 10-minute hold at the top of the firing to even out glaze. The finished piece is a food-safe, functional piece of art to use on your table, use as a serving dish, or to hang on your wall in between use (11).

Patricia Griffin is a full-time potter working in her studio by the sea in Cambria, California. For more info on her work and workshops, visit her online shop at PatriciaGriffinCeramics.com. Also follow her on Instagram @PatriciaGriffinCeramics.