Technique: Sgraffito and Redrawing

7 Mar 2008

by Christopher Willard

Since acrylics were introduced in the 1950s, a wide variety of mediums and additives have been designed. Experimenting with these materials in conjunction with acrylics can often lead to new ways of working and produce a variety of effects that give a fresh look to your paintings.

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Spray
by David Newton, 1997, acrylic
urethane over stucco
on wood panel, 24 x 36.
Collection the artist.

The range of materials for acrylic painters to experiment with continues to grow. Artists can add a matte medium to dull their paint, or a gloss medium to increase the shine. While liquid mediums enable the artist to attain the thinnest of washes and glazes, viscous gels and molding pastes can be used to build up thick patches or almost sculptural elements. For special effects, one can mix a variety of additives with the paint, including fluorescent pigments, iridescent glazes—which are made with mica chips to give the appearance of shifting color as you walk by the painting—marble dust for texture, or glass beads to add reflectivity. If this weren’t enough, one can apply acrylics with anything from traditional brushes to palette knives to spray guns and even cake decorators, with their wide assortment of icing nozzles.

One artist who loves to experiment with acrylics is Katherine Chang Liu, of Westerlake, California. While her paintings are generally abstract and based on personal ideas and reflections, she sometimes depicts a recognizable object. “When I first started painting, I worked in a landscape tradition with watercolors,” says Liu. “Then, as I began to build up more layers in my paintings, I thought acrylics would better fit my method and personality. Now, I work in acrylics mixed with water or acrylic mediums to achieve thinner or thicker layers of paint.”

For Liu, beginning a painting means doing many thumbnail sketches. In this way, she determines the design and value structure of the final piece. In fact, she devotes the bulk of her time to this preliminary process.

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Blind Ambition
by Alice Leora Briggs, 2004,
sgraffito drawing on panel,
16 x 20. All images courtesy
Davidson Galleries, Seattle,
Washington unless
otherwise indicated.

“I work on paper or panel, yet I work the same way no matter which ground I choose,” Liu explains. Once she has prepared the ground with many layers of gesso and allowed it to dry thoroughly, she immediately starts painting on the blank ground. Because of the preliminary studies she does ahead of time, she now has a basic sense of the composition. “As I work, I tend to let the colors evolve as I go, using a lot of paint in the process,” she says. “My method is part intent and part intuition. Halfway through the painting, I begin to have a dialogue with the work, and I like to develop the painting from that.”

These initial layers of paint are only the beginning for Liu. She then draws on the dry painting with a variety of materials, such as graphite, charcoal pencils, pastels, or oil pastels, and proceeds to paint directly over the drawing marks without using any fixative. “Sometimes the materials bleed into the acrylic paint, but if there is an area I don’t want to bleed, I’ll use oil sticks,” she says. “I actually like the fact that the oil stick works like a wax resist, repelling water and creating interesting effects.”

At this stage, the artist often adds collage to her work, pasting her own computer-generated images to the painting using matte medium as the glue. “When I paint by overlapping, so many surprising effects occur—but because my goal is not to represent specific objects, I enjoy these unexpected events.”
To achieve daring and unconventional effects, New York City-based artist David Newton mixes his acrylics with materials commonly used for fresco or developed for more industrial applications.

“I searched for a material that would add a dusty look to my paintings,” he says. He tried adding white acrylic paint to his pigment, but disliked the plasticky texture this created. But while helping a friend paint faux stonework on the walls of a house, he learned to mix stucco into paint to mimic the texture of stone. A white, finely ground plaster, stucco is sometimes mixed with sand to achieve a rougher texture. It is often used as a base for frescoes and occasionally as an exterior sealant on soft-stone buildings.

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Blood Work
by Alice Leora Briggs, 2005 - 07,
acrylic with sgraffito
drawing on panel, 20 x 16.

“I brought home a couple of cups of it and realized I had finally found what I was looking for,” Newton recalls. “I liked the look so much that I started buying it in gallons.” The stucco Newton uses is not a powder, but is premixed into a very thick, finely ground paste. He mixes a small amount directly into his acrylics to give his paintings a bleached, sun-drenched look.

There can be drawbacks in using materials not specifically designed for use with acrylics, however. “If I add too much stucco, the paint may crumble off the canvas because there’s not enough binder,” Newton points out. “Also, if the layer of stucco is too thick, the painting can crack.”

Although Newton hasn’t received any complaints from collectors to date, he is mindful of the fact that this untested combination of materials may not stand the test of time. “I do think about the archival properties of my combinations, and I try to be careful,” he says. “But I generally care more about the effects my materials give me than whether my works will last forever.”

When Newton decided to do night scenes with darker, more dramatic colors, he knew that the lightness of the stucco alone wouldn’t work. “I began to search for alternatives,” he recalls. “I looked carefully at my work and realized a lot of my paintings had scratched surfaces. I thought I could use a sort of sgraffito technique to get the effect I wanted, especially if I found a dark material to scratch through.” He experimented with a variety of surfaces and acrylic paints before deciding to lay an acrylic-based floor sealant over a stucco foundation. The acrylic-based polyurethane he uses is manufactured to provide a hard, durable finish on floors and can be found at most hardware and decorator paint stores.

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Fever
by Alice Leora Briggs, 2007, 
acrylic with sgraffito
drawing on panel, 18 x 24.

Newton begins his darker paintings by first scratching a wooden panel with sandpaper so the plaster would adhere to it. He then scumbles a layer of white stucco paste over the surface. Once this layer dries, Newton scrapes it smooth and adds another layer of stucco, working in this way until he has built up about six layers to create a smooth white surface with a subtle, stonelike texture. Next, he pours some polyurethane into a jar and tints it black with acrylic paint. He then pours a layer of polyurethane over the surface of the dry stucco. The black layer, which he refers to as a skin, must be thick enough to hide the white plaster underneath—about a sixteenth of an inch. Once again, Newton isn’t sure if the acrylic urethane will stand the test of time, but he feels the effects are too beautiful to give up. “I know it might yellow a bit eventually,” he says. “On the other hand, if it’s durable enough for floors, you could probably tap dance on my paintings!”

After the black layer dries, Newton draws an image onto it with a white wax pencil. Then he cuts into the surface with a razor blade and peels off sections of the black skin to expose the original plaster surface. The peeled areas represent light in his images. He continues working this way until he achieves the composition of dark and light that he desires. Next, he glazes over the white areas with acrylic paints to build up a subtle range of colors. If he makes a mistake, he just cuts back to the white stucco and starts the glazing again.

“The main reason that I use these materials is that they allow me to enjoy the physicality of cutting and peeling the acrylic layer,” Newton says. “The process is similar to drawing—it’s about using my hands to curve lines and condense forms into pure shapes. I find it gratifying to paint that way.”

Christopher Willard is a painter, color theorist, and freelance writer who has contributed to American Artist for more than seven years.


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