Sgraffito -pronounced skrah-costs-toh – is the art of applying layers of plaster, paint or glaze to a surface, then scratching to show the colors of the surface below. Sgraffito is an age-old art technique used in Chinese ceramics as early as 600-900 AD and by Islamic potters as early as 1050 AD. It was popularized in the Western world on the facades of buildings in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Andryea Natkin uses the sgraffito technique to create functional art from clay and ceramics. Plates, bowls, dishes, vases, candle holders, cocktail sticks and much more come out of his workshop. His is a small-batch process that only makes a few items at a time. Most items are black and white, and each item is unique. The skills she uses include manipulating clay, applying glazes, painting, and applying sgraffito designs with scraping tools.
Natkin’s home studio is in a 10 x 10 bedroom she co-opted when her daughter moved out. They built the house themselves in the 1980s during the energy crisis, and it incorporates solar heating, including a south-facing greenhouse that is a passive solar-gathering buffer. This is where his little electric oven is. The greenhouse is perfect for air circulation and access.
The studio is filled with tools and inspiration to create art. Functionally there is a manual slab roller, brushes, a wide variety of tools used to scrape surfaces, and plastic rollers to cover unfinished pieces while they “rest” and partially dry. There are images of past work, design sketch pages and mosaics produced in the past for inspiration.
Natkin’s creative process converts 25-pound bags of clay into finished pieces. She begins by using a wire to cut a 1½ inch thick section of a block of clay. She rolls it through her slab roller – a process very similar to using a pasta roller – reducing the space between the rollers with each pass to achieve the desired thickness. She then lets the piece rest a bit to stiffen up enough so it doesn’t warp when she works with it. This is only the first of many rest periods in his process.
Then she either cuts the clay using a flat pattern or drapes the clay over a shape such as a bowl or other found object to begin creating the shape. Cutting to size is done with an X-Acto or other sharp knife. If the piece has edges that need to be sealed together (like a cup), she scores or roughens those edges and uses slip, which is thinned clay, to “glue” the edges together.
If the item is to have a handle, she pinches some clay and rolls it in her hands to shape the desired shape, then attaches it to the main piece. The creation now has its final shape, and she lets it sit to dry out further.
When Natkin cannot return to the piece in a timely manner, she places it in her ceramist’s wet box – a box with a solid wet plasterboard at the bottom, where unfinished clay pieces can be placed. Once sealed, the box will keep parts moist for weeks.
Natkin’s experience tells him when the room is close to the required dryness. At this point the clock starts ticking and it needs to know exactly when the piece is neither too hard nor too wet to apply the glaze. When the piece is fair, she adds an underglaze. The underglaze is usually black. She will brush it inside or outside the article. On the underglaze side, she creates a design using her scraping tools to scrape away areas of underglaze to reveal the white clay beneath. On the unglazed side, she will often make marks in the white clay. On a bowl, for example, it may have the black underglaze on the inside with a sgraffito pattern and a few surprise marks on the outside that will be white.
She lets this piece dry until it is completely dry. If it’s too cold, it’s still wet. It should be as hot as her cheek, then it’s ready to pop into the oven for a bisque fire. This will make the piece even sturdier so it can continue to spruce up the item.
Based on different design decisions, she can wipe off the underglaze on the white side where she had inscribed surprise marks. This pushes the black underglaze into the marks, but it immediately wipes away any excess. This leads to Natkin’s distinctive style of white on black on one side and black on white on the other. In other cases, she may add minimal color work for the design. Once the design is complete, she adds a layer of clear, food-grade glaze, which seals the clay. Finally, she bakes it in the oven for the last time.
For marketing purposes, each piece is photographed multiple times from different angles, put on an inventory sheet, and listed on its website and other social media. She finds that the more organized she can be with these steps, the less time she has to spend on administration and order fulfillment later.
If you want to learn more about Andryea Natkin’s ceramics, visit her website at andryeanatkin.com, or on Instagram, @andryeanatkin. Or the next time you attend a local fair or Evanston Made event, look for its distinctive functional clay artwork.