Ensor’s scratching technique


Over half of the thirty-eight Ensor paintings in the KMSKA collection show evidence of scratching in the paint layers. Scratches can of course be signs of damage caused by careless handling. Or the artist may have accidentally scratched the surface of his work during the painting process and may not have noticed or may not have felt it necessary to retouch the painting. But sometimes we encounter scratching in painting that has been applied quite deliberately for effect. In this contribution, restorer Karen Bonne discusses three examples of Ensor’s deliberate use of the scratching technique, also known as sgraffito.

James Ensor, Stilleven met chinoiserieën, 1880, olieverf op doek, 101 x 81, KMSKA inv. nr. 2076.
James Ensor, Stilllife with Chinoiseries, 1880, oil on canvas, 101 x 81, KMSKA inv. no. 2076.

In Stilllife with Chinoiseries from 1880, Ensor applied a number of parallel scratches in a particular section of the painting, namely in the foreground on the right. Through these scratches, we notice the red paint of an underlying painting, an academic study of a semi-nude male. At the same time, the scratches add some volume to the fold in a shawl or a carpet.

Stilleven met chinoiserieën (detail): krassen waarbij kleur van onderliggende verflaag zichtbaar wordt Stilleven met chinoiserieën (detail): krassen waarbij kleur van onderliggende verflaag zichtbaar wordt

Still-life with Chinoiseries (detail): scratches revealing the colour of the underlying paint layer

The thirty-eight Ensor paintings in the KMSKA collection indicate that the artist’s use of sgraffito became more frequent and varied from around 1887 onwards. But why? Perhaps the explanation lies in Ensor’s drawings or, more likely, his prints. Ensor began to etch in 1886. He would experiment with the burin and dry-needle techniques in particular. 1 Both are intaglio techniques whereby a drawing is engraved in a copper plate. Subsequently ink is applied and the plate is wiped, leaving ink only in the engraved areas, which thus become visible in the actual print. In etching, the plate is covered with a layer of varnish. The image is engraved into the varnish after which the plate is submerged in acid, which will bite into the exposed areas. The dry-needle technique, whereby a drawing is engraved directly into a copper plate using a very fine needle, requires a steady and accurate hand: there is no room for error and correction. Although Ensor himself felt that he had not fully mastered the technique, 2 etching instilled him with a degree of self-confidence and it may also have provided inspiration for his painting:

‘In 1886, I draw directly onto the plate: seascapes overflowing with light. Filtered by a screen of golden brown clouds, the wonderful lines take shape, in a single movement and without corrections. I am overcome with child-like joy, and to express it I engrave my cathedrals, my entries, my humorous demons, my sarcastic masks and – now immortalised thanks to Lady Engraving – I pick up the palette with renewed confidence and devote myself to fresh, pure colouration.’ 3

James Ensor, Het afscheid van Napoleon, 1897, ets op papier, 120 x 190 mm, KMSKA inv. nr. 3278.   Het afscheid van Napoleon (detail)

LEFT: James Ensor, Napoleon’s Farewell, 1897, etching on paper, 120 x 190 mm, KMSKA inv. no. 3278 - RIGHT: Napoleon’s Farewell (detail)


The engravings in the copper plate are usually produced with an etching needle or a dry needle with a steel or diamond tip. But some artists use an ordinary nail or needle, or indeed any other sharp-ended domestic or gardening tool. Especially with the dry-needle technique, the needle can wear quickly or may even break. 4 The francophone Belgian writer Maurice Des Ombiaux was a friend of Ensor’s and paid several visits to him during the 1890s. In an article published in the French magazine La Plume in 1898, he describes Ensor’s etching technique: the artist would engrave a copper plate without applying chalk or a preparatory sketch. According to Des Ombiaux, Ensor used an implement that resembled an old nail more than it did an etching needle. 5 This was apparently the technique he used to engrave his best landscapes and the reproduction of Christ’s Entry into Brussels (1898).
A detail of a print of Napoleon’s Farewell (state 2/2, 1897) shows the great variety of lines, ranging from very fine and soft to much cruder or even serrated lines. The effect is spontaneous, almost sketchy, yet precise.

Among the sgraffito paintings from after 1886, there is one in particular that merits closer attention: Man of Sorrows, from 1891, features scratching in a large section of the painted surface.

James Ensor, Man van Smarten, 1891, olieverf op paneel, 20 x 15.5, KMSKA inv. nr.3320.
James Ensor, Man of Sorrows, 1891, oil on panel, 20 x 15.5, KMSKA inv. no.3320.

Unlike in an engraving, where the engraved lines retain the ink that appear in the print, here Ensor has scratched the surface of his work in order to remove paint. In this instance, he applied sgraffito while the paint was still wet, resulting in scratches with soft edges, often reaching down to the ground of the painting. The overall effect is one of fluency, as in the moustache and the hair of the Christ figure, and it bears witness to a steady hand, as is apparent in the details around the figure’s nose. The scratching also accentuates the waves in Christ’s hair; some of the colours, including the yellow and orange tints, were applied after the sgraffito.

Man van Smarten (detail) strijklicht (RL): accenten op neus en snorharen Man van Smarten, (detail) haren onder stereomicroscoop (x8)

  LEFT: Man of Sorrows (detail) raking light (RL): accentuation of nose and moustache - RIGHT: Man of Sorrows (detail) hair under a stereoscopic microscope (x8)

As in the etching, we notice some interconnected serrated lines that would appear to have been applied in a single fluent movement.

Man van Smarten, (detail) haren onder stereomicroscoop (x16)
Man of Sorrows (detail): hair under a stereoscopic microscope (x16)

Ensor did not apply the scratches in the paint layers with an etching tool: this would have resulted in much cruder lines and may have damaged the ground. Instead, the artist most probably used the rounded back of a paintbrush. The scratches in the different paintings vary in breadth, suggesting that Ensor used different sized brushes, depending on the desired effect. In Skeleton Painting (1896) Ensor actually depicts a “painter” at his easel holding a brush back to front. There is however one painting where the scratching is so fine that it would appear Ensor did use a needle, namely in View of Phnosie. Luminous Waves and Vibrations from 1890. The sgraffito in this painting is restricted to the windows and gutters of three buildings in the row of houses.

James Ensor, Zicht op Phnosië. Lumineuze golven en vibraties, (1890), olieverf op doek, 32.3 x 75.3, KMSKA, inv. nr. 2780: de witte markeringslijne zijn aangebracht met Photoshop.

James Ensor, View of Phnosie. Luminous Waves and Vibrations, (1890), oil on canvas, 32.3 x 75.3, KMSKA, inv. no. 2780: the white markings were applied with Photoshop.

Here, the lines are much less fluent: the hesitations are particularly noticeable under a stereoscopic microscope. The rounding of the windows is also less fluent.

Zicht op Phnosië. Lumineuze golven en vibraties (detail): onder stereomicroscoop (x16)

View of Phnosie. Luminous Waves and Vibrations (detail): under a stereoscopic microscope (x16)

Karen Bonne


1 R. HOOZEE, S. TAEVERNIER-BOWN, J.F. HEIJBROEK, James Ensor. Tekeningen en prenten, Antwerpen: Mercatorfonds, 1987, p. 187 e.v.
2 Idem, p. 99
3 Ensor, Mes Ecrits in N. HOSTYN, Ensor. De verzameling van het museum voor schone kunsten Oostende, Ludion, 1999.
4 F. van der Linden, De grafische technieken, Cantecleer bv, de Bilt, 1990, p. 117.
M. DES OMBIAUX, ‘Avec quelques écrivains nous nous réunissons chaque jour …’, in James Ensor. Peintre et graveur. Ouvrage orné de 111 illustrations …, Parijs: La Plume, 1899 (oorspronkelijk 1898), p. 74.



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