A painting technique by which forms and textures are scraped into the wet surface of the paint, leaving behind an uneven surface. The term is derived from the French word grattage, meaning to scrape or scratch, and shares similarities with the technique frottage, both of which were pioneered by the Surrealist Max Ernst.

Max Ernst Max Ernst montrant à une jeune fille la tête de son père [Max Ernst Showing a Young Girl the Head of his Father] 1926/7 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023

What is Grattage?

In grattage, a canvas is prepared with a layer or more of wet paint. This canvas is then laid over a textured object and scraped off with a sharp-edged tool so it picks up the grain of the object below. The technique bears a striking similarity to the drawing technique ‘frottage’, which involves rubbing a sheet of paper placed on a textured surface with a crayon or pencil to pick up the surface beneath. 

Max Ernst and Grattage

The grattage technique was one of several innovative processes invented by Max Ernst. He first developed grattage in 1926 following his earlier experimentation with frottage, placing materials with a richly textured surface below his canvases including wire mesh, grained wood and broken glass. After loading his canvas with a sheath of oil paint he then pressed these textures underneath it, before scraping across the surface with a spatula or palette knife to pick up the grain of the object below and create unexpected, chance results.

The unusual, random marks and shapes made through this process awakened Ernst’s imagination, allowing him to respond to and rework them into fantastical creations. In Montrant à une jeune fille la tête de son père (Max Ernst Showing a Young Girl the Head of his Father), 1926-7, Ernst produced the grainy texture of the forest by performing grattage over a wooden surface, before reinventing it as a Freudian nightmare. Grattage also adds textural variety into the far left of Le Grand amoureux I (The Great Lover I), 1926, creating the same jarring surface contrast as a collage.

Links with Surrealist Ideas

In the famous essay What is Surrealism, published in 1934, Ernst revealed his pure delight in discovering lively and unexpected results through the grattage process, writing, 'The joy in every successful metamorphosis conforms … with the intellect’s age-old energetic need to liberate itself from the deceptive and boring paradise of fixed memories and to investigate a new, incomparably expansive areas of experience, in which the boundaries between the so-called inner world and the outer world become increasingly blurred and will probably one day disappear entirely.'

The grattage technique allowed Ernst to develop wider Surrealist ideas shared by his contemporaries including André Breton and René Magritte, namely the merging of reality with a fantasy realm, or the transformation of ordinary objects into the curious, haunting and uncanny.



1891 - 1976

Glossary terms


A technique in which paper or canvas is placed over a grainy surface and rubbed with a crayon or charcoal. This was often used by Surrealist artists to create chance effects. From the French word ‘frotter’, meaning ‘to rub’.


A literary and artistic movement that sought to challenge conventions through the exploration of the subconscious mind, invoking the power of dreams and elements of chance. It is now regarded as one of the most radical movements of the twentieth century.