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Conquering Crackle

Crackle: a paint effect that makes projects appear aged by creating cracks in the top layer of a painted object.

Most often, people paint the base one colour (the colour of the cracks), apply the crackle, and then paint the top coat before finishing it with a sealant of some kind.

I've found out it isn't as simple as purchasing the product (found at art supply stores and some department stores) and applying it to your piece. No, life is never that easy. Crackle is a moody little beast.

While I haven't mastered the technique, I've done enough research, advice gathering and experimentation to figure out some key points.

Before You Start

Consider how porous your object is. This will dictate how much work you need to sink into the base coat of paint. For example, on one of my unfinished wooden boxes I had painted three thin coats of a viscous (somewhat watery) acrylic paint. I ended up with very little crackling effect because the solution was soaked up into the wood.

You can either ensure you do several undercoats, or you can do what I did: pick up some acrylic gesso.

Gesso is a primer, preventing paint from soaking into the base (wood, canvas, paper, polymer clay, etc). It can also make a flimsy surface stiffer (for example, people use it when making art journals). I use a water based acrylic Gesso. One coat and you're usually good to go. Liquitex is a reliable brand. I opted for a slightly cheaper Canadian product by Demco.

The layer of gesso also helps maintain consistent crack size. Before I used the gesso, I was getting wild variations on the same piece (huge cracks beside tiny ones. Note the image of the cat box below). I couldn't figure out why it was happening, even when I was being very careful to apply an equal amount of crackle. The gesso seems to have solved this problem by creating an even seal on the surface of the item.

Luckily, gesso dries fairly quickly and is easy to apply (you just brush it on). There are gesso sprays available, but I have not tried them.

Be aware that gesso will add texture to your project. It's this texture that helps the paint stick to it.


Applying the Crackle

Assuming you are using a crackle product (and not trying to create a crackle effect using glue; more on that subject another day), you will want to make sure the base coat is completely dry before you apply it.

Not all crackle products are created equal. If you're finding that no matter what you do, you can't get the crackle effect to work, it might not be your technique. Experiment with different crackle solutions.

The thicker the layer of crackle, the bigger the cracks. If you want the cracks to be fine, you need to apply a thin layer of crackle. How much is thin? The only way to learn this is by doing it. Too thin, and nothing happens at all. Too thick, and you can end up with a globby mess.


The Top Coat

Here is where the magic happens...or the disaster. Once the crackle layer is completely dry, it's time to apply the top coat. You will know within a minute whether or not you a) primed the object properly and b) applied the correct amount of crackle. If nothing at all happens within a minute, your crackle project is probably a bust.

Plan the direction of the "crackle grain". While some artists have mastered a spidery effect of their crackle, chances are when you are just learning (like me) you'll end up with the cracks predominately following the direction of your brush stroke.

For example, if you are painting a box, and you paint the front (not the top, but the side that will be the front) from left to right, make sure the lid (the top) is painted in the same direction. As you can see, I painted the lid back to front, and it contrasts with the direction of the crackle on the front. I should have painted it left to right.

Paint in one long stroke. Give yourself a decent amount of paint on the brush, and apply the paint in a smooth, single brush stroke. Resist the urge to paint over a wet spot even if there's a huge gap showing. You'll end up lifting the crackle (muddying the solution so it doesn't work), removing paint already applied, or even worse, creating a gloopy mound on the surface.

If you do make a gloopy mess, you can use sand paper to file it down when it's dry (I've even used the end of a nail file to create the same texture lines that mimic the texture created on the rest of the project).

When the paint is completely dry, go back and very carefully touch up those missed spots.

I haven't found the perfect brush for the top coat just yet, but I can tell you the size and bristle material of your brush can affect how the cracks look. I was using a large, tougher-bristled brush on the project above. While the larger brush helps me apply more paint in one stroke, it takes away the delicacy of the lines and texture. This would be fine if I were painting a large object, but I think smaller projects suffer.

That's all the tips I have for now. If I make more discoveries, I will update this tutorial.


Two things. 1) If the paint you use for the top coat is too thick, crackle won't work. 2) Creating a wash (watered down paint) over the crackle layer creates an interesting effect.

Recently I asked fellow artist Calan Ree which product she used to get such a fine, porcelain-style crackle effect. Here's what she had to say. I'll be testing out this product soon and will report back with my results.