Painting Lace with Oils

Painting Lace in Oils

Painting lace might seem daunting, but it is not as hard as it looks. For me it followed out of wanting to practice painting different textures. I enjoy challenging myself with painting various textures, such as hair, skin, wool, stones, and I soon was enjoying painting fabrics and drapery. I have always had a love for fabrics and fashion, so this did not seem too far-fetched. To add to the challenge, I started trying to paint lace and I was hooked! The transparency of lace, the patterns, the fact that you can drape it into folds and pleats; it all added to the fun challenge of figuring out how to paint lace in oils.  

Over the years I tried lots of approaches (often within a single painting!) and figured out what works well and what does not. Of course, there are lots of ways to paint something and in this article, I hope to explain a few techniques that worked for me.

I enjoy painting antique lace the most. These small and delicate pieces ooze history and heritage. Often antique lace is much more beautiful than modern machine-made lace. I ended up looking at lace from the very early days of lace in the late sixteenth century. Researching how lace came to exist is incredibly interesting and it takes you on a journey not only through lace making techniques and materials, but also into the history of women’s work, social class, the history of (expensive!) fashion and the history of art.


  • Small round brushes, size 00. I like Pro Arte Acrylix, but also watercolour brushes. 
  • For larger and softer areas, I like to use Jackson’s Shinku brushes.
  • Bristle brushes for scumbling and initial block in. 
  • My favourite paints are the more fluid, but high-quality brands: Vasari, Michael Harding, Langridge. 
  • To paint fine detail, I do not want the distraction of textured canvas so I tend to use super fine linen or Ampersand boards. I do not use any solvents as I react badly to them and tend to not use any medium either. I prefer to paint with ‘straight paint’.

The lace painting techniques that I discovered by trial and error are nothing unique or special; they simply make the most sense. After all, if you want to paint thin and spidery lace, you will soon choose a small round pointed brush. And if you want to paint large areas of netting, you will probably choose a much larger brush. I found out that the same techniques were also used by the old masters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The spidery needle lace ruffs, seen in Tudor portraits, were painted with very fine brushes and almost drawn instead of painted. These paintings are very exact in their depiction of clothing, jewelry and lace. In the seventeenth century this changed as the continental Baroque style of painting was introduced in England. Painting became ‘looser’ and more suggestive and we can see this in the way painters like Van Dyck painted lace. The patterns were not copied as exactly as before, but more suggested with broader brush strokes. The lace had changed too; no longer was it spidery and transparent, but it had become to look more like a fabric with patterned holes. Bobbin lace became hugely popular in the seventeenth century and its soft and flowing characteristics was reflected in the sway of the master’s brush strokes.  

In my own lace paintings, I used similar techniques as those old masters, although I am not interested in copying them. I don’t see the need for using old master’s techniques unless they serve us well and am all for using modern materials and techniques when we can. I am not interested in copying their work and want to create my own interpretation of historic objects like antique lace. I try to work with the lace in a, for me, meaningful way, while still paying homage to the material’s heritage. You will therefore find many echoes of the past as well as our own modern times in my paintings. 

Giselle, oil on linen, 87x107cm

How to Paint Lace

There are a few different methods to paint lace, depending on the type of lace you want to paint and the style or effect you want to create. 

Needle Lace with a Small Brush

Detail of A Fine Thread in progress. Showing small brush technique of ‘drawing’ lace patterns. 

We see this type of lace in Tudor ruffs, but also in more modern machine-made lace types where the pattern dominates the lace, and there is very little space between the elements of the pattern. You can choose to paint lace like this in a suggestive and impressionist way, but you can also choose to paint it as exact as you can. I like to challenge myself with the latter. It might be a bit more work, but it is worthwhile! 

 You will need a very small round brush, with a good point, so you can ‘draw’ the pattern on your painting. If there is any netting you can also choose to ‘draw’ that (with a brush), carefully drawing every loop and thread. You will need a steady hand (use a mahl stick), a lot of patience (take breaks, take your time) and fluid but opaque paint. Start by painting the main big pattern shapes first, and then move to the smaller elements of the design. 

You will probably be painting with white paint (or a shade of white) on a dry ground. It is important that you paint the under layers first. So, if you are painting a lace collar, for example, you need to paint the clothing first. It needs to be dry for you to be able to paint the lace over it. The clothing will then peep through the holes in the lace pattern, as it would in real life. 

Detail of Repeating Patterns, showing the white lace patterns painted on top of a dried darker underpainting.

Dense Bobbin Lace: Paint the Negative Space

Details of The Lacemaker in progress. Painting the fabric of the lace first and then adding the ‘negative space’ with darker paint. 

Varying the value of the negative space: ranging from light beige to deep black (on the left) to suggest the layers underneath. 

A much denser bobbin lace would require a different painting technique. These types of lace are almost as dense as fabric, with just some holes to make the lace pattern. You can see examples of this in many of Rembrandt’s paintings. There you can also see what technique makes the most sense to paint this type of lace. As the lace is so dense, it would not make sense to ‘draw’ every thread with a small brush. Instead, you can paint the general shape of the lace and then proceed to paint in the ‘holes’ (negative space) with the colour of whatever is underneath the lace. Rembrandt would paint the underlayer first (for example a black garment), then paint the white lace on top, and then use a stick (the back of a brush perhaps?) to draw the lace patterns and lift up the white paint. So for this technique you would paint (or lift) the negative space into the white lace. 


Large Pieces with Netting: Scumble or Glaze

Detail of Giselle in progress. Showing dry paint scumbling for the veil and painting the lace pattern with a smaller brush.

For large pieces of lace, like veils for example, painting every single thread might be too much to ask for. Also, when you are working from life and you are working with a large piece of lace, you might not actually be able to see the individual threads. After all, you will be sitting a little further from it then if you would be painting a small piece in a still life. Of course, you can still choose to paint every thread, whether you see it in real life or not (use photography and a good computer monitor to zoom in and see detail if you need to). If so, then use the technique described above. But if you prefer to ‘suggest’ the netting, you might want  to work with a bigger synthetic or bristle brush to scumble or glaze the general shape of the piece of lace first. Often large pieces of lace have a lot of netting, which is very suitable to scumble onto a canvas with very little dry paint. You can then continue to add the (embroidered) lace patterns with a small brush and go into as much or as little detail as you like.

Large Pieces: Opaque Paint

Detail of The Duchess in progress. Painting lace with opaque paint.

An alternative method for painting large pieces of lace or netting is to use opaque paint and paint it like you would paint any other object. Values are key here, as the values will help you depict transparency and patterns. Paint the drapery and add the lace patterns with a variety of larger and smaller brushes. Again, you can choose whether to go into small detail or keep things more suggestive.  A thicker paint for the highlights and a glazed or scumbled technique for the shadow areas often works well.  

Top Tips

  • When you paint drapery, and you feel you are getting lost in the folds and patterns, consider your subject like a map; map out where the main avenues and landmarks are, sub-divide sections, so you can find your way again. You will know you are working left of that big triangle” or “just below that dark circular bit”.
  • For spidery lace, paint the under layer first, wait for it to dry, and them paint the lace on top. Be prepared to have to repaint the under layer, if it turns out not quite right!
  • Lace is often white and for spidery lace you will need a fluid paint. Titanium White is not fluid by nature. I have tried out many whites over the years, hoping to find the most fluid of all, but it remains difficult! Of course, you can enhance the fluidity of your paints by adding a medium (a little stand oil, some linseed oil and a bit of solvent might work well) but I prefer to work without mediums (I sometimes add a drop of linseed oil). Trial and error!
  • If you want to paint every thread in a piece of lace you might benefit from photography and a good computer monitor or iPad, so that you can zoom in and out and really get that detail down. Working with antique lace will also benefit from photography as it is unwise to leave very old and fragile textiles in the light and air; they will deteriorate fast. So photograph your still life set up and then put the antique lace away again. Work from photographs if needed. 
  • When you want to paint a large area of lace in an exact way, you might feel a little overwhelmed at first. Make sure you map out your pattern well, so you don’t get lost. Keep an eye on scale (don’t make the stitches or netting too large and be consistent) and values (where is the lace catching the light and where is it in the shade). Then paint small sections at a time. 
  • Take your time. My paintings would often take many months to finish. Sometimes I would only work on lace for short periods of time every day, focusing on other work the rest of the day. Just like it is for a lace maker, the progress is slow, but the result will be worth it. 

Questions? Comments?

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This article was written for The Artist Magazine (UK) and published in their February 2023 issue (out 16 December 2022)

All text and images ©Sophie Ploeg