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.
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.
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
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.
Dense Bobbin Lace: Paint the Negative Space
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
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
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.
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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