Painting lace is an everlasting challenge. Not ever will I manage to perfectly suggest its refinement, transparency, softness, crispness and beauty. But I will keep trying and explore different approaches and develop various techniques. I can at least try to show you how incredibly beautiful it is. In this blog post I will share some of my techniques for painting lace.
I have a thing for early lace. Early lace is lace from the late 16th and early 17th century when lace was only just becoming popular and developing fast. In the late 16th century lace was still a charming but slightly crude cutwork. By the middle of the 17th century it had developed into a hugely complex and refined large pieces. There are stunning examples of floral motifs worked into patterns so fine you can barely see the thread without a magnifying glass.
Of course I didn’t always paint lace. I came to lace because I enjoyed painting various textures. I enjoyed finding out how well I could paint water, stones, hair and fabrics. After fabrics it is not surprising to move onto lace. And there I really found a challenge and a very interesting topic as well.
How to Paint Lace
To paint lace I usually start with what is actually under the lace. So if the lace is draped over a figure I would paint the figure first. If the lace is lying on a table, I would paint the table first. After that I draw the main shapes of the lace, the folds, the shadow areas and lighter areas so I know where what goes. I then use a very fluid paint and a small sable brush to ‘draw’ the lace pattern. The spidery character of late 16th century lace is often painted in this manner. I keep an eye on lighter areas and darker areas and adjust the value of my paint accordingly. When all is done I might glaze over darker areas to create more contrast, I soften edges, blur or sharpen areas to create more variety and interest.
Brabant Lace, oil on linen 30x25cm
Large Pieces of Lace
A large piece of lace usually means I am sitting further away from it, so I can take it all in. The tiny holes of the netting disappear from view and only the pattern is visible. For this I can vary my approach. I can either come closer to the lace and still paint the netting and the pattern with a tiny brush as exactly as I can. The effect of so large an area worked into such detail is often wonderful. I do have to keep an eye on the scale however, making sure the pattern is small enough to be convincing.
a lot of work, as this is a large painting, but I think the effect is great.
The Shawl, oil on linen, 122x61cm (detail).
Another approach is to work more painterly and paint the netting as a whole and the pattern as an embroidery on top of that. This way lace painting gets closer to the painting of drapery, except of course that it is transparent. This transparency adds complexity to the painting process as well as the painting itself. I experiment with scrubbing and scumbling of dry paint, glazing with transparent paint, and colours to enhance the effects.
The transparency of large pieces of lace or netting is suggested with shading
A fourth way of painting is lace is suitable for very dense lace. If the lace is not very transparent and the threads close together it makes sense so paint it as a solid material, like any other drapery. I would then add the lace ‘holes’ and ‘gaps’ with a darker paint on top. This is the way many 17th century Dutch masters painted the denser Dutch lace.
For denser lace the pattern is painted on top with dark paint
How to Handle Antique Lace
Painting antique lace brings along a whole set of problems that modern reproduction lace does not have. Lace on display in a museums is beautiful to look at and sometimes you are even allowed to sketch or photograph it, but I could not possibly use it in my paintings. I would have to imagine how it would feel, fold and drape in the way I had in mind for a painting. Lace that is kept in archives has the same problem. Although I can often touch it, I cannot drape it and put it in the position that I need for my painting.
This reticella lace is sturdy and could be carefully pleated into a collarSo the only way to work with antique lace is to actually have it in the studio and be able to use it in any way I like. I try to buy small pieces now and then and kind people have lend me pieces in the past to work with. Four hundred year-old lace, however, is very fragile indeed. It will crumble and turn to dust if left in the daylight for long (we’re talking days or even hours sometimes) although some pieces are sturdier than others. So if I want to work with early lace I have to be quick. I drape it in the way I like, photograph it, sketch it if I have the time, and then it goes back into storage. I then paint from the photos that I took. Besides the risk of crumbling lace, with a puppy and two children running around my small studio, photographing is definitely the safest option.
A handkerchief painted with thin white paint
Of course modern lace does not have any of these problems. But, call me a lace snob if you like, modern lace just does not have the refinement and charm of early lace or the grandeur of Victorian lace. So although I love the practicalities of painting modern lace, nothing beats the ‘real stuff’.
The model is wearing an authentic piece of 17th century bobbin lace