The Look of Linen

Q. I’d like to paint a vignetted oil portrait on linen without the white gesso ground so that the natural look and color of the linen shows through. Is there a clear substance that I could use to prime the linen to get this effect without a glossy look? Would rabbitskin glue work?
Gayle Dunn Hurley
Bowling Green, KY

A. You certainly can paint on a linen support without a gesso ground, but only if you use a size to protect the support from the oxidizing effects of the drying oil paint. Rabbitskin glue is the traditional size used beneath an oil ground, but it has been shown to be very hygroscopic, meaning that it absorbs and expels atmospheric moisture. As a result, it will expand and contract beneath the aging oil paint and eventually cause cracking.

Instead of rabbitskin glue, try using an acrylic emulsion matte medium to seal the linen. One or two applications, slightly thinned with water, should protect the fabric without creating optical interference in the appearance of the paint. To ensure this transparent result, the protective layer should be not a distinct coating on the surface of the linen but a sealer that penetrates the fibers of the linen. To become familiar with its effects, I’d recommend practicing the application on some scraps of material before using it on your good linen.

Be aware, however, that oil paint grows more transparent as it ages, so a painting on a plain linen support with no ground may lead to eventual darkening in the tone of the portrait. This will be most evident if you paint with thinned paint and do a lot of glazing.

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