Painting Methods and Materials

(some basic notes on methods and materials)

Painting – Methods and Materials

These are practical notes to help you, if only technically. For greater knowledge and understanding I recommend “The Artists Handbook” by Ralph Mayer (published in paperback by Faber & Faber, and Max Dorner’s “The Materials of the Artist” published by London Harrop.

There are three basic procedures:-

1. The Support – or Stretcher.
2. Sizing / Priming / Ground.
3. Paint and Mediums.


This may be a wooden frame, hardboard, chipboard, various plywoods – marine ply being the best – and canvas (usually cotton duck) or linen, calico, hessian etc.

Basically anything that is moderately flat and can be primed.

e.g. Old breadboards – Howard Hodgkin.
Antique round top tables – Gillian Ayres.
Glass – Picasso and Pollock.
A butcher’s block – Vermeer.
Marble – Bryce Marden.
Corrugated steel – Frank Stella.
Hessian sacking – Gaugin,

and so on.

Canvas is a moderately new invention in the History of Art but is the most versatile and flexible material for contemporary use.

The most common, cheap and efficient is Cotton Duck, which is off white in colour and can be bought in various widths and various weights. The lighter the weight, the more open and porous the weave and the less resilient to tearing and sagging. 9oz or 10oz, being the cheapest is also quite adequate and easy to stretch. The heavier weights are of course better quality, more expensive and very hard to stretch without canvas pliers. 11oz cotton duck is the most highly recommended. 13oz and 15oz are very expensive, steam stretched and lower in starch.

Most Artists use cotton duck even though it is thought to deteriorate badly within 30 years.

Linen is brown, much smoother and preferred by some professionals. It is more expensive and more enduring.

Hessian is rough with a very open weave and it’s impossible to lose the obvious texture through priming.

One can paint on very lightweight materials on a small scale – e.g. calico, which is smooth and liable to go slack after working on for a short time.

Most supports need some kind of careful preparation before applying oil paint.

Oil paint rots canvas and paper. The absorbency of any material soaks up the oil in the paint and eventually leaves the pigment free of its oil binding constituents so that it will simply flake off. If the support has a smooth surface, such as metal or hardboard, it needs to be roughened with sandpaper or an abrasive to give the primer better adherence.

Canvas is stretched over a wooden support or “stretcher” and can be stretched over panels. Remember to provide the stretcher with enough crossbars to prevent warping and prepare the stretcher by bevelling the inside edge of the timber or raising the outer edge with suitable quadrant beading, to raise the canvas adequately and prevent it from catching on the crossbars etc. whilst painting. You can check a stretcher’s square-ness by measuring it twice, diagonally from corner to corner. The measurements should both be the same.
Rounding off the edges of the crossbars with a spoke shave and/or sandpaper can help avoid lines appearing if the canvas touches them whilst paint is applied.

When stretching the canvas, always allow enough excess to pull it right round to the back of the stretcher – giving you enough to grip. Make sure the weft and the warp are even and parallel to the stretcher bars.


Size is glue. This gelatinous glue isolates and protects the surface of the painter’s support from the oily layers of primer and paint.
Rabbit Skin Glue is the most traditional and still the best functional glue available. Vegetarians may, understandably wish to use an alternative “veggie” glue such as “CMC” but this is not as good as rabbit skin glue. Wallpaper pastes etc. are brittle and less effective but may be used in moderation as very second best. Canvas, paper and wood need sizing before use of oil paint.

Rabbit skin glue is bought by the weight in crystal form. For best results (traditionally) it should be soaked in water for several hours before heating in a double saucepan (the pan of glue inside a larger pan with water in it). The mix should be approximately one part size crystals to eight parts water or 2 tablespoons (not desert spoons) to a pint. Proportions can vary according to the manufacturer’s density of ingredients, and age of said rabbit. It is usually best to add the water to the rabbit skin glue (rather than the other way round) and give it a good stir before letting it soak prior to heating.
When it is ready to be heated (after the crystals have expanded in the water) it should not be boiled but heated gently whilst stirring, until all of the crystals have thoroughly dissolved. This done – allow the glue to cool for a while until it starts to become slightly thicker (jelly like) then apply a thin layer to the canvas. Let this completely dry before applying a second coat.

Size should be brushed on quickly, thinly and evenly, worked in all directions rapidly to get an even distribution into the weave of the canvas. Make sure that you also size the edges of your canvas. It is glue, so beware of the odd brush hair sticking to the canvas and the occasional blobs of un-melted crystal size. Clean up drips on the floor afterwards as it is dangerously slippery.

Allow to dry naturally as any attempt to decrease the drying time beside a radiator etc. will only result in a warped canvas and could possibly rip the canvas by being too tight. One tip here is that you can stretch your canvas quite loosely around the stretcher and when size is applied the canvas it will shrink and tighten naturally. If you over-tighten your canvas – it can go so tight on the stretcher (when sized) that the material actually stretches too much. When it dries it could become too loose to work on.

When drying your sized canvas – place flat on the floor and weight the corners if warping begins.

With this method, one can safely use oil paint directly on the sized canvas, though most artists prefer working on a white, smoother ground.


For use over Rabbit skin glue, the best recommended primers are Thixotropic Alkyd Primers. These are oil based so the canvas must be sized first to prevent the primer from rotting it. They provide a “colour-fast” (non-yellowing) white ground which should be thinned with turpentine for the initial layer, followed by a second and thicker layer once the first has thoroughly dried.


One can work directly on to pure canvas avoiding the entire sizing procedure by priming the surface with an acrylic primer or acrylic gesso primer. This is particularly good for priming paper or panels. Acrylic gesso primer does seem to produce slackening of the canvas if worked on for long periods. This can be avoided by using one thin layer of oil based primer over the top before use, though this method should not be employed if you are painting with acrylic paints. Generally, if you use any acrylic primer you should pull the canvas tighter around the stretcher than you would when using rabbit skin glue.

Acrylic gesso is recommended as pure gesso is usually bought in powder form and has no binding content. This is only suitable, when suspended in water, for panel painting where the support is non-flexible. Pure gesso must not be used on canvas without adding an acrylic binder as it will simply crack on the first impact of the brush or movement. Originally, gesso was used for egg tempera and panel painting, applying many thin layers and sanding down each one to provide maximum smoothness.

Acrylic gesso is thick and may be thinned with water for several layers to be applied or alternatively it may be applied with a large spatula/palette knife or squeegee for a flat, finer finish. Usually though, it is used by applying a thin, watered down initial layer – followed by a thicker layer when the first has dried.

Household emulsion should never be used as it is rarely colourfast and it is too brittle and absorbent for practical use. It acts like blotting paper, gives an appalling ground and usually just cracks and yellows.

Household oil primers may be used with discretion. The more expensive lead primers are less likely to yellow but be warned that most take a long time to dry and are prone to wrinkling. They are a poor substitute for Thixotropic oil based primers. Also, lead primers are quite dangerous to use being both poisonous and an irritant top the skin. Probably best to leave well alone.

EGG EMULSION GROUND (For oil painting)

A very satisfactory ground for painting in oil can be made by using a tempera recipe. Egg, oil and rabbit skin size are required.

The unit of measurement is the content of one egg.


Break a whole egg into a jar with a lid.
Shake the jar rigorously to break up the egg into liquid.
Add to the egg an equal amount of linseed oil and shake rigorously.
Finally add water equal to the combined content of egg and oil – and again, emulsify by shaking well.

The proportions are again: 1 part egg + 1 part oil + 2 parts water.

With this emulsion – add sufficient titanium white pigment to make a stiff paste and mix together on a sheet of glass with a palette knife. This done, place in a saucepan and thin the paste with prepared rabbit skin glue size (1 part glue to 15 parts water) to make a ground of proper consistency for the support to be used. Warm slightly (using the double boiler technique) before brushing on.

This emulsion (mixture) can be used to make toned grounds using the appropriate dry pigments. The final absorbency of the ground may be controlled by a layer of gelatine size, thinned shellac, thinned linseed oil etc. Many users however find that the final surface is properly balanced and ready for use.
Do not overheat the ground or glue at any stage (hence the double boiler trick).


Elements which constitute binding power of media.

“Colloid” – Greek – means “glue-like”. It refers to a condition – colloidal state – not a specific class of substance.

Three broad categories of media:-

1. Watery Media
Based on glue or gum.
Their drying is reversible, that is, dried paint can be dissolved in water and used again.

They include: - Transparent water colour.
- Hard tablet – Gum Arabic.
- Water Tube Colour (Honey & Glycerine).
- Gouache (mixed with white – more permanent).
- Poster Colour.
- Powder Paint.

2. Paints based on Emulsions
A suspension of oil in water or water in oil.

Egg Yolk Emulsion = Tempera.

Also synthetics in which vinyl or acrylic groups are used to make emulsion in water.

Very versatile – apply to any surface except an oil one.

3. Oil Bound Paint
Medium drying oil (usually linseed or poppy).
Irreversible (has to be destroyed).

Other media have been used:
Oil Oxides – if surface is too absorbent it will suck in oil and leave a powdery film – paint becomes heavier after oxidising – forms skin called linoxyn.
Encaustic – pigment melted in wax.
Fresco – pigment painted on fresh plaster.
More recently commercial paints, where the pigment is combined with varnishes or cellulose.
Solvent – acts on medium – opposite of colloid.
Thinner – evaporated solvent – egg water / turps (evaporate after thinning).
Stripper – used to remove hardened paint.


Materials which have to be joined must in most cases be brought into close contact. If contact is sufficiently close, it can often seem that adhesion is adequate, to a greater or lesser extent, without the addition of cement: e.g. two sheets of plate glass are often difficult to separate. This suggests that the true purpose of cement is to fill the surface inequalities so that close contact can be achieved.

Cements, glues and pastes are obtained ready made or can be manufactured easily oneself for specific purposes. Some are listed here:

DURAFIX - a celluloid cement with a wide range of uses. It is transparent and used in thin films (built up in layers if necessary). It can join wood, pottery, porcelain, paper, glass and many other materials.

CROID - a gelatinous glue, especially suitable for wood. It is not waterproof.

RABBIT SKIN GLUE – is properly used as size in painting. Even strong solutions are unsuitable for cementing purposes when………

SCOTCH GLUE should be substituted. If glues are to be made waterproof, add one part of Linseed oil to 8 parts glue.

CASEIN – The proprietary brands of casein glues – “Casco” etc. are tough, all purpose cements which are waterproof. They should not be used where some degree of flexibility is needed, as on canvasses where……..

POLY-VINYL-ACETATE solutions may be used. P.V.A. forms the basis of many acrylic, plastic paints and dries to a tough flexible film. P.V.A. cements are obtainable in several proprietary brands.

MOUNTANT – A good mountant for drawings can be made from:
Gum Arabic 4 oz
Water 12 oz
Glycerine 1 oz
Dissolve the gum in boiling water, then add glycerine, mixing well.

BOSTIK – cements are made in a very wide range for many purposes.

AERALDITE – cements also have a wide range for different uses.

PASTES – made from vegetable starches can be strengthened if animal glues are added e.g.:
Wallpaper paste x 4 parts
Strong hide glue x 2 parts
Venice turpentine or Stand oil x 1 part

This can be used for cementing canvas to canvas.


1. Whiting – (precipitated chalk)
2. Titanium White Pigment
3. Boiled Linseed Oil (1/3 to 1/2)
4. Rabbit Skin Glue (at 18 to 1)

Take 1 part whiting + 1 part titanium and add to 1 part rabbit skin glue.
Then add 1/3 to 1/2 part of boiled linseed oil which has to be added very slowly – drop by drop.

To dilute – add hot water or more glue size.

This is an organic primer that must be used within three days and kept in a container with a tight lid.


Oil paint is pigment suspended in oil (usually linseed oil). Pigment, in its original, pure state is coloured stuff found in earth, rocks etc. this is then ground down and eventually ground with linseed or sometimes poppy oil. The process of grinding is to separate each particle efficiently enough for the oil to be absorbed. Each pigment has a different absorption rate due to its original weight – between very heavy and dense to exceedingly light and powdery. This influences the drying rate for oil colour (the process of oxidation) and the structure of the paint itself. The qualities of the paint are affected by the distinct molecular characteristics of the pigments and the amount of oil absorbed. Consequently, oil paint is known to be “organic” – living. Some dry slowly, some dry quickly, some inherently slower than others, such as reds; whereas blues and most earth colours dry much faster. Some colours are more pliant whilst others are prone to be brittle. Some colours e.g. raw umber / yellow ochre will, if used too thickly without added mediums, crack when drying.

It is important to realise that apart from natural pigments, Dyes are often used in the manufacture of oil paint. Traditionally the colours were known as “Lakes” and as such, were prone to disappearing. The “Lakes” were not ‘fast’. More recently, oil paints made with dyes have a much greater permanence factor but as their comparative cheapness suggests, they are not of such high quality due also to the base in which they are bound.

The more expensive paints are the purest and made for permanence. Manufacturers use many varied extenders with the pigments and dyes to bulk them up, usually with chalk and in certain instances to alter their natural characteristics. The use of wax and other fillers/mediums will change the drying rate; change the consistency for easier handling and more unfortunately, persuade you to believe you have a more generous amount.

Fundamentally, trial and error is the road of experience but it is worth finding out as much as possible for survival. A small amount of research into chemistry and colour theory could be very useful for practice, as would making paint from raw pigment.

Remember some basic facts:-

1. Do not paint “fat” over “lean”. The first layers of paint should be less oily than the subsequent ones for flexibility and durability, as the top layer will go matt, or worse still, crack.
2. It is recommended by Mayer and known practice that, by mixing more than three colours together, one is adulterating the quality of the pigment. Each subsequent colour will be likely to negate an earlier one until one ends up with a muddy mess.
3. White spirit is for cleaning your brushes*. Pure turpentine is to mix paint. However, some manufacturer’s chemists suggest that genuine turpentine yellows faster, and that white spirit is easier for restoration.

*It is well worth noting here, that one can clean oily brushes with cheap vegetable cooking oil then rinse off with washing up liquid. This is much better for the environment and also prevents white spirit from blocking waste pipes.

As already mentioned – it is traditionally recommended that using more than three pigments together adulterates the purity and intensity of value.

Do not mix Alizarin with Ultramarine or Iron Colours.

Safe Palette: omitting copper, alizarin, lead.

White : Titanium or Zinc.
Blue : Cobalt, Manganese, Prussian.
Red : Cadmium, Vermillion, Windsor, Venetian, Sienna, Mars,
Spectrum Red no.2, Spectrum Crimson.
Green : Cadmium, Viridian, Cobalt, Terre Verte.
Brown : Earth Colours, Umbers, Mars.
Yellow : Cadmium, Windsor, Ochre, Cobalt.
Orange : Windsor, Cadmium.
Grey : Davy’s Grey.
Black : Ivory, Mars.
Violet : Cobalt, Windsor, Mars.

If you use alizarin – take out the earth colours and Prussian Blue – or isolate it.


Permanence sequence = AA, A, B,
(AA = extremely permanent, A = permanent, B = moderately durable)
“O” or “T” refers to the paint being Opaque or Transparent.

“Low, medium, high” etc. refers to the proportion of oil to pigment.

Colour Permanence O or T Oil level
Flake White A O Low
Zinc White AA O Low
Titanium White AA O Medium
Light Red AA O Medium
Alizarin Crimson B T High
Cadmium Red A O Medium
Yellow Ochre AA T Medium
Naples Yellow A O Medium
Aureolin (cobalt yellow) A T Medium
Indian Yellow A T High
Ultramarine A T Medium
Prussian Blue A T Medium
Cobalt Blue AA T High
Cerulean AA O Very High
Viridian AA T Very High
Oxide of Chrome AA O Medium
Terre Verte AA T Very High
Ivory Black AA O Very High
Bone Black AA O Very High
Raw Umber AA T Medium
Burnt Umber AA T Medium
Raw Sienna AA T Medium
Burnt Sienna AA T Medium
Davy’s Grey AA T Medium
Vandyke Brown A T High


Oil paint may be used directly from the tube but one can alter its consistency by the addition of oil mediums for both flexibility of handling and varied drying times.

Oil paint dries eventually as the oil oxidises. Some are more flexible than others and some form more durable films which are less prone to yellowing.

Reasons for the addition of oil mediums are many and varied and personal preference for their use is part of practice.

Extending the original paint with extra oil, varnishes, dryers, resins etc. is primarily for extra flexibility in handling; also transparency, glazing, intensity of colour, matt-ness, glossiness, varied surface qualities and durability and permanence.

Even if one is not worried about the permanence of a painting in the long term, it is important to realise that, by using materials well, the painting will not suffer from changes in temperature, storage, or transportation. These can all affect a painting particularly if it has been badly made (due to expansion / contraction / vibration etc.).


This is most commonly used in the manufacture of British and U.S. oil paints.

(a) REFINED and COLD-PRESSED Linseed Oil.
Lightweight, pale golden brown. Most commonly used in paint manufacture as it is the least likely to crack and is very flexible. Yellows less than most and dries quite slowly – relatively shiny. Mix with oil paint to reduce consistency, improve flow and increase gloss and transparency. Refined linseed oil dries slower than cold-pressed.

Heavy and viscous, treated by heat and partly polymerised. Particularly good for glazing and for fine detail work. It is resistant to yellowing while increasing the durability of the film. May be used as a ground mixed with turpentine if a very slippery surface is required.

Similar to stand oil – but as its name suggests – is a paste and can be a useful bulking additive.

This is refined Linseed Oil thickened by exposure to the sun. Similar in many respects to stand oil but has extra versatility for glazing.

They form brittle films which darken quickly and crack badly. Good for oiling furniture and cricket bats!

[a careful mixture of Linseed and Turpentine to extend the oil paint is advisable because oil alone slows the drying time enormously and can add too much gloss]


This is used in the manufacture of many European oil paints. As a medium, it dries slower than Linseed Oil and is lighter in consistency. It is not as durably tough as Linseed Oil but many artists prefer its “touch”. It is well suited for use with pale colours as it is resistant to yellowing.


This is rarely used in manufacturing oil paints. It is similar to Poppy Oil and can be bought in grocery stores. It has a tendency to crack but is said to darken less than Linseed Oil. Dries slowly. Used by De Kooning.


Best for salads but can be used carefully like Safflower Oil. Like Soya and other vegetable oils, they are considered unsound. Van Eyke was said to use Walnut Oil.


Alkyd is the term used by manufacturers for a resin based medium that is synthetic. Used with discretion they can be very useful to speed drying and give a more acrylic like flexibility to the paint. There are many different types on the market – some listed here:-


(Winsor & Newton) dries very quickly, improves flow, increases gloss, resistant to yellowing and is good for glazing.


(Spectrum) reduces gloss and brush marks
(as its name suggests – helps the paint “flow”)


(Spectrum) a thick paste for building thick, fast drying paint areas. Prone to wrinkling and is very shiny.

Too much use of Alkyds can render the oil paint inert.



NB: is used as a thinner and has absolutely no binding power.

PURE TURPENTINE is genuine gum spirit of turpentine. It has a resinous odour and feels oily to the touch. It is the traditional diluent and evaporates, leaving the oil and pigment to dry naturally with little yellowing. Its oily quality mixes well with oil paint for more flexibility.

TURPS SUBSTITUTE or WHITE SPIRIT is for cleaning brushes. Used with oil paint, it dries the oil too quickly and leaves a matt inert surface. It is a “substitute” for the real thing – though chemists in the art field have claimed that it actually yellows less than Pure Turpentine.


Traditionally used to protect the surface of a finished painting against dust, abrasion and air impurities. Depending on the thickness of the paint – any time between 3 – 6 months should be left before brushing it on.

They are now used more as mediums, for extending the paint and speeding the drying. There are many different types, some of which turn yellow/brown quickly (especially Copal – avoid).

One of the best varnishes that you can use as a medium (for oil painting) is Damar. This can be bought in the bottle but can be easily and cheaply prepared by oneself in the studio. It is a useful medium which has similarities to Liquin but is of better, more lasting quality. Buy Damar crystals and soak them in genuine, pure turpentine with the crystals suspended in a thin piece of material or gauze for 24 hours. This allows the crystals to melt into the turps whilst keeping the husks in the gauze – a bit like jam making. Do not use it on its own with oil paint as it will lead to a very brittle shiny surface. Use it in conjunction with linseed or stand oil and turpentine. It lends itself well to glazing.

Oil paint mixed with genuine turps is sufficient on its own – and is the most durable use of paint. Too much turps will however break down the binding power of the original paint – too much linseed oil and the paint will never dry.
As mentioned previously – it’s sometimes just a matter of experimentation, or trial and error.


Traditionally encaustic was melted bee’s wax, applied directly to the support whilst hot and the pigment was then immediately burnished into the surface.
This method has been used by artists such as Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg.

More commonly now though, the wax is melted down and oil paint is added whilst the wax is still warm. It can then be applied to the support surface like thick (quick drying) paint.

IMPORTANT – Always use a double boiler when melting wax – so it cannot come into direct contact with the heat. This is because it is liable to bubble and explode.
A double boiler basically means two saucepans – one bigger than the other which has water in. the smaller one with the wax etc. is then placed into the larger one. The heated water will in turn, gently heat and melt the bee’s wax in a safe manner. Bee’s wax is better than candle wax – this is too brittle.

Adding pure turpentine to the melted wax can give the wax more flexibility and will keep the wax from drying too quickly. You can keep the mixture as a paste in a sealed glass jar for several months.

Encaustic is prone to cracking if used on canvas – but can be a very useful and satisfying medium nevertheless.


The raw pigment used to make acrylic paint is the same as that used for oil paint; either natural / organic or synthetic / inorganic, from the earth or dyes.

Acrylic or Polymer paint is roughly speaking, a pigment suspended in a plastic emulsion (a chain of molecules in water or some diluent).

When such paint is applied to a surface, the water or diluent will evaporate leaving behind a firm plastic, permanent, waterproof and fairly flexible film.

There are several forms of polymers, the most common being the vinyls and the acrylics. PVA paints are mainly manufactured for use in pre-degree education and should really be avoided. The acrylics are more expensive but offer a far greater permanence. As with oil – the more expensive – the better the quality e.g. Liquitex / Golden etc.

Acrylic is not organic; the binder for holding the pigment is a synthetic resin derived from the petro-chemical industry – a plastic.

Acrylic Paint is a fairly recent development in the history of painting, having been researched during the Second World War and more recently in Space research. Acrylics of the better quality are an excellent alternative to oil paint and have some advantages:

1. No priming of the support is required – as they are non corrosive and can be applied to almost any surface.

2. It is a fast drying medium using water as a vehicle and has the advantage of being able to be over-painted rapidly with no fear of movement underneath, as happens with oils which can crack or wrinkle.

3. It is ideal for collage work – using the medium as an adhesive and binder.

4. It is ideal when diluted, for staining.

There are quite a variety of mediums to use with acrylic paints – most of which are resistant to yellowing (they are available ready made):

1. Acrylic Retarder – this slows the drying time.
2. Gloss and Matt mediums – these come in different forms: gels / fluids and have varying characteristics that one can use to good effect.
3. Impasto medium – bulks up the paint and thickens for impasto work.
4. Flow medium – as the name implies, it helps the paint flow more freely.

The disadvantages of using acrylic paints and mediums are mainly practical – e.g. clean brushes before they dry as it will be impossible to save them otherwise.

Acrylic paint can be affected badly by changes in temperature, both whilst drying and in the container. Frost can lead to cracking on freshly painted canvas, whilst storing acrylics in a high temperature can also be damaging. A strong smell of ammonia lets you know when the paint has gone off in its container.


Some paints are poisonous and contain substances such as lead
e.g. Flake White (in oil) and should be used with care.

Cadmium and Cobalt are also used in paint manufacture but those paints are much safer nowadays and are not considered to be hazardous to health. All paint should have health and safety labelling, so please read this before use.

Similarly – read the labels on Turps / White Spirit / Mediums. They can be hazardous to your own health and the environment. You must consider that your lungs and skin are absorbent to toxic materials (especially turps) and conduct studio practice to minimize your exposure to certain materials and vapours.

Always wash your hands before eating / drinking / smoking.

Many materials that the artist employs are flammable so DO NOT smoke in your studio or use a naked flame for any reason.

Oily paint and turps rags are obviously flammable and are prone to self igniting if left crumpled up in the bin. When disposing of such rags – lay them flat in the bin and spray with cold water, thus minimizing their potential combustibility.

A good working practice has a lot to do with organizing the studio area well to begin with and clearing up well at the end – allowing for any amount of chaos in-between.

There are some excellent web sites that are very informative on their own products and how to use them. They are well worth looking up:

Winsor & Newton are at -
Daler Rowney are at -
Michael Harding Oil Colour is at -
Atlantis Art Materials are at -
Spectrum Paints are at -
Lefranc-Boureois paints are at -

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