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Making gesso

The acrylic primer on pre­pared can­vases or avail­able in stores is usu­ally labeled “gesso.” It’s not actu­ally gesso and man­u­fac­tur­ers shouldn’t call it that. For oil paint­ing, I find real gesso to be a much bet­ter sur­face than acrylic primer. Egg tem­pera and tem­pera grassa should be used only with real gesso pan­els. Gesso should only be used on inflex­i­ble sup­ports (i.e., pan­els), because it is too brit­tle for can­vas and will crack. Ges­so­ing is easy and almost fool­proof, but time-consuming. It takes an after­noon to gesso a panel. On the other hand, it takes an after­noon to gesso five, ten, or twenty pan­els, so it pays to pro­duce them in vol­ume. I gen­er­ally invest three or four after­noons a year in mak­ing enough pan­els to pro­vide me with a steady sup­ply. Here’s how to make and apply gesso:


Hide glue (often labeled “rab­bit­skin glue” whether it con­tains any rab­bit or not). Most major art sup­pli­ers have this. Inert white pig­ment. This is pow­dered chalk or gyp­sum. The mar­ble dust you can buy in art stores is chalk. Plas­ter of Paris is cooked (anhy­drous) gyp­sum, but I have found it too gritty to make good gesso. (The word “gesso” means “gyp­sum” in Ital­ian, since that’s what Ital­ians made gesso from. In North­ern Europe, chalk was the tra­di­tional mate­r­ial). You can buy good-quality pow­dered gyp­sum from spe­cialty sup­pli­ers like Kre­mer.

Tita­nium white pig­ment. This is optional. Some peo­ple like to sub­sti­tute up to 20% of the inert white pig­ment in the recipe below with tita­nium white, for bright­ness. I haven’t found it worth the bother.

Panel. There are var­i­ous mate­ri­als you can use for panel paint­ing. One good option is to buy hard­board at the home improve­ment or hard­ware store. You can buy it cheaply in 4 foot by 8 foot sheets. Get tem­pered hard­board 1/4 inch thick. The staff at the store will prob­a­bly cut it to size for you if you ask. Other mate­ri­als you can use for panel include medium den­sity fiber­board (MDF) and actual wood planks. Wood pan­els of any size, how­ever, are best sea­soned for 13 years, with plan­ing to size if it warps, after it has been cut to final size.

Wide flat brush. A good house paint­ing brush will do. A dou­ble boiler. I don’t like com­mer­cial dou­ble boil­ers because there is too much con­tact between the metal pans. Instead, I use a pair of very cheap pans—one small, one large. I use an empty tuna can to sup­port the small pan in the large pan.

Mea­sur­ing spoons, mix­ing spoons.

Sand­pa­per. Sev­eral grits.

Prepar­ing hide glue

Make the hide glue the day before you plan to gesso the panel. Hide glue nor­mally comes in pow­der or gran­u­lar form. Mix one part hide glue with 11 parts warm tap water. One cup makes about enough to size and gesso two 8 × 10” pan­els, depend­ing on how many lay­ers of gesso you apply. Stir the water/glue mix­ture for about five min­utes, then let it sit for 624 hours or so. It will form a thick gelatin. If the weather is very hot (95 degrees Fahren­heit+), it might not gel prop­erly unless you put it in the refrigerator.

Prepar­ing and siz­ing the panel

The edges of the panel should be smoothed with sand­pa­per or a rasp. Clean the panel with dena­tured alco­hol to remove any trace of oil or other guck. Now you want to coat the panel in a layer of hide glue. This is called siz­ing the panel because another word for hide glue is “size.” You’ll start by warm­ing the glue to make it fluid. If you heat the glue too much, it will weaken the glue. As it turns out, hot tap water is about the right tem­per­a­ture to liq­uefy glue with­out dam­ag­ing it. So fill the outer pan of your dou­ble boiler with hot tap water and put the glue into the inner pan. In about ten min­utes, it will be about the con­sis­tency of milk (whole milk, not that low fat stuff). Brush the glue over the front, back, and sides of the panel. Give it a half hour to dry. I gen­er­ally add more lay­ers of glue to the back. The rea­son is that the glue in the gesso on the front will be apply­ing force to the panel. If the panel is large, this will notice­ably warp the panel. So I gen­er­ally add about four lay­ers of glue to the back in order to coun­ter­act the warp­ing effect that the gesso will apply to the front. This seems to help a lot. h3. Mak­ing gesso Mea­sure the vol­ume of the remain­ing glue and pour it back into the dou­ble boiler. You will be adding 1.5 times this vol­ume of chalk or gyp­sum to make gesso. Do this grad­u­ally, gen­tly drop­ping each spoon­ful into the liq­uid to avoid mak­ing any bub­bles. Dis­trib­ute the chalk/gypsum around the pan so that it the glue soaks into it. Once all of the chalk/gypsum is in the pot, give it 10 min­utes to soak. Now take a brush and gen­tly stir the mix­ture, again try­ing to avoid mak­ing any bubbles.

Apply­ing the first layer of gesso

For the first layer, spread it thinly over the sur­face of the panel, stroking back and forth in one direc­tion. It’s not very opaque when wet. Let it dry; this takes 1030 min­utes, depend­ing on humid­ity and tem­per­a­ture (dry days are best for ges­so­ing pan­els). You’ll know it’s dry when it feels dry to the touch and any gray­ish areas have dis­ap­peared. Cen­nino, a 15th cen­tury Ital­ian artist and writer, sug­gested rub­bing the first layer in with your hand rather than spread­ing with a brush. That’s messy, but works just fine and may improve adhe­sion. If the gesso in your pan is get­ting thick, it means that it’s cool­ing off. Replace the water in the dou­ble boiler with new hot tap water. Don’t overdo it; this is usu­ally nec­es­sary only once every 3060 min­utes or so.

Apply­ing the rest of the gesso

You will apply 68 lay­ers of gesso. Brush strokes in each layer should be applied at right angles to those of the pre­vi­ous layer. Each layer is best applied shortly after the pre­vi­ous layer has become dry. It’s best to apply all lay­ers in one day, so that they will bond with each other. If you get crack­ing, that means that you’re apply­ing the gesso before the pre­vi­ous layer has dried. More lay­ers will fix this. If you get lit­tle pits in the gesso, then you’re paint­ing with gesso that has bub­bles in it. Let the gesso stand for a half hour before apply­ing any more, then rub the next layer in with your hand. Once you’ve applied all the gesso, let the panel dry for at least three days. You can clean the brush, pan, and any­thing else that got gesso on it in warm water.

Smooth­ing the panel

Start by using a metal file to cham­fer all of the edges of the gesso, so that they are at a beveled angle inward. This pro­tects against crack­ing, should the panel strike some­thing (I’ve had this hap­pen with a large panel that I put a lot of work into, and it’s very irri­tat­ing). To get the panel smooth, I like to use a sand­ing block, start­ing with 400 grit sand­pa­per and mov­ing to finer grits at the end. This pro­duces a beau­ti­ful, eggshell-smooth fin­ish that is almost too beau­ti­ful to paint on. If I’m going to be paint­ing with oil, I like to apply a final layer of hide glue to the smoothed sur­face of the panel. With­out that, the gesso is too absorbent. Oth­ers use a thin layer of shel­lac or var­nish to reduce absorbency; I haven’t tried that. For egg tem­pera or tem­pera grassa, plain gesso works great.

Update 24 May 2014: Bolded the sen­tence that says “Gesso should only be used on inflex­i­ble sup­ports (i.e., pan­els), because it is too brit­tle for can­vas and will crack.” We’ve had a cou­ple of ques­tions in the com­ments from peo­ple who have applied gesso to stretched can­vas. Gesso is for rigid sur­faces such as pan­els. Don’t apply it to fab­ric unless that fab­ric has been glued to a panel first.

53 Responses

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  1. Jenny Kyng says

    David—thanks for this recipe and for your use­ful web­site. When you say you apply a final layer or rsg solu­tion to the panel if you’re paint­ing in oils, is this solu­tion the same strength as the orig­i­nal i.e.: 1 part rsg to 11 of water?

    Also are all your paint­ings on show here done on a gesso’ed panel?

  2. David says


    Yes, the glue I apply on top of the gesso for oil paint­ing, is full strength.

    Some of the paint­ings are on gesso; some are on pan­els pre­pared with lead white primer. I’ve even been known to paint on acrylic primer, but I pre­fer not to.

  3. Esmava says

    Hi Thanks a lot for your post I was seek­ing for this Gesso for­mula. I actu­ally have a ques­tion… you know what´s the dif­fer­ence between Gesso and Crete?if there´s any

    • David Rourke says


      I’m glad you found th infor­ma­tion help­ful. I’m afraid I have no idea what “crete” is (other than an island in the Mediterranean).

  4. titanium says

    Crete is chalk/calcium car­bon­ate, same thing. So Gesso would use Crete/chalk , but Gesso is NOT crete/chalk.

  5. jill metcalfe says

    Many thanks David.

    Have suc­cess­fully coated 6 boards and must now wait 3 days for them to dry. Apart from a smell of wet dog all went well. Pre­sum­ably I don’t attempt to sand­pa­per them for at least 3 days? The pan­els are not the only thing to get plastered.

    Any­way, thanks again. It’s all rather satisfying.


    • David says


      Three days should be plenty of time.

      Good luck!

  6. Amy says


    I just ges­soed a bunch of pan­els and two are cracked which never hap­pens. I was told where I bought the glue to use between 120g-150g to 1 litre of water.

    In the past I have always used 80 g to 1 liter. The man who sold me the glue insisted his pro­por­tions were right for this new rab­bit skin glue! Now I am won­der­ing if the glue was too strong or if there wasn’t enough chalk.

    Do I have to trash the pan­els? What do you think? It is really a bum­mer after a week­end of work­ing on them. Plus, even if I don’t see cracks in the oth­ers, I am won­der­ing if they won’t crack in the future since it was the same batch.

    Thanks, Amy

    • David says


      I’m not sure what advice to give you, because this hasn’t hap­pened to me. I don’t know of any way to fix a cracked gesso panel. If the oth­ers are OK after a month or so, I’d guess that they are most likely OK. I wouldn’t try to paint a mas­ter­piece on them, however.

      You may need to exper­i­ment with your glue recipe until you find one that works bet­ter. It sounds like it may have been too strong. I’ve always done fine with i part glue to 11 parts warm tap water by vol­ume. Because glue batches vary in strength and can vary in vol­ume depend­ing on ambi­ent humid­ity, how­ever, it can take some work to find the right for­mula for you.

      Good luck.

  7. Amy says

    Here is another ques­tion to throw at you… I am try­ing to make a half chalk emul­sion to put on wood pan­els where I have glued linen to them… The recipe is 100g rab­bit skin glue to 1 litre of water soaked overnight, then 250g Whit­ing + 250 g zinc and I put 100 g stand oil….. I can’t get it to mix well…What a mess! I really don’t like oil primers and this was a recipe from and old friend (except he used boiled lin­seed which I can­not find) Have you tried this?

    • David says


      I haven’t made half chalk grounds, but it’s my under­stand­ing that you need to cre­ate an emul­sion by adding the oil to the glue a few drops at a time while mix­ing con­tin­u­ously (just like mak­ing may­on­naise). That might be dif­fi­cult with undi­luted stand oil because it is so thick. I’d prob­a­bly try mix­ing the stand oil 50/50 with lin­seed oil.

    • Ray says

      I believe that if you sand it down a lit­tle bit and apply another two to three addi­tional lay­ers of gesso on top. The trick how­ever is to add some drops of lin­seed oil to the mix­ture. Lin­seed oil avoids crack­ing. Please try it out. Ray

      • David says

        Lin­seed oil in gesso (tech­ni­cally a “half chalk” ground) can work fine for oil paint­ing. As a sub­strate for tem­pera or other water media, I’d be very cau­tious as it might affect adhe­sion and stability.

  8. christa says

    Can you make gesso using liq­uid hide glue from a bot­tle (the kind for wood working)?

    • David says


      I don’t know. I have nei­ther tried it nor heard of other peo­ple using it for this pur­pose. If you do, please let me know how it works out.

  9. Shitai says

    Can i use a panel pre­pared in this man­ner for paint­ing with water­col­ors and gold leaf?

    • David says


      As far as I know, water­color should work fine, although I have not tried it. You might be able to get some very inter­est­ing effects.

      All of those beau­ti­ful Ital­ian 13th and 14th cen­tury paint­ings in tem­pera and gold leaf were done on gesso pan­els of the type described in this post. There are mul­ti­ple tra­di­tional tech­niques, includ­ing water gild­ing, which uses hide glue to stick the leaf to the gesso. It’s tough to mas­ter, but the effect can be stunning.

  10. Jon says

    hi David i’m plan­ning on using this gesso recipe for the first time on some large can­vases (for oil painting)..but do you know if this can cause prob­lems if i have to re-stretch a fin­ished paint­ing at a later date? (for exam­ple, if the work needs to be rolled and shipped to another coun­try to be re-stretched). Up until now i nor­mally only use the size (two lay­ers) and then just paint straight on top..and had no problems…but i’m sure i heard some­where that it’s risky if gesso is applied as it can crack?

  11. Jon says

    P.S, if its not suitable…do you know what might be the best option to get a smooth ground sur­face, thats flex­i­ble enough for large can­vas? thanks

    • David says


      Tra­di­tional glue-chalk gesso is too brit­tle for use on stretched can­vas. You can glue can­vas over a panel and gesso it. For oil paint­ing on stretched can­vas, the tra­di­tional prepa­ra­tion is to size with a thin layer of hide glue, then prime with lead white. That has worked very well for me. Nat­ural Pig­ments makes a very good lead primer.

  12. peter says

    what is the cause of get­ting those small tiny bub­bles in the gesso after start­ing drying?

    • David says


      Those lit­tle bub­bles are found in paint­ings going back to at least the 14th cen­tury. From what I have read and observed, they are sim­ply caused by bub­bles in the gesso. If you stir gen­tly and are oth­er­wise care­ful, I have not found that they hap­pen very often. When they do, you can usu­ally cor­rect by let­ting the layer dry and adding another cou­ple of layers.

  13. peter says

    but some­time they per­sist layer after layer. does sugar added to the mix­ture helps? i have found some sort of a rem­edy by rub­bing the layer with my fin­ger with some mix­ture so that i will fill the tiny holes made by the bub­bles when dry­ing. do you think its a good rem­edy after all. these bub­bles appear espe­cially when yopu are doing layer after layer to get an embossed design.

    • David says


      I have also found that rub­bing in is help­ful. I’ve not used emboss­ing with gesso, so I’m not sure how that would work.

  14. Paul says

    thanks for the site For a wooden panel made of sanded, fin­ished 1/4” ply­wood, is there any­thing wrong with just using a white pig­mented shel­lac as a (gesso?) or primer for oil points. I did it a cou­ple of years ago and I have not noticed any­thing wrong.

    ALSO, for can­vas, what is your opin­ion about sim­ply buy­ing pre­pared can­vas, the primed canvas?

    • David says

      I think it should work just fine. If the you did it years ago and it’s work­ing for you, then your suc­cess with it is really all you need to know.

      As far as can­vas goes, I’m just not a fan of paint­ing on acrylic emul­sion primer. I like paint­ing oil paint on oil primer. Lots of folks dis­agree, of course. Your mileage may vary.

  15. han says

    hey, i wanted to make some oil paint­ings dur­ing the hol­i­days so i have brought all the nec­es­sary arti­cles required. this is my first time doing an oil paint­ing so i came across this gesso thing. i have brought a can­vas board.. are can­vas board already ges­soed if not is it nec­es­sary to gesso it ?

    • David says


      To start with, a can­vas board is fine. Don’t worry about fancy stuff until you are mak­ing paint­ings good enough for some­one other than your fam­ily mem­bers to want to hang on a wall.

      See my arti­cle on start­ing oil painting:

  16. nona pettersen says

    Great to see a ref­er­ence to tra­di­tional gesso as a base for oil paint­ing . I have seen works based on this tech­nique by a South­ern Amer­i­can artist . The final effect was very high gloss and I was told this was achieved by pol­ish­ing the sur­face with beeswax . Are you famil­iar with this wax fin­ish and can you give me any advice on how to achieve it .?

  17. Terry says

    How does the Gesso hold up on paper?

    • David says


      Gesso is brit­tle, so it is best to affix the paper to a rigid sur­face if you want it to be per­ma­nent. On the other hand, for prac­tice it works just fine.

  18. Anna says

    Hey, great thread and I’ve read all of it. Just need to clar­ify — if I’m going to paint with oils on linen (which I’ve loosely stretched), I should just use the rab­bit skin glue and not the chalk mix­ture? And then paint over the rab­bit skin glue with a gesso acrylic primer? It’s hard to know what to do after read­ing a lot of con­flict­ing infor­ma­tion on the internet!

    • David says


      Gesso (real gesso, not the acrylic emul­sion primer that is called “gesso” but is not) is for rigid sur­faces. You can attach linen to a rigid sub­strate such as ply­wood, then apply gesso on top of that (this a tra­di­tional paint­ing sur­face). You should not apply real gesso to stretched fab­ric because it is too brit­tle and will crack.

      The rea­son why hide (rab­bit­skin) glue is applied to stretched linen is as an ini­tial layer, over which oil primer is applied. Oth­er­wise, the oil in the primer will dam­age the linen. If you are using acrylic primer, that’s not nec­es­sary. Just apply the primer to the fab­ric directly. (I do want to put in a pitch for real oil primer, how­ever. It’s a much more pleas­ant sur­face to paint on than acrylic. Tita­nium white oil primer is nice; lead while oil primer is wonderful.)

      • Peter says

        Thanks for a won­der­ful arti­cle, I’m reg­u­larly using RSG for both pan­els and can­vas now. The chalk/glue gesso works great on pan­els but I’d like to find a replace­ment for lead/oil primer on can­vas. Do you have a recipe for ‘make your own’ tita­nium white, oil primer please?

        • David says


          On can­vas, I’m a big fan of lead white primer. I prob­a­bly would not find it worth my while to make tita­nium white primer. I’d likely buy it from Williams­burg or Doak. If I did try mak­ing primer would prob­a­bly just be tita­nium pig­ment, lin­seed oil, and mar­ble dust for bite. I might exper­i­ment with ground glass or other additives.

          If you make some, let me know how it turns out.

  19. Anna says

    Thanks for your response. I’ll give the oil primer a go.

  20. gert says

    Hello every­body ,

    I don’t know it this threath(?) is still open , but i would like to ask something .

    Is it pos­si­ble to add pig­ment ( umber , red ochre ) to a plain hide glue , en use this coloured con­coc­tion to colour and prime can­vas (not panel ) in one time?

    kind regards,


    • David says


      Yes you can. Paint made with hide glue as the binder is known as “dis­tem­per.” It was pretty com­mon in the Renais­sance and is still occa­sion­ally prac­ticed. Pig­ment can be added to hide glue when prim­ing. How­ever, hide glue is sen­si­tive to mois­ture and humid­ity. Over­all, rigid sup­ports are bet­ter for this kind of thing.


      Note that there are var­i­ous dis­tem­per tech­niques, many includ­ing chalk mixed with glue as the binder.

  21. Francis.A says

    Before pro­ceed­ing with the oil col­ors, shall we apply egg-tempera on the can­vas sized with Rab­bit skin glue?

    • David says


      Egg tem­pera is appro­pri­ate for rigid sur­faces. Records show that many paint­ings in the Renais­sance were done in tem­pera on can­vas. Almost none of them sur­vive. What we have are tem­pera on panel, oil on panel, and oil on can­vas. Even oil paint lasts best on a rigid surface.

  22. Scott says

    Hi David,

    Great site. I have a prob­lem that I hope you can help solve. Some time ago I stretched can­vas over a oil primed, rigid sub­strate and applied hide glue siz­ing. Unfor­tu­nately, before apply­ing gesso, I left the can­vas lean­ing against the wall, sit­ting on the floor of a very old, damp base­ment floor for a period of months.

    When I picked up the can­vas to start the gesso, I dis­cov­ered one sec­tion of the flat edge rest­ing on the floor has dis­col­ored, pos­si­bly mold. It looked as if the siz­ing had either melted or been eaten away. I sanded the can­vas, wiped it down with alco­hol, hop­ing this would be enough and then started to apply the gesso. The area with the dis­col­oration is bleed­ing through and the gesso is not tak­ing to the sur­face in that area as it is on the rest of the canvas.

    After my ini­tial dis­ap­point­ment, I real­ized this is prob­a­bly not the first glue sized can­vas left on a moldy base­ment floor. And then, I thought of you. I imag­ine I need to scrape clean the stained area, but do you have any ideas on how to kill what must be mold so that I can avoid start­ing all over again?

    Thanks in advance,


    • David says


      OK, I’d use it for a study or other pur­pose that is not intended for long-term dis­play. I would cer­tainly not try to sell the result­ing painting.

      Sorry I can’t fix your prob­lem for you.

  23. michaela says

    Hi, I am look­ing to mak­ing this for some of my boards, you men­tioned it works well with oils, but how does it take with acyr­lic paints?

    • David says


      I haven’t used it for this pur­pose. With acrylics, I don’t see any par­tic­u­lar advan­tage over reg­u­lar acrylic emul­sion primer. On the other hand, I don’t know of any rea­son why it wouldn’t work. If you try it, let me know how it goes.

  24. Robert Stuart says

    Thanks for this — I’ve been search­ing for clear instruc­tions for siz­ing and ges­so­ing (sp?) can­vas Your blog is about pan­els, but I’ll try to fol­low this for sizing.

    • David says


      Make sure the siz­ing layer is not too thick. I gen­er­ally apply one layer of glue diluted with water by 50%, then (after it dries) one layer of hide glue at reg­u­lar strength.

  25. Pamela says

    Hi, so glad I found your instruc­tions. I’m cov­er­ing pan­els but not using any can­vas, just rab­bit skin glue on 1/2” ply­wood. I’m hav­ing trou­ble with sec­ond and third lay­ers pulling off areas of the pre­vi­ous lay­ers. Is it too thick? Can I thin the gesso with more rab­bit skin glue?

    • David says


      I’m not sure as I haven’t had this hap­pen. It might be too thick and you can cer­tainly adjust the amount of water in the glue.

      Good luck!

  26. stuart says

    Hi, In answer to Michaela, Yes Acrylics work really well with ges­soed pan­els. You can pro­duce very inter­est­ing effects when applied thinly as you would apply egg tem­pera. Actu­ally the acrylic reacts in a very sim­i­lar way to egg. Exper­i­ment and see!

  27. krystal says

    Hi David, I have just primed 6 large linen can­vas’ with a tra­di­tional hide glue gesso, they have all cracked. This was the first time I used the non-ready made prod­uct think­ing I was mak­ing a bet­ter choice. I am intend­ing these for sale. What should I do, in that is there any­way to resolve the issue on the can­vas? Will the cracks show through the oil paint? Will it ever actu­ally chip off the fin­ished painting?

    I am dis­ap­pointed with the waste of time and money. You seem to be an expert on this issue, so hop­ing you can help.

    • David says


      Sorry this didn’t work out for you. I have cer­tainly had my share of sim­i­lar dis­as­ters in attempt­ing to recre­ate tra­di­tional methods.

      Hide glue gesso is too brit­tle for stretched can­vas (linen or other fab­ric). It will invari­ably crack as you have found. Gesso was used tra­di­tion­ally on wooden pan­els or on can­vas that had been glued to panel for rigid­ity. The tra­di­tional method for prepar­ing stretched can­vas is a thin layer of hide glue (size) fol­lowed by oil primer (tra­di­tion­ally lead white although tita­nium primer can be sub­sti­tuted). That works very well as the glue layer is thin enough to be flex­i­ble and the primer is as flex­i­ble as the layer of oil paint to be applied over it.

      Since linen is so expen­sive, you could try to sal­vage it by remov­ing the gesso. The hide glue binder in the gesso can be soft­ened with hot water or steam. That might allow you to care­fully scrape it off with­out dam­ag­ing the linen. You might try a clothes iron set on high with max­i­mum steam on the non gesso side, scrap­ing the gesso side care­fully as it loosens. I am only mak­ing a best guess that this might work I have never done it. I don’t know how it would turn out and there is cer­tainly a chance that that result would be unusable.

      My sug­ges­tion for future exper­i­ments is to do them one at a time. Don’t attempt a large pro­duc­tion run until you have a reli­able and tested method.

      Best wishes,


  28. Zoe Leach says

    Ok I did the same thing (pre­pared a bunch of can­vases that all cracked) I’m won­der­ing if any­one had any luck with the sal­vaging meth­ods? I will prob­a­bly try the hot water scrap­ing thing. just won­der­ing if any­one had any luck. Thanks, Zoe

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