The Allure of Gold Leaf in Art

Discover the Rich History and Techniques Behind Gold Leaf

Artists have long been captivated by the enchanting glow of gold leaf. Dating back centuries, this technique involves hammering pure gold into thin sheets, creating a luminous canvas for artistic expression. From ancient Egyptian relics to the works of renowned masters such as Rembrandt and Klimt, gold leaf has left an indelible mark on the world of art.

Unveiling the History

In the annals of art history, few materials evoke the same sense of opulence as gold leaf. Its warm radiance adds a captivating allure to any painting, drawing the viewer’s eye with its glistening accents. Rembrandt, a master of the craft, applied gold leaf to a copper surface, imbuing his works with a luminosity that transcends time. Gustav Klimt, on the other hand, took the world by storm during his “Golden Phase,” using gold leaf to create mesmerizing pieces that continue to captivate audiences.

Authenticity vs. Imitation

While genuine gold leaf remains the epitome of luxury, other metal leaf options exist, such as real silver, copper, and imitation gold. Variegated leaf provides a wide range of colors and patterns to explore. It’s important to note that imitation gold leaf, made from copper and zinc, is slightly thicker than the real thing and may tarnish if left unsealed due to its high copper content. Genuine gold leaf, particularly those with a 22ct rating, will resist tarnishing. However, real silver leaf, unlike its aluminum counterpart, is susceptible to tarnish.

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Gilding Techniques: Adhesive and Size

The art of gilding can be accomplished using two main methods: water gilding and gilding with leaf size or adhesive. While water gilding is a more complex and involved process, many artists prefer using gold size or adhesive, such as Pebeo gilding paste or Japanese gold size. The choice between these options depends on the medium being used. Japanese gold size, an oil-based adhesive, is ideal for gilding on top of dry oil paint. For other purposes, water-based options like Pebeo gilding paste or acrylic gold size are suitable.

The Importance of Varnishing and Sealing

To ensure the longevity and preservation of your gilded masterpiece, proper varnishing and sealing are essential. When working with imitation gold leaf, applying a sealer/varnish is recommended to slow down the oxidation process and provide overall protection. Goldens MSA with UVLs is a popular choice for varnishing. For acrylic painting on unsealed imitation leaf, caution must be exercised, as certain water-based acrylic varnishes and sealers can tarnish the leaf. Shellac is a viable alternative for some artists. When using oil paint on imitation gold leaf, it is advisable to wait until the paint is dry before varnishing, applying two coats with sufficient time between each.

Tips for Working with Gold Leaf

  1. Remember that real gold leaf does not tarnish, but varnishing is still recommended for additional protection.
  2. Imitation gold leaf will tarnish, so varnishing is necessary unless an antiquated look is desired.
  3. Acrylics on unsealed imitation leaf can tarnish the leaf, while oil paints will not.
  4. Always opt for a gloss varnish to maintain the glossy shine.
  5. Be cautious when using acrylic products, as some sealers/varnishes can tarnish the leaf. Fast-drying acrylic mediums are a safer alternative.
  6. Consider sealing the leaf before painting with a permanent sealer and using a removable sealer after the painting process for archival purposes.
  7. When gilding on top of oil paint, choose an oil or solvent-based size.
  8. For gilding on top of acrylic paint, use a water-based leaf size or adhesive.
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Mastering the Application Process

The process of applying gold leaf involves several steps:

Surface Preparation: Whether working on wood or canvas, it’s important to prep the surface by lightly sanding it, applying gesso, and then painting a layer of acrylic paints before gilding.

Applying Adhesive: When gilding over acrylic paints, a water-based adhesive is applied. However, if gilding over oil paints, thorough drying is crucial before using a solvent or oil-based adhesive.

Leaf Application: Carefully lift and place the loose leaf onto the desired area, smoothing it with gentle pressure using wax paper or a static technique. Transfer leaf, already attached to wax paper, offers a convenient alternative.

Cleaning Off Excess Leaf: Use a soft brush to remove any excess leaf from the canvas or wood panel, revealing a beautifully gilded surface.

The Artistry of Alison McIlkenny

Alison McIlkenny, an accomplished artist, spent a decade as a Jewelry Designer and Maker before returning to her first love of painting and drawing. She now works from her studio in Moira, Northern Ireland, creating an ongoing series called the “Beautifully Made.” This collection focuses on the beauty found in nature, especially bees, and highlights the intricate details that surround us. Alison firmly believes in the interconnectedness of all living things, emphasizing the need to cherish and protect nature for the sake of healthy ecosystems and balance.

To explore more of Alison’s captivating works, visit the Ames Farm Center website.


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