How to use Gold leaf

How to use Gold leaf

Gold or silver leaf isn’t just for gilding things like mirrors, you can use it in your paintings too, just check out Gustav Klimt’s work where he used small amounts to highlight areas. I use it in my abstract works mainly but it also comes in handy for such thing as jewellery or special effects in surrealist paintings I do. It’s actually much easier to use than you think. You can try using some of the gold or silver paints instead but they don’t have quite the same effect reason being that gold paints are not really gold ... and will tarnish over time. Some of the newer paints supposedly will not tarnish, but even so, the resemblance to real gold is remote, at best. Despite the ease of applying this material, its visual and physical properties are inferior to those of gold leaf.

You can try buying a tube of top artist's quality gold paint and a small gilding starter set, to see what each is like working with and then see how you feel about the results you get. Be willing to experiment and to create studies, rather than focusing on producing final paintings.

So how do we use the leaf?

1) Preparation is important. The leaf is very fine so any surface imperfections or texture underneath it will show through as in the leaf will repeat the texture of the prepared surface. It is a top surface medium so make sure you have done all the background and painting you need to do before placing it where you want. If you are happy with the surface finish, then its time to apply the size.

2) Size is either a water or oil based adhesive used as a mordant to attach the metal leaf to a surface. A water based size dries quickly and has a usable tack life, usually 24 hours. You can buy this from art supply stores. Alternatively you can use an acrylic medium or a good PVA glue thinned to a milky consistency.

3) A traditional oil based size works best on hard smooth surfaces but will take longer to dry sufficiently to accept the leaf.

Apply size only over the area you wish to apply the leaf. Use smooth even strokes and avoid creating puddles and runs, (the leaf is wafer thin so any marks underneath will be visible when finished). As the size dries it will become clear with a tacky consistency. To test if the size is ready to accept the leaf lightly press your knuckle to the surface, if it clicks when you pull it away it is ready. Do not test using your finger tip as it will leave a print that will show through the leaf, or will remove the size from that area. Size will remain tacky for some time, though if leaving overnight make sure the surface is covered and dust free.

Applying the leaf is the tricky bit; you can get leaf in Gold coloured leaf through to genuine gold and a whole range of imitation leaf which Ill list at the end of this post. The genuine leaf will be richer in colour and finish, there are also different coloured metal leaves available such as blue and green shimmer effects. Leaf usually comes loose or is available as a transfer, (attached to tissue paper), making it easier to apply. Wear cotton gloves when handling to avoid tarnishing when working with silver or imitation gold, or try using talcum powder on your hands to make sure they are really dry.

Once the size is tacky, place the gold leaf on the object and brush it gently with a very soft brush. Lay the next sheet of leaf down so that it overlaps slightly, and repeat until the surface is covered. When applying to raised surfaces you may need to use small pieces of leaf to fill crevices first, and use a soft bristle brush to tamp the leaf into the grooves. To get a shiny metal finish, use a burnisher (this is a pen like tool with a smooth agate stone as a point. I personally use a stiff brush as it creates a softer effect for what I require.

At this stage leave it to dry and harden and then brush off any excess leaf particles. Varnish to protect or if you like it, use shellac for a rich warm gloss finish. Shellac has a golden glow to it that helps with an antique look finish if that’s the effect you are after.


Where do you get Gold Leaf from I hear you ask? Most art shops or even craft supply shops stock the imitation leaf which is perfectly fine as long as you varnish it as it will tarnish and go dark. Gordon Harris Art Supplies stock the German brand ‘Noris Schwabach’ range. You can get Genuine Gold Leaf which is Pure 24 carat, the Red Gold is 23 carat and the Yellow Gold is 21 carat gold. Its certainly not cheap and can be used on edible things like cakes too apparently. 

Variegated Leaf - This comes in Blue, Red, Green and Black.

Shellac comes in White, Ruby, Orange and Lemon athough here in New Zealand it is hard to come by anything other than the Ruby.

I use gold leaf a lot and its one thing I like to teach my students to use when I do my night school classes. Heres a couple pieces where i have incorporated it into my paintings

abstract long mixed media painting titled multicultural land by Collette Fergus


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Posted: Monday 22 February 2010


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