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Basic Gilding with Acrylic Gesso

By Madame Elizabeth de Nevell

All the tastes and purposes that medieval painting served made the use of metals an integral part of its technique. Of all metals used in period illumination, gold was the most significant. Not only for its associations, its power to suggest richness and splendor, not only for its color, not only for its luster and permanence, but for all of then together. In fact the term "illumination" means "to decorate with gold" and has evolved over time to it’s broader usage of the medieval illustrated page. The medieval painter and/or illuminator along with his patrons joined in an enthusiasm for this precious metal that resulted in some of the most charming effects in the painting of the Middle Ages.

 Types of Gold

  • Gold Leaf – lose leaf sheets of between 22k - 24k gold.

  • Patent Gold Leaf– sheets of 22k gold are adhered to a thin sheet of tissue paper by controlling humidity in the manufacturing process.  Sometimes called student gold. 

  • Composite Gold Leaf – lose sheets of composite metals achieving a gold color, often 10k gold.

  • Shell Gold – shell gold is gold powder suspended in gum arabic and formed into a tablet.

 A Modern Acrylic Gesso for Illumination

 "Gesso" is a generic term traditionally used to describe any plaster based ground used for priming or preparing surfaces to be painted, "Gilding Base" is also another descriptive term. Varieties of gesso recipes evolved for specific purposes, one of that was a base to which gold leaf would adhere and burnish up. Modern acrylic gesso is made for priming canvases and other surfaces, but should NOT be confused as a substitute for the type of traditional gilding base.[3]  To create the gesso used in this class a modern recipe passed down by Meisterin Katarina Helene von Schönborn, OL to her students was used.

  • 1 part sugar water (the sticky part that allows the gold to adhere)

  • 4 parts liquitex acrylic gesso (adds the bulk to your gesso)

  • 5 parts liquitex gloss varnish medium (keeps the gesso together, hardening with a smooth finish)

  • Color to suit (red for work with gold and blue for silver)

 Steps for a project with gilding

  1. Layout – Pencil in the layout for your project on the foundation.

  2. Calligraphy & Ink – Do the calligraphy and ink needed areas of your border.

  3. Lay the Gesso – Start your area of gesso in the middle of your design and pull it outwards towards the edges*.  It is ideal to let this gesso dry for 6-8 hours. DO NOT to get air bubbles in your gesso when you stir. Gently fold your gesso to remix it.  If you do have air bubbles in your laid gesso there will be pits in the surface after it dries.  To remove the bubbles from gesso that you’ve just laid take a pin and gently pop them before it begins to dry.  It has been my experience that the key to beautiful raised gilding is an even surface tension to the "bubble" of gesso that you lay down.  To create an even surface tension to your gesso you should first drop a large puddle of the gesso into the space you will be gilding, then using your brush pull the edges of the puddle outwards to the fill your designed space.  This gesso is not designed for flat gilding and your design should be filled in with puddles of the gesso that create small domes on your page.

  4. Gild – Lean into your project and “huff” onto the dried gesso.  When doing so, you want to make sure you use deep full breaths getting the moist air from your lungs onto the gesso.  This "huffing" is done in order to remoisten the sugar so that your gold can adhere to the gesso.  Carefully place the leaf over the area and rub down firmly with a burnisher. You will need to apply several layers of gold, the first couple bond during burnishing with the gesso, and in the following layers the gold  bonds the gold together on a molecular level creating a thin layer of gold which can be polished to a high shine. Peel back the tissue paper and shine with a smooth silk cloth. (These are instructions for working with patent gold, minor changes may apply when using loose leaf.)  If you are using an agate burnisher you can burnish directly on the gold.

  5. Paint – Always paint last as gold leaf will usually stick to any painted surfaces.


  Bibliography & Recommended Reading

 1.        De Hamel; “Illuminated Manuscripts”; Phaidon Press Limited, Longdon, 2000

2.        Grafe, Joyce; “Secreta: Three meathods of Laying gold leaf”; Taplinger Publishing Company, New York, 1985

3.       Schultz, Helen; “A Modern Spin on Traditional Gesso”, http://meisterin.katarina.home.insightbb.com/gesso.html, accesses January 4, 2003

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