How to apply gold leaf to paper – part 1

pencil and gold leaf 3
pencil and gold leaf 3

I took some step-by-step photos of this ‘gold fairy’ as I did her. Couldn’t say I’m an expert gilder, but I have had a bit of practice by now and I’ve learnt one or two things, so I thought I’d write a little explanation for anyone interested.

Here (below) is the outline drawing. The circle is to be entirely gilded.

Pencil on paper
Pencil on paper

To gild on paper you need to stick the gold on with something. ‘Gold size’ is what the proper glue is called that the gold leaf is stuck on with, but the actual sort of gold size you use depends very much on what surface you are gilding. On paper, acrylic gold size is ideal – it’s not a traditional gold size, but one of those new-fangled modern things 😉 The size is painted on, allowed to dry a little until it is not wet, but still sticky enough to hold the gold leaf, and then the gold is applied to this sticky surface.

Gold comes in two forms: loose leaf, which is incredibly thin, fluttery and fragile, and a bit tricky to handle; and transfer leaf, which is gold leaf weakly bonded onto a sheet of waxed paper, which makes it much easier to handle. The problem is that with transfer leaf I’ve found you don’t get such a good finish because the gold never comes perfectly off the waxed paper.

When I used to use transfer leaf I used a gold size that stayed really sticky for ever, but that meant that the surface was always a little soft underneath the gilding and the surface was really easily damaged, scratched and just generally not very nice.  This one I am using now (picture below) is not nearly as sticky when it has dried, and eventually it stops being sticky at all.  Because it’s not so sticky it’s much better with loose leaf than it is with transfer leaf as loose leaf only needs the slight adhesion. Transfer leaf needs to be pulled off the waxed paper. All acrylic gold size formulations are not equal – and this is the one I have found that I like best: ‘Ormoline gilding medium’ made by C. Roberson & Co. It is pale pink. Watch your paintbrushes with this: it’s not as bad as some gold sizes but still, always rinse them out with water straight away, and never use your favourite painting ones!

acrylic gold size
acrylic gold size

The trickiest thing I find about gilding on paper is not applying the gold leaf, it’s about how you put the gold size on. The problem is that gold leaf is so thin it hides nothing about the surface you stick it to, and because it’s shiny it magnifies any imperfections. It will also really show up the difference between a thin layer of gold size where the texture of the paper is very clear to see, and a thicker layer of gold size where it is a smoother surface. Any tide marks as you apply the size, for instance, are going to be really visible once you put the gold leaf on.

In the past I have avoided tide marks and imperfections to a great extent by using masking fluid which I will cover sometime in another post. This time I decided to take advantage of them and make a feature of it. I thought tide marks would be fine as long as they were part of the design, so rather than just filling in the circle that is to be gilded by starting at one side and painting till I got to the other side, I began by painting gold size in concentric circles – you can see this below in pale pink lines:

painting gold size on in stripes
painting gold size on in stripes

I continued painting concentric circles until the whole circle was filled in, allowing edges to dry, going over again on some of the surface so that some circles got a couple of coats and so on. You can see this slightly below, but it will be a lot more obvious once it’s gilded. It also has the advantage that large areas of the paper aren’t wet all at once, so it reduces the amount that the paper cockles.

acrylic gold size on paper
acrylic gold size on paper

Below is a piece of gold leaf – the sheets of leaf, which are about 4 inches square, can be cut to size with a sharp knife on a the suede surface of a gilder’s cushion. I might cover this also in another post, but really briefly, the brush in the photo is a gilder’s tip, used to pick up gold leaf and lay it on the surface to be gilded, and you can pick up the gold by first brushing the gilders tip over your forehead where it will pick up enough grease from your face to just pick up the gold leaf. I am not making this up, it is the traditional method!

gold leaf and a gilders tip brush
gold leaf and a gilders tip brush

Here is the first piece of gold leaf on the paper. I use a soft, old, and now very mop-headed sable brush to gently tamp down the gold leaf all over onto the surface. You can buy specialized brushes for this, but it’s not nearly so necessary as a proper gilder’s tip.

first piece of gold leaf on the gold size
first piece of gold leaf on the gold size

Here (below) is the surface all covered with gold leaf now. Having gently tamped down all the gold, you can then use the same soft brush to brush off the excess bits of gold leaf.

Surface covered with gold leaf
Surface covered with gold leaf

And voilà! Now you can see what I mean about the imperfections in the painting on of the gold size. The concentric circles work as part of the effect – if it had been random tide lines it might have looked a bit of a pig’s ear, especially when you have to paint slowly around complex edges and faster around larger areas.

You can often see cracks and wrinkles in the gilding, but I rather like those – it gives it a genuine leaf look, unlike gold paint.

finished gilding on the paper
finished gilding on the paper

On the subject of gold paint, just a short note to say that I also painted in the sections between the fairy’s wings where they are in front of the gold disk, with ‘shell gold’. This is the most frighteningly expensive gold paint in the world, being made of pure gold powder, held together with a little gum Arabic. It looks like a tiny block of solid watercolour, which it really is, but at a price! The effect is too subtle to be something I would buy again, but since I have it…

pencil and gold leaf 1
a little shell gold

The finished picture: pencil and 24k* gold leaf, with pencil.

*(you can say ct or k for the carat / karat quality of gold. I believe ‘k’ is more American, however, I prefer it because it distinguishes between the karat quality of gold and the carat weight of diamonds, which is a completely different thing)

pencil and gold leaf 2
pencil and gold leaf 2
pencil and gold leaf 5
pencil and gold leaf 5
pencil and gold leaf 4
pencil and gold leaf 4


  1. This is extremely wonderful – I love working with gold leaf and paper. Love the way the texture shows upon yours! Here is somebody who does metal leafing on a grand scale:

    1. Thank you Christian 🙂 Love the aluminium leafed wall in your link. Not entirely convinced she ended up with a lot more reflection than the original white paint, but it looked really cool! Always fancied a wall covered in hand-gilded fleur-de-lys myself… but our 400 year old farmhouse doesn’t seem quite the setting…. which is probably just as well…. 😀

      1. Yes, it is quite interesting – if you scroll through her blog you will see some other incredible leafing projects – whole rooms. Monica sent me some REAL gold leaf a while back – it was white gold and I used it mounted on black Arches and then printed on it with my inkjet printer – it was gorgeous. Unfortunately there is absolutely no way to scan or photograph the stuff so that it show what it really looks like – at least I can’t do it! 🙂

        1. Yes I saw a blog you posted about printing on gold leaf – very interesting I thought. I can imagine the effect didn’t come out well in photographs – that is always the trouble with leaf. I took a video clip of one of my paintings with a gold background and I thought it was a rubbish video clip, but other people thought it was amazing as it was still the best demonstration of what the surface was really like.

  2. Mgon ♥

    Totally wonderful tutorial :o)
    Thank you for that extra how-to treat.
    Now if I could just afford those 24k sheets of gold. *smirk*

    1. Thank you Mgon! Yes, the gold leaf is not cheap… I think it comes in at about £25 for a book of leaves and it used to be abut £15 not many years ago, but a small amount still makes an impact. Platinum leaf however…. now £90 a book! :-O

      1. Mgon ♥

        I had no idea they actually have platinum, too. Wow. I wonder if there is much of a difference between using platinum and silver.

        1. The main difference will be that silver will always eventually tarnish, and platinum will not, but you can also get white gold (an alloy of gold and other stuff), and palladium which are cheaper than platinum, and of course aluminium leaf which is very cheap, and those won’t tarnish either…

          1. Mgon ♥

            Oh yeah. Well that makes perfect sense. Thanks for the extra explanations there. After all, just because it’s being used in art does not change the natural characteristics of the metal. I would have realized that if I had thought it through more and not got lost in the art aspect of it :o)

            1. interestingly… and this is getting really nerdy now… silver did not used to tarnish. At least, it did not used to go black in the atmosphere, it would tarnish slowly I imagine, but the black is silver sulphide, and most of the sulphur in the atmosphere is since we took to burning coal….

  3. i actually find that the gold ink from Windsor newton is really really good too. (Looks like leaf)

    1. Yes there are a lot of very good imitation gold products on the market… but the problem is I actually used to be a goldsmith: I just can’t quite see imitation gold the same way 😉

  4. I’m impressed yet again by the quality and clarity of your instructions. And by your results, of course. Brilliant!

    1. Thank you Mrs Daffodil! I am very pleased to hear you like the instructions, because I often fear I go on a bit much, it makes a difference if i know somebody appreciates it 🙂

  5. […] Here is ‘Three’s a Crowd’, step-by-step but only in pictures. If you would like to see more about applying the gold leaf, have a look at this recent post: […]

  6. Thank you so much, Nancy – this has been extremely helpful for an amateur like myself. I’ve been researching using gold leaf, shell gold etc., and yes, shell gold is terrifyingly expensive. Thankfully, you’ve made the gold leaf method so much easier to comprehend. Again, thank you!

    1. Thanks. And yes, shell gold is not only expensive, it is also rather subtle in its effect – I have tried it, and even after burnishing it’s not amazingly impressive considering the cost.

  7. Hi Nancy I haven’t done gilding in a while. My adhesive size is water based. Do you think I can thin it out with a bit with water? Do you ever need to thin out your size at all? I just wondered what to use to thin out the size a bit. Thanks.

    1. Hi Karen, just try some and see what happens! If you thin it out too much it might not be very sticky, but if you’re using loose leaf and not transfer leaf you don’t need much stick… though personally I find you get a more even finish by putting the size on thick so it evens out and you don’t get brush marks and places where the texture of the paper shows more than in other places.

  8. Karen Rogers

    Thank you SO much for your generous demo! It’s people like you that make the internet so grand.

    1. Thank you Karen! 🙂


    Dear Nancy, This is such a wonderful tutorial…..many thanks….I am just starting out…and your suggestions and walking us through the process… has made me feel ‘i can do it’. 🙂 from ten thousand miles way in India….

    1. Thank you Brinda! I wish you have lots of success and fun 🙂

  10. Elizabeth Cox

    I have just purchased a few gold leaf pages. In my innocence I thought u would carefully use any glue that you had handy. Can I? I am making a crown for a frog (ha) . I have drawn it on a piece of paper. Do I draw it on the gold leaf?? I am too nervous to open the packet and try it. It is Fimo gold leaf and I have 10i sheets in the packet. The crown will only be about two inches… Help

    1. hello! I’m not famillar with fimo gold leaf, but leaf comes in two sorts: loose leaf and transfer leaf. Transfer leaf is lightly stuck onto a waxed paper backing and is easy to handle, though needs a stickier glue to stick it down. Loose leaf is very floaty and needs careful handling, but only the merest amount of stickiness to stick it down with. Have you got real gold leaf? If imitation gold it will be probably be thicker and easier to handle, which will make your job easier but of course it will tarnish over time unless you varnish it. As far as glue is concerned – actually all you really need is some kind of surface that will be mostly dry but a tiny bit still sticky, so yes, you could probably use a lot of things not actually sold as gold size. Hope that helps. You have 10 sheets, be brave and open the packet, you have up to 9 to mess up! 😉 …experimenting is good….

  11. I can’t tell you how helpful this has been. I’m a poet and photographer and have been experimenting with writing on my prints, often with gold paint, but this morning the idea of using real gold leaf popped into my head and I ordered some sheets before I had any idea of how to use it! I don’t even know if it’s loose leaf or transfer leaf, so will have to wait till it arrives. Thanks to you I now know I’ll have to get some size, or other sticky medium to paint over the photo first. It could all go horribly wrong, but it will go less wrong now I’ve read you post. Thank you!

    1. Thank you Eryl! I am happy to have helped. I am still experimenting with what I can do with gold leaf (and other metal leaf), the painting I’m working on at the moment is an experiment and this is years later…. Have fun!

  12. Christina

    Great article, really helpful, thank you.

    1. Thank you! …do I mention in the article that breathing on the pink gold size, just before you lay the gold leaf down re-activates the stickiness? If not, it does help! Just did a large piece for someone with a lot of leafing…

Tell me what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s