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.
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!
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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…
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)