This page is about water-based gold leaf technique, suitable for use on paper, parchment, vellum etc. By contrast, outdoor gilding, signwriting, verre églomisé etc are all specialised techniques usually involving oil-gilding – which still uses standard gold leaf supplies but requires different tools, materials and method to get the leaf to stick on and stay on.
Any gold leaf technique – water or oil – is a function of gold leaf being startlingly thin, lightweight and fragile. It's so thin it's translucent; a whole leaf blows away across the room on a breath. And that character of gold leaf is determined by its manufacturers and users agreeing on the sweet spot between cost and practicality.
So before I get into details further down the page, I want to share the following morsel of wisdom. It's cheaper (and far more rewarding) to invest in the right tools to handle gold leaf than it is to keep wasting gold for years. A gilder's tip (broad brush for picking it up), cushion and knife make gold leaf technique easier and simpler. I tell you this as one who did waste gold leaf for years :-)
Now to the details.
Calligraphic gold leaf techniques divide pretty much into raised gilding and flat gilding.
Raised gilding is the kind where the gold looks like a smooth, solid lump on the page. It's 3D, and reflects the light very lusciously. It can be decorated with little indentations (tooled) for a more glittery effect.
Raised gilding in books and on pages is a variation on the most traditional gold leaf technique, water-gilding. So first up below is a Renaissance-type version of water-gilding. You can use this method directly on any rigid support (wood, board etc) or on rigidly mounted paper or skin. On flexible supports, it tends to crack, and come off.
After water-gilding, I'll discuss more briefly the variations on the technique which are used to create raised gilding on flexible supports such as paper or skin. This along with flat gilding is the technique of most interest to most calligraphers.
Flat gilding is just that: flat. It can look amazing: more nuanced and subtle than raised gilding, but also capable of appearing very dramatic in large areas. On the whole, it's easier to achieve, too.
Ah, the breathless mystique of water-gilding. How long I lived in fear and awe of this supremely focused art which marries intricate manual dexterity with split-second timing and the cool focus of a Zen martial arts master.
So. Finally I took the plunge and learned water-gilding in person from a tutor in Renaissance painting techniques, using Renaissance-style materials. As a result I can tell you that if you are able to:
then you were born to excel in water-gilding.
I'm going to give just a rough outline of the technique, as the basis for more calligraphy-friendly gold leaf techniques outlined below.
You will need at least 3 days, and: a support; gesso; gilding bole; cruddy brush for applying bole; preferably 2 grades fine sandpaper (as fine as it goes and one grade coarser will do); book of loose gold leaf; gilder's tip, cushion & knife – or else supreme genius in handling gold leaf with something other than the proper tools; water containing a few drops of size (usually rabbit-skin glue); a soft medium artist's brush (eg squirrel); a burnisher, preferably agate or haematite. Actually, a good novel too, for the waiting periods.
Here is how:
That's it. The slow and painstaking preparation of the surface, the laborious yet super-rapid application of water and gold, and the overnight drying stages all go some way to explaining why water-gilding seems (to me) the scariest gold leaf technique.
But it gives the best results. Bole burnishes to a mirror-like-gloss, and the gold adhering to it then looks amazing. Let me show you a photo from the class ... here we are.
It looks a bit scratchy because it is a bit scratchy: I did not use the super-fine sandpaper for those few extra hours (or, possibly, days) necessary to make the underlying bole surface absolutely smooth. But I can still see my face in the result. That is what 'mirror-like finish' means: creating a golden looking-glass.
Minus the gesso layers to start with (which are usually there as a painting base or to even up rough surfaces or create forms in picture frames), you can use the above water-gilding method in small quantities on flexible supports such as pages, but be warned that the bole may crack. The cracking can be a feature of course. Also, dabbling about with water on pre-written pages is not a good idea.
Therefore, adjustments are made to the technique as follows:
The gesso is made even smoother (gesso sottile) and combined with the bole
A flexible glue, traditionally fish-glue, is used, so the gesso doesn't crack or spring off the page as it flexes during turning or because of humidity warping
A humectant (water-attracter) is added to the gesso sottile
Several manufacturers have come up with products that promise to make raised gilding super-easy and effortless blah blah compared with water-gilding. They are not necessarily better, not effortless, but they are easier and far quicker.