Nov 04 2008

Golden Inspirations: Gold Leaf Painting

Published by

gold leaf sheet

Today, I turn my attention to the glory of Gold Leaf. This is a traditional media which has been in practice some 5000 years, beginning in ancient India.

Gold leaf is manufactured by hammering real gold into paper-thin sheets.  Today, faux versions of gold (actually made from copper) makes the practice of using it much less cost prohibitive.

madonna con bambino

Gold leaf was widely used during the great dynasties of Egypt, as well as in Eastern and Western Europe, evidenced by Byzantine icons and medieval altarpieces.  It is still popularly used in religious art, in both the west and the east, due to the fact that it’s luminous hue and brilliance gives an enlightening appearance to almost any image it is paired with.

heron, song dynasty

Asia has utilized gold-leaf backgrounds in their fine paintings of animals and nature for throughout generations of dynasties, and hundreds of years. These fine renditions of wild life are still their most popular form of art.

Gustav Klimt is the most famous artist of the 20th century to have used gold leaf as a primary aspect of his expression.

Images of nature become iconic expressions of beauty when the details are isolated against the warm and brilliant tones of gold (click to view enlargements).

Gold leaf was traditionally paired with egg-tempera painting, a method that used egg yolks as the pigment binder, and was a predecessor to the creation of oil paints.  Oil glazes also work very well above gold-leaf, allowing the gold to shine through thin veils of paint.

Gold leaf can also be paired with acrylic painting.  Even small fragments of gold leaf within a composition can add sparkle to the whole canvas.  It can be worked into abstract paintings, as well as those that focus on representational themes.

Compositions built around white have a classic effect when paired with gold.  Artist and illustrator, Jackie Morris frequently employs gold leaf backgrounds in her paintings, which range from humorous rabbits to elegant birds.

More Mixed Media Artists who incorporate Gold Leaf into their work:

Patricia Miranda and Julia Garcia

Annie Howell-Adams

Laura Barkley and Bettina Hartas

Selena Trieff and Theresa Abel

Erica Steiner

Here’s a couple of my own experiments that utilize gold leaf:

In “Thistle Garden”, I used a type of variegated gold leaf, which has a pattern of greens and copper, as well as gold tones.  This was paired with oils on plexiglass.

In my painting, “A State of Grace”, I used copper leaf, silver leaf, and less traditional mediums including a glue texture, powdered copper, and shavings from steel picture frames (the left over dust from a frame store I worked at).  This was created on reverse-glass.  The top layer is painted with oil on glass.

Art Inspiration Articles:
View the index of all of my articles that are created specifically for class projects:

26 responses so far

26 Responses to “Golden Inspirations: Gold Leaf Painting”

  1. Nice entry about gold leaf….I just wanted to add that sometimes I try to make gold leaf leaf look spontaneous….it is anything but that. It is a strong element to work with….also like painting over it with transparent paint.

  2. Maggie Lane says:

    Can you tell me where i can get books or instructions on gold leaf painting.
    Thank You

  3. Kate says:

    Hi there. Great work. I’m curious. How do you keep your oil paint from peeling off the surface of the glass?


    • Robin says:

      Hi Kate.

      You might be surprised, but the glass doesn’t need any special preparation to receive the paint. My experience is that it slides around a little for the first paint application (i.e., is more transparent than preferred), but once the first coat dries, newer applications of paint grab onto the previous layers. However, getting gold leaf to stick to the glass is a little trickier since the adhesive is almost water-thin. For this, I believe I had to stipple the gold-leaf adhesive on with a stenciling brush or small sponge (to keep it from running off of the glass). Also, it is just a little bit easier for paint to stick to plexiglass than glass (though I’ve used both with success).

  4. Dan Jenkins says:

    great work! In researching gold leaf techniques in Asia for my work, I discovered that prior to using more modern adhesives, gold leaf was applied using garlic oil. As this is mostly transparent and very sticky, it seems to have worked well over the centuries. I’m currently preparing a gold leaf/plexiglass drawing from the Thai Ramakien for exhibit in September 2011. Hope this helps anyone trying new ways of getting the gold leaf to stick to glass, or plexiglass.

    • Robin says:

      Thanks so much for your comment about using garlic oil as an adhesive for gold leaf, Dan. I meant to reply to this earlier… still haven’t tried this trick. But once I get my hands on some garlic oil, I’ll give it a try and comment on the post if it works! Certainly nice to know there is a natural product that can be used, especially since the commercial adhesive ruins brushes!

  5. Jacqueline Mraz says:

    Robin and Posters Here:

    Thanks so much for this. I am trying to figure out how to use gold leaf painting on fruit papyrus, and this is very, very helpful. I am aiming, first, for a Klimt-ish effect.

    For a material like papyrus–you can see some examples at Hiromi Paper’s website and also from the covers of Maureen Richardson’s book that is sold at Carriage House Papers in Brooklyn, might actual sheet gold leaf be possible?

    Have any of you tried to use edible gold leaf is what I am asking–you can see Dean and Deluca’s and others’ gorgeous gold leaf in this regard on[.]

    I am interested in making edible art for Klimt that is just too delicious to eat. I know that this wish will take a long time to come to pass. But I am glad I found this forum. It is part of my start.


  6. Robin says:

    I apologize, Jacqueline, but I’ve never tried edible gold leaf or even worked with any form of edible art. I wish I could help. I hope that you will post your experiments when you have something to show.

  7. Lane says:


    I have been doing some research on gold leafing plexiglass. I noticed that one of your works (beautiful by the way) did just that. Did you use a reverse gilding technique with gold on the back of the art? Did you have to use something other than sizing?

    I’d appreciate any insight you have.



    • Robin says:

      Hi Lane. Sorry it’s taken me a while to review and respond to your comment. Sometimes I do the metallic leaf on the front of the glass, and sometimes on the reverse, depending on the effect I am attempting. In the two images that I created which are linked to this article, I did the metallic leaf on the reverse, and I simply used the adhesive size that I buy at the craft store (Mona Lisa brand, if I remember correctly). Because it is being done on a slick surface, I have to coat it at least a couple times to make sure that all areas are evenly covered.

  8. Susan says:

    What a wonderful forum! I hope someone can give me some guidance:
    Oil Painting on Gold leaf:
    I would like to use oil paint over the top of gold leaf on panel. Does anyone know if I need to have an intermediary layer and if so – what suggestions can you make. The archival nature of my paintings is very important to me. I need to be sure the oil paint will not peel off or be compromised in any way.

    Any suggestions, advice or direction would be very much appreciated.

    • Robin says:

      Hi Susan. I would suggest covering the gold leaf with metallic leaf sealer before painting directly on it. Mona Lisa brand creates a sealer that you can often find at your local arts/crafts supplier, or you can find it online (along with other brands, though this is the one I most commonly see). When I didn’t have the official “sealer” in my possession, I’ve even used polyurethane to seal, but I’m not certain that it is as archival. The water-based Polycylic that I use does not yellow, in my experience (and since it is created as a floor varnish, it creates a hard surface which is actually ideal for painting on without fear of it peeling off). Good luck, and feel free to share an image of your results. I’d love to see it!

      • Susan says:

        Thank you so much for the information Robin. I appreciate your suggestions and will certainly look into the products you mention.
        Yes I will post my painting once complete. Thank you so much again

    • carol santigy says:

      i also want to use oil paint on panel over gold leaf. nancy reyner is a great resource, she has some youtube videos and also this link talks about painting over gold leaf w oils.

      she says

      “If you are overpainting the leaf with oil paint, you have a choice to 1) seal over the leaf before you apply your oil paint, or 2) apply oil paint over unsealed leaf, then seal at the very end over both leaf and oil paint when dry. To seal over the leaf before you apply oil paint, use a permanent sealer, as opposed to a removable varnish sealer. The varnish I recommend in the video, Goldens Archival Varnish Gloss is removable, and therefore you should not put this under oil paint, (as solvents added to oil paint could redissolve the varnish.) You can use Goldens Archival Varnish Gloss (or any solvent based varnish or sealer) OVER the final painting at the end, over leaf and paint as a final coat. If using imitation gold leaf then you MUST seal at some point within 6 months after application, so it will not tarnish from exposure to air. Avoid using waterbased sealers (like Golden’s Polymer Varnish) at any stage when using imitation gold leaf and/or oil paint. Check with the company that makes your leaf to see if they carry an appropriate sealer.”

  9. Dede says:

    Dear Robin, lovely to find this website your work is inspiring, and thank you for being so generous to fellow artists with your wisdom and experience, its so kind of you and much appreciated. I wonder might I ask following on from Susans query above, if using imitation gold leaf, what would you suggest as a layer between that and oil painting on top of it?

    And re varnishing, would you suggesting varnishing over the entire finished piece, oils on imitation gold leaf or beautiful real gold leaf, and if so what type of varnish would you recommend? Some say shellac and others a mixture of matte and gloss, again, archival longevity is important. It seems opinion is divided on whether varnish is necessary on a painting on real gold leaf.

    So very grateful in advance for any clarification you might be able to give me, Im googling in circles!

    Best wishes, Dede

    • Robin says:

      Hi Dede. Thank adding to this forum with your questions. If archival treatment is of importance, I would suggest using a clear acrylic medium between the metallic leaf and your application of oil paint. There are so many acrylic mediums on the market that it’s confusing to know which to use. Both Golden and Liquitex are excellent brands. Which one you choose might also depend on the surface you are using. For instance, if painting on a rigid surface such as wood, Golden creates a product called GAC 200 which is best for rigid supports. If using a flexible support such as canvas, GAC 500 would be a better choice. (you can order directly from the company or from dickblick or cheapjoes, etc).

      I recently discovered the writings and videos of Nancy Reyner, whom I consider an expert in combining mixed-media painting with metallic leaf. She wrote a book called “Acrylic Illuminations: Reflective and Luminous Acrylic Painting Techniques”. I consulted this book, which suggests using a “solvent-based clear gloss acrylic” before applying the acrylic medium. She notes that most companies that create metallic leaf products also sell solvent-based varnishes that are formulated as sealers (I’ve seen that Mona Lisa brand has one, though I’ve only seen it sold in tiny bottles). Ms. Reyner also mentions a Golden brand product called MSA Varnish, which is specially formulated for archival artworks.

      Of course, these products I’m mentioning are for use with acrylic paint , but they can be used underneath oil layers as well (remember that contemporary artists usually paint oils on top of acrylic gesso, so it’s basically the same idea). However, you do NOT want to use any acrylic-based mediums on top of the oil layers. When sealing the oil layers, you will need to use a varnish formulated for oil. These are available from a wide variety of companies that make artists materials, and I haven’t done enough research on this to make a suggestion.

      I found another forum about gold leaf painting where the consensus seems to be that a shellac is the best way to seal oil painted on top of metallic leaf: “A dewaxed shellac. Zinsser Bullseye Sealcoat for example is just dewaxed blond shellac – it will add a barely detectable yellow tone, as will any shellac. An amber shellac will add quite a bit of tone. Bullseye’s sold in Home Depot, but I’m as comfortable using it as a hand-mixed cut, for any art work. You can make your own with dewaxed shellac and alcohol.” I cannot attest to how archival shellacs are, but I think it’s a worthy experiment!

      Please post your results if you can, after you’ve done some work. 😉

      • Dede says:

        Robin, you’re just wonderful, thank you so much for such an indepth and well thought out reply to my ramblings, that is beyond kind and Im so grateful and cannot wait to try out work on gold leaf this year. I will definitely keep in the loop with you and let you know of anything else I glean or learn. I gather for varnishing the final piece the general way of thinking is to avoid gloss as the oil painting becomes a little indistinguishable from its background, unless thats the effect being sought, and that 50/50 gloss to matte is the way forward. I love the Golden products for and look forward to using them in this context too.

        Bless you and thank you, I hope your work continues to flow, again thank you so much for sharing your learnings and experience, so kind. Will be in touch, Dede

        • Robin says:

          You’re welcome, Dede. Looking forward to seeing what you might share after you get some experiments done. I will also be getting back into metallic leaf painting soon. I’ve been more involved with my jewelry than painting lately (due to what pays the bills), but the slowed down tempo of winter should afford me more creative time with the paints and I have a lot of ideas brewing!

  10. Susie Pastor says:

    Thank you all for this information. I am 77 and have finally some time for my love of painting – anything everything. I ham suffering from COPD and AFIB which will limit my length of productive time. But thank God I have a home and husband who understands my creative needs. I just recently started thinking about painting again after a double mastectomy and other such related problems. First of all I used gold leaf wayyyyy backkk when. Now I Need to know where there might be a source I have to be able ot order on line. I am praying starting the gold leaf project I have in mind will cheer me up and let me think plrasant creative thoughts. I live in Cannon Beach Oregon and have all the utensels needed with the exception of the leaf. Which catalog should I use or what website. etc. I will share this old lady’s first attempt at “getting back into living” when I finish. Again thank you all for sharing your gorgeous work. Susie

    • Robin says:

      Hi Susie. I’m glad to know that you will be getting back into your creativity… it’s the best way to heal from anything, in my opinion. There are many online sources for art supplies that include metallic leaf. I use “composition leaf” as it is much less expensive than real silver or gold, looks the same, and actually easier to handle. Blicks Art Supply has very good prices. Please do share your results!

  11. Dede says:

    Robin a quick question – I have prepared panels by watergilding real gold leaf, and someone mentioned that it should have been oil sized instead in order to paint in oils on top of it.. I didnt think this to be the case, would you be able to advise me? big thank you, once again, Dede

    • Robin says:

      Hi Dede. I am not a true expert on the subject of mixing metallic leaf and painting (I’m just an experimenter myself, though I’ve read up on it a bit). I doubt that it matters much if you use a water-gilded technique or oil size on the metallic leaf before applying paint. Remember that the metallic leaf is a barrier between the paint and it’s adhesive. What would be more important is what you use as a barrier between the metallic leaf and the paint. The metallic leaf should definitely be sealed before applying paint. Since you obviously spent a lot of money on real gold leaf, I think it warrants doing some experimenting. I’d suggest a small sample (or even a few small samples) with different sealers over the metallic leaf to see how the oil paint on top of it reacts. I made a suggestion in your earlier comment regarding different kinds of polymer mediums, as well as a MSA Varnish recommended by Nancy Reyner (who wrote the book on combining metallic leaf and painting in Acrylic Illuminations). I have even used Polycrylic over metallic leaf (it’s intended as a floor varnish, so it’s tough.. and it doesn’t yellow).. though I probably wouldn’t use it on real gold (I’ve only used the composition leaf so far). Good luck and please post your results!

  12. Dede says:

    Youre so good Robin, Im going to have a play with different suggestions and I will definitely come back with any good findings!Thanks a million again , for all your great help. Will be in touch, Dede

Leave a Reply