Nov 04 2008

Golden Inspirations: Gold Leaf Painting

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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:

15 responses so far

15 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

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