Gold leaf is one of the most beautiful decorative embellishments for art and architecture. Artisans have been applying gold leaf (gilding) to add brilliance to their paintings and decorative arts for over 4,000 years.
Examples can be found in Egyptian tomb paintings, in ancient Chinese folk craft, in European religious icons of the 15th century and in large-scale Japanese paintings of the 16th century that incorporated colorful nature motifs set against gold leaf.
Inspired by this long history of gilding, I frequently incorporate gold leaf in my own paintings. I love the luminosity the metal leaf adds to my paintings. The color reflected by the metallic surface changes with the varied lights that strikes it, creating an ephemeral shift in the mood of the painting. Life is created as the tone of reflections transform when the viewer changes position.
The “leaf” I use is actually a thin sheet of metal; gold, silver, copper, or alloy mixtures, and it’s made by pounding metal into sheets so thin they could float on air. Pure gold leaf, of 22 karat or higher, resists tarnishing and does not require sealant. But the more affordable composition leaf, made of copper and zinc alloys, must be sealed with a varnish to prevent tarnishing.
The method of applying metal leaf has remained pretty much the same for thousands of years, and it’s really very simple. A tacky sizing is applied over a colored basecoat. Traditionally, a red, black or ochre basecoat is used, but any color desired for a particular project is fine. After the size is dry, which usually takes about one hour, the gold or metal leaf is gently pressed into the tacky size. Any loose particles are then brushed away, and the surface is gently burnished. A varnish is applied if needed, and patinas or washes may be added to tone down the bright gold or give an aged effect.
One of the better-known 20th century painters who used gold leaf in his painting was Gustav Klimt. Gilding was featured in a number of his popular paintings, such as “The Kiss (Lovers),” (at top left) which is an oil and gold leaf piece on canvas made in 1908–1909.
Some of my favorite contemporary painters who successfully use gilding in their artwork include:
Artist, Sara Conca perfectly describes her use of gilding in her art:
“My work features gold. I love working with this color because it changes in the light, and I can manipulate the textures and layering, thus affording each piece movement and energy from the reflecting and refracting light,” she said.
Ora Sorensen (orasorensen.com) was born in New York but grew up overseas in such countries as Libya, Turkey, Iran, Holland and Thailand. Her paintings are collected worldwide and have been shown in numerous exhibitions.