Technique Tuesday: Gilding

Michele Kortbawi Wilk “Sovereign Wish – Ocelot” 20×20, Oil on Canvas with Silver Leaf

What is it?

Gilding is known as the application of extremely thin sheets of gold in a layer on a surface of wood, metal, glass, or various other objects for decorative purposes. Artists have also been known to use silver, palladium, and other metals for gilding surfaces as well. This technique is achieved by first applying an adhesive called “sizing”. You then wrangle a sheet of the leaf, attempting to not let it float away (the leaf is only a few millionths of an inch thick) and place it on the sized surface. After the leaf placed, you can use a brush to break off the loose bits that are not stuck to the surface. For artwork, you’ll want to seal the top of the leaf with a gold leaf sealer or acrylic top coat. Looking back through the ages, gold has had an appeal in practically all cultures and has shown up in one form or other in their art. Let’s take a look at how gold leafing has been used over the years!

Examples in art history:

The first known use of gilding is in the 23rd century BCE on the tombs of Ancient Egyptians and their reliefs. While the Ancient Greeks did not gild their statues, instead using sheets of gold over a timber framework, the Romans learned from the Greeks the essentials of gilding and began to gild the ceilings of their buildings. The popularity of gilding exploded and soon could be found everywhere in Rome, even in the houses of the poor. Depending on the part of the world, gilding varied. In Western Europe, silver leaf was more popular and in China bronze was their choice of metal. Gilding became even more popular than ever when the renaissance began. Gilding was used in paintings to depict holiness, add extra dimension, and to add light to a painting in a way paint could not. Today, gold leaf is applied to a variety of items from paintings, to frames for artwork, to cars, to store windows, and more.

(top row) Funerary Mask of Psusennes; Iowa State Capitol interior based on Roman capitols; Johann Jacob Kirsten, Silver Gilt toilette set – (bottom row) “Inhabited Initial D”, c. 1170s; Giovanni di Paolo, “Branchini Madonna”, 1427; Gustav Klimt, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I”, 1907

Examples at Principle Gallery:

We feature an array of artists with varying techniques, but only few dabble in leafing. Michele Kortbawi Wilk uses leaf in almost every painting she creates! Wilk begins with a blank canvas then carefully and strategically places a layer of silver and/or gold leaf where she intends to not paint. Once the leafing has adhered, she begins to paint in the spaces she has left blank. Her vibrant and realistic painting combined with the leafing creates an outstanding painting, illuminated by the leaf to be enjoyed by all!

(left to right) Michele Kortbawi Wilk “The Waggish”, “Precipice – Snow Leopard”, “Game of Thrones – Tiger”