Ever wondered how your favorite artists have done it? What are some famous gold leaf art pieces? And how can you do it yourself at home?
All this and more as we explore the history and detail of gold leaf art!
Table of Contents
- Gold Leaf History in Art
- Modern Painting with Gold Leaf
- How to Apply Gold Leaf to Your Own Painting
- Final Words
- FAQs Gold Leaf Art
Gold Leaf History in Art
Gold leaf is not just a symbol of decadence now, it has always been!
At the time of ancient Greece, for example, gold leaf was used to decorate statues, the most famous of which were the chryselephantine statues, which were made primarily of ivory and gold leaf.
The bare parts of these statues – i.e. the arms, face, and legs – were made of ivory, while the robes, armor, hair, and accessories were covered with gold leaf. The chryselephantine statues not only required great skill on the part of their creators but also required ongoing and difficult maintenance.
From 400 AD onwards gold leaf illuminated manuscripts were being created in Constantinople, Ireland, and Italy.
These works included not only texts but also artistic decorations, such as initials, borders, and miniatures, often made with gold or silver leaf. Likewise, gold leaf was used in the paintings of the Middle Ages as a symbol, par excellence, of Christian art.
In the sacred paintings of the time, the sky was made using gold leaf, and this was called “gold-ground” painting. This technique reached its height around 1300, first in Italy and the Byzantine Empire, and then other European countries. Another widespread application for gold leaf was that of halos, which were used in iconoclastic representations to distinguish the sacred figures, but in some cases, especially in Greece, to depict commanders and heroes as well.
Modern Painting with Gold Leaf
Gold leaf was used by painters and artists to decorate some of their works, the most famous likely being Gustav Klimt. During what was retrospectively called his “golden phase”, the artist created a series of paintings with gold leaf and reached the pinnacle of his success.
In more modern times, gold continues to be used in art, especially in sculpture, cosmetics, and painting. In 2008, for example, Marc Quinn created a gold statue called Siren, depicting the model Kate Moss as a modern Aphrodite.
The statue, on display at the British Museum during the “British Statuefilia Exhibition” in the hall of the Nereids, was made with 18-carat gold, weighs a total of 50 kg, and is the largest sculpture created in gold since the time of the ancient Egyptians.
The use of color and gold next to each other is also highly appreciated for emphasizing the subjects in question, something we see with the American artist of Italian origin, Vic Vicini. Since 1998, he has been painting various subjects by accompanying his strokes of color with gold leaf.
How to Apply Gold Leaf to Your Own Painting
Now you’ve seen the masters do it, you’d be forgiven for wanting to give it a go yourself. Thankfully, help is at hand!
What You Will Need
- Gold leaf sheets (preferably Mona Lisa brand)
- Gold leaf adhesive
- Gold leaf sealant
If you don’t want to buy the special adhesive, you can use a thin layer of paint or varnish as the adhesive instead, though it can tear more easily. If you do use varnish as the adhesive, make sure that you don’t use it on top of the gold leaf or it will tarnish. Only apply it as the adhesive, not as a traditional varnish on top.
It is, however, important to get the specific sealant for gold leaf as this is the one product that will seal gold leaf without tarnishing it.
Step 1: Painting the Background Layer
The reason for beginning with the background layer instead of starting with gold leaf straight on the canvas is because sometimes you can see through the gold leaf after it’s been applied.
Paint your background layer and make sure it’s completely dry before moving on to the next step.
Step 2: Applying Adhesive
Gold leaf will stick to every part of the canvas where you apply adhesive, so keep that in mind when (and where) you’re brushing it on.
The key with gold leaf adhesive is to apply a light layer, for if it’s too wet it will create holes in the gold leaf. Just add the tiniest bit to your brush and lightly brush it across the canvas.
Remember, you can always paint over it!
Step 3: Applying Gold Leaf
Use a very light touch when handling the gold leaf – the thin sheets are extremely delicate. Try your best to lay it in a flat and even way – you can always correct it later down the line.
Step 4: Additional Gold Leaf
Gold leaf comes in fairly small sheets, so chances are you’ll need to add more to fill the entire area. To do this as seamlessly as possible, overlap the new sheet with the previous sheet.
Add a tiny bit of adhesive to the area that you want to overlap. This may tarnish the overlapping part of the existing sheet, but it will be covered up so it won’t be a problem for long.
Step 5: Removing Excess Gold Leaf
Once the gold leaf and adhesive are completely dry, you can start to remove the excess by brushing it away with an actual brush or a gentle motion of the finger.
Try to keep the extra gold leaf to use in future paintings either for patching up holes or as smaller flakes in a piece.
Step 6: Sealing the Gold Leaf
You’ll want to apply a generous amount of the gold leaf sealant on top of your gold leaf. It’s ok if it overlaps with your paint layers slightly, just try to keep it on the gold as much as possible.
So, there you have it! Hopefully, you are now feeling ready and able to give gold leaf art a go for yourself!
FAQs Gold Leaf Art
You would do it much as you would do any gold leafing, though with a more artistic touch here.
Some refer to it as gilding, though the use of gold leaf in art doesn’t technically have a name.
Many, though Rembrandt and Klimt come to mind as some of the more popular artists to do it.
You will need to seal the leaf each time you apply a new layer.