Want to learn how to make shell gold? What about how to use it?

Then join us as we show you how it’s done!

Table of Contents

Making And Using Shell Gold: From Shards To Shine

What is Shell Gold?

In art history and the craft of gilding, shell gold is gold paint given its color by very small pieces of real gold. This is typically obtained either from waste gold from goldsmithing and gilding, ground-up gold leaf, or fragments that have come off a gold-ground painting or other gilded objects.

The name comes from the medieval habit of using sea shells to hold pigments and paints (of all colors) while painting. More specifically, it derives from the mussel-shells which were originally used in Europe as the pan or dish in which the little lump of powdered gold paint would sit while it was being used.

A common source is the collecting and processing of flakes of elemental gold that have flaked away from a surface during the process of gilding it. Once the flakes of leftover gold – called “skewings” in the biz – have been gathered, they are mixed with a small amount of honey and ground together with a mortar and pestle until they become a powder.

The honey is then removed by placing this mixture in a bath of hot water, leaving the gold flakes to collect at the bottom. The upper layer of water is poured off and the process is repeated several times, the last few with deionized water.

Following the final rinse, the flakes are left to dry and once the water has nearly evaporated, a drop of concentrated gum arabic is added and mixed into the flakes, creating a basic paint with gold flakes/dust as a pigment. The paint may be applied to a surface using either a brush or the tip of a finger and can be “reactivated” as it were by only the moisture in an exhaled breath of air.

Shell gold and powdered gold are the two principal forms of gold used for making repairs to a surface that has been previously gilded but has been damaged and needs repairing.

Use & Appearance

Shell gold, the original gold-leaf paint, is generally supplied as a small rectangular tablet of finely powdered real gold mixed with a water-soluble binding medium.

The tablet form of gold is stuck down in a small round plastic pan using neutral gum or glue.

Shell gold is usually applied with a soft-hair brush like paint, and, when dry, has a finely-grained, matte finish. It can be brightened up quite a lot through burnishing, but it can never quite equal the brilliance of gold leaf itself.

When using shell or powdered gold, reserve a brush just for its use, so that you can avoid washing the gold down the drain – it’s expensive! Store the brush and shell gold tablet in the same plastic bag for this same reason.

Though expensive, shell gold is extremely useful and convenient for those who can’t be bothered to use gold leaf. This kind of gold leaf paint has been used extensively over many centuries for book illumination in Western and Eastern cultures.

Very fine shell gold can be used to create astonishingly delicate, shimmering detail over the top of paint that has already been applied. Because it’s easier to use in small or detailed areas than leaf gold, it can often be found as part of a complex design, retouching gold work, or a series of thin gold lines.

For this reason, it’s not generally used for large areas because it’s even more expensive per square centimeter than real leaf gold!

Shell gold comes in a variety of shades which in the UK at least are often romantically named in French:

  • ‘or jaune’ (‘yellow gold’) is a classic, expensive-looking 22-carat gold color
  • ‘or rouge’ (‘red gold’) has a warmer, more coppery hue
  • ‘or citron’ (‘lemon gold’) is a lovely light crisp yellow
  • ‘or vert’ (‘green gold’) is a cool shade that is useful for more subtle gilding effects among blues and greens

Making Gold Leaf Shell Gold

Now, here’s how you can make your own shell gold leaf paint at home!

What You Will Need

  • Gold leaf
  • Gum arabic/honey. A thick paste of gum Arabic or honey binds gold leaves to be ground into a paste. A few drops are all you need for grinding down a whole book of 25.
  • Flat-bottom ceramic plate
  • Filter cloth.
  • Purified water
  • Glass or ceramic bowls
  • Additional containers for storage (optional)

Step 1: Dissolving

Apply a few drops of thick gum/honey and spread over the flat surface of the plate with the side of your palm. Use this part of the palm to pick up a piece of gold leaf, tap, and grind it in a circular motion until the gold leaf fully dissolves into particles to form a paste before adding another leaf, and repeating the process for each leaf.

Step 2: Grinding

After you go through all the leaves, continue to grind the mixture for at least an hour. This part can be laborious but the longer you grind the finer the gold particle will be at the end.

Step 3: Washing

Wash everything from your hand back into the plate with water, and wash the edges of the plate back to collect every single precious particle of gold.

Step 4: Filtering

Pour the solution into a bowl through a fine filter cloth, add warm water, and rub a couple of times over to take out the entire solution into the other bowl. Then pour some water over the filter cloth and squeeze it to get any extra gold out.

Step 5: Decanting

Stir the bowl well and then cover, allowing it to sit for more than an hour to let the gold particles settle in the bottom. Then carefully pour the water into the second bowl.

Step 6: Draining

Stir the remaining mixture, then pour into the storage container of your choice, then cover, and leave it for 24 hours.

After this, the gold will settle completely at the bottom, and you can drain off the clear liquid and let the gold pigment air dry while covered. The dried pigment can then be kept in a dust-free manner indefinitely.

Final Words

So, there you have it! Hopefully, you are feeling ready and able to get busy with it yourself!

FAQs Shell Gold

Is gold Shell Real gold?

It is indeed made from real gold, though don’t go rushing to sell it off or anything.

What is shell gold used for?

Mostly for artistic purposes, specifically, areas where greater detail is required.

How do you make shell gold paint?

Through a process of grinding and ridding the gold leaf you have of any imperfections until you are left with a powder.

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