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Working With Gold Leaf (Or, Wombats Don't Poop Gold)
Working With Gold Leaf (Or, Wombats Don't Poop Gold)Wombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
I hate gold leaf.
Don't get me wrong, I work with it a lot. I love the way it looks in a painting. I love the texture you get out of it, and I love the end results.
I just hate pretty much everything about working with it.
Still, I'm not scared of it any more, and that's important, because I think a lot of people would love to work with it, but are afraid, either because it looks fiddly and complicated or fiddly and expensive or fiddly and inclined to leap off the board and go for your throat.
I was scared of it for many years myself. My parents, who are artists, fooled around with it during my teenage years, and mostly what I remember is lots of floating metal flakes in the air and muttering about the expense and while some of the paintings were Very Very Cool (and the marble sculpture with the weird copper leafing was awesome) there was also a fair amount of gold leaf scraps turning up in the chili and the macaroni and the salad and stuck to people and so forth.
However, one day I got a vague urge to fool around with metallic colors. I tried metallic paints, and they just didn't do it. I tried "Liquid Leaf" and it was more metallic paint. I mean, it's cool stuff for what it is, but it doesn't look anything like gold leaf. Gold leaf is all… textural. It had cracks and fissures and spots and breaks. Liquid Leaf looks like a nicely opaque gold paint.
Fabric paint meant for silk comes in some awesome colors, include an intense metallic copper, and I definitely recommend adding it to the artistic arsenal, but it still didn't look like gold leaf.
At the end of the day, nothing looks like gold leaf except gold leaf.
I bit the bullet, went to the store, bought a thing of metallic flakes from Michael's and a bottle of adhesive. It wasn't terribly expensive, because I wasn't using REAL gold, which you can buy in wee tiny sheets and which can run sixty bucks or more. My advice is not to bother until you're comfortable with using leaf in general.
So, let's start with the basics.
So! Let's say you want a gold leaf background for a painting. I did a whole series with gold leaf backgrounds.
First thing is to paint the background a color. I suggest a color that goes with gold. Red is the usual -- red is the background used in classical Renaissance gold leaf stuff -- but I've had good luck with hot orange. My personal favorite is cadmium orange acrylic, followed by a coat of transparent red oxide, followed by leaf.
Don't leave it blank white. Trust me. There are always gaps and cracks and whatnot, and you need something that will show through attractively, and unless you've got a composition arranged to use white as a main color, it's unlikely this'll look good.
Once you've got the background, you apply the adhesive sizing. There's a couple of brands, most craft stores should have them. Get a cheap paintbrush, and paint it on. It goes on white, usually, and once it turns clear, it's tacky enough that you can apply gold leaf.
Gold leaf will stick to any area with sizing, and some that don't have it, although you can brush it off or blow it off if you're lucky. It will stick to anything even vaguely damp, so make sure the painting is totally dry, and that your hands aren't sweaty, or that you're wearing gloves. Apply leaf to the painting LAST, as it cannot be painted over readily. (You can sort of half-ass paint over it, but it's a lot of trouble, although you can get some cool effects with certain acrylic washes. Oddly enough, you CAN use those metallic gold markers over it, which I've done occasionally to touch up areas. It's not worth bothering with most kinds of ink.)
Now, the fun part. Get your bag of flakes (I recommend starting with flakes, which have much more texture, rather than sheets) stick your finger into the bag, get some flake on your finger tip, slap it down on the adhesive. Pat it down rather than roll. (Rolling gets you a much finer powdered effect, as you effectively turn the leaf into powder.) Get another thing of flake, pat it down on another bit of adhesive. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Let dry for an hour or two.
Brush off stray bits.
Pick flake out of your hair and work area for the next six months.
The end result looks awesome. You can fool with other kinds of metal—copper is very pretty, silver has some nice stuff. I'm not so fond of the mixed metal or rainbow flake stuff, but hey, undoubtedly some of you can make it work. Try getting the sheets for a different effect -- they'll tear like blazes, but it's a flatter, less textured and crackly effect than flake. If you're working on board, try -- carefully! -- sanding through the gold leaf and see what kind of effects you get. It's a versatile, interesting medium.
Downside -- it's also VERY hard to scan. It takes work to even get it to look like a photo of gold leaf, and as for actually looking like leaf, forget about it. You can't really duplicate the look, since scanner light bounces weirdly off the metal, and I usually do a lot of fancy juggling in Photoshop to make a piece look metallic. The original will look fantastic; the scan, if you're reasonably talented, will look pretty okay, but there's a much starker gap between original and reproduction when you use gold leaf than with a lot of other media.
Still, the originals are VERY cool. It's worth trying, if you're bored with the usual paint effects and looking to shake things up texturally.
Finally, gold leaf is inert and non-toxic and will pass through your system without any malign effects. Some fancy restaurants will even put gold flake on ice cream or cake (I've seen it on pastries) just for that ritzy effect, and plenty of us have a bad memory or two involving Goldschlager. So don't worry if it really DID get in everything, including the chili -- it won't hurt anything and you won't get heavy metal poisoning from it. Promise.
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