The Process

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working on a design

  • Water gilding is a time and labor intensive means of applying gold to paintings and objects.. The process is centuries old, quite involved, has hardly changed since the Renaissance. The key word to successful gilding is preparation.
  • The first step is to identify the surface on which the gold will be applied. Historically, the most commonly used surface has been wood. Here, I will only be discussing the process used with wood. Somewhat different methods are required for parchment, glass, paper, fabric, or metal. The most common type of wood used for gilding is BASSWOOD. Basswood (Tilia Americana or Tilia x Euchlora) is soft , finely grained and light in color. Other woods may be used but oil and sap are enemies of the gilding process. Unlike pine or other hardwoods, Basswood contains almost no oil. . The clear, soft surface provides a perfect ‘canvas’ for the next step,. preparation of the ground upon which the gold will be floated. This ground is called GESSO. The purpose of the gesso is to fill the cracks in the wood and establish a very smooth working surface
  • The gesso used in gilding is made up of calcium carbonate(chalk), calcium sulphate (gypsum) or another finely crushed white stone. (This should not to be confused with store-bought gesso which is an acrylic compound ) To this is added gelatin or SIZE, usually animal hide glue. A number of recipes are used for this mixture, but all are heated and strained before being applied. Between the many coats of gesso required –usually 10 to 16– the surface is sanded with a fine sandpaper or steel wool The gesso needs to dry well between coats, 2-3 days. So it may take several weeks,, depending on weather conditions, to prepare the gessoed panel. .(This type of gesso is also used by some artists to prepare their canvases).
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carving the design into a gessoed panel

  • Once the gessoed panel is prepared, it is ready to be INCISED or STAMPED. Incising the panel is done to add detail to a gilded piece. This may be done with a variety of tools: a fine ceramic pick, a nail in the end of a pencil, or a dentist’s implement. Properly prepared gesso is easily carved (and just as easily ruined) with one’s preferred tool. Stamps are rarely used in modern gilding except in ecclesiastical pieces. These are finely made metal blocks, like a miniature woodprint block. The blocks are applied to the gesso and then hammered to leave a pattern of dots , squiggles or circles. The stamps are used repeatedly to create larger patterns. These are seen in the work of Fra Filippo Lippi or Fra Angelico, usually in the Virgin’s halo or on her clothing.
  • Once the patterning or incised design is finished, the next step is to apply the BOLE. The bole is a clay traditionally colored red, yellow or gray. The clay is applied to cover the brilliant white of the gesso and to act as a highlight of sorts when the panel is burnished. The bole gives a warm depth to the look of the gold.
  • Once the panel has dried and rested a few days, it is time to gild. (This is now, several weeks, at a minimum, after you started!) You need a number of tools for this part of the process.
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    preparing to apply the gold leaf

  • A GILDERS CUSHION or ‘klinker’ This is generally a uniform 6″ x 10″ rectangle with thick suede stretched over it. At one end, and part of 2 sides is a thick piece of parchment that stands 14″ above the surface of the cushion. The cushion is used as a cutting and holding surface for the gold leaf. The parchment keeps the gold from flying away.
  • The GOLD LEAF. This is sold in a ‘cutch’ or small booklet with 25 pieces of gold per cutch.  The gold comes in a  variety of karats which is a means of describing its purity, just as in jewelry making. The finest gold is 24 karat. Other metals are added to gold to impart subtle  color to the gold. Copper is added to create a reddish cast, silver to create white gold and the look of silver.  Gold leaf is available from 12-24 karats which encompass several shades. (Also available on the market is “Dutch metal” a kind of ‘fake’ gold which comes in larger sheets and is available in a gold ‘tone’ or silver ‘tone. It does not look like gold leaf when applied and the two should not be confused. )
  • A GILDERS KNIFE, a very sharp, long, flat-bladed knife for cutting the gold.
  • A gilders TIP, a 2″ wide card with sable hairs on one side. This brush is used to pick up the gold leaf which is too delicate to be touched by hand.
  • A MOP, the squirrel (sometimes pony, or in England, badger) haired brush with which to apply the SIZE,.
  • SIZE, the gilding liquor. There are many recipes for this but, most commonly, it consists of water and either hide glue or gelatin.
  • With all of these tools at hand, one may begin to apply the gold :
  • Cut the desired sized piece
  • Pick it up with a tip
  • Apply the size in the area where you are applying the gold,
  • Quickly touch the gold to the panel ,.Hope that there isn’t too little water, too much water, that the gold doesn’t break, that it doesn’t stick to the tip, that it doesn’t get blown away while you are applying the size, that it doesn’t get the tip wet, and that the gold actually goes where you want it.
  • With the gold down, you now repeat this process again and again to cover your panel.<./li>
  • After a minute or so, tamp the gold with a cotton ball to force it down onto the panel and absorb any unwanted moisture. Some people use a GILDERS POUCH or POUNCE for this-a small bundle of cloth containing some whiting.
  • Let the gilded panel dry for several days.
  • With this process completed, it is time to BURNISH the gold. This part of the process is unique to water gilding and is how the high sheen and solid gold-like aspect of the panel is created. To do the burnishing, you employ an AGATE, the agate tipped. BURNISHER. These burnishers come in a variety of tip sizes and shapes, but they are always made of beautiful agate stone.
  • At this point you find out if all your preparation was done properly. If the gold prep work was correct, the gold has adhered to the panel. If the panel is dry and the gesso was porous enough, the gold will shine up and harden beneath the point of your agate If all was not done correctly, the burnisher will, tear, crumble or destroy the gold  (and possibly ruin the gessoed surface as well).  When the burnishing done,-the gilding process is complete.

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burnishing the gold to a high luster

In my art work, I proceed to my next step which is to paint different areas on the panel using egg-tempera paint.

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painting a gilded piece with egg tempera

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Anne G. Fredericks in her Great Barrington Studio, December 2011