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Monday 25th June 2018  GMT 

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Gilding the Lily

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This feature has grown out of the initial discussions with Charlotte Bird when we put the feature on fairies together last time. One of her shots (eventually used as the main part of the double page spread) seemed to be begging for an application of gold leaf (gilding). This set in train a course of research into the options available for hand-embellishing prints and albums, and this led naturally onto the subject of calligraphy and illuminated lettering.

Costs – actual versus perceived

One of the more interesting observations that we made is that photographers thought that gold leaf was fabulously expensive. This is not so. A book of twenty-five 3” by 3” leaves of pure gold costs less than 15. However, if so many photographers thought that it was expensive, the likelihood is that your clients will think the same way – the perceived value of your print is therefore much higher! Do not, therefore miss the opportunity; as you buff up the gold, buff up the price!

Gold - the material

Gilding is an ancient art, practised since Ancient Egyptian times. One reason that it is perceived as expensive is that it was always used to adorn religious iconography, sometimes with more opulence than good taste, as the great and the good tried to buy their entrance through the Pearly Gates. The picture to the right shows a Baroque organ from Orihuela, in Spain. It is a testament to the endurance of gold that the icons funded by these long-gone patrons are still very shiny.

As a material, gold is one of a group of precious metals, which exhibit high corrosion resistance and are usually quite dense (heavy). They are silver, gold, rhodium, palladium and platinum. Of these, silver, gold and platinum are routinely used in gilding, gold being the most common. Their use as gilding materials depends on their high ductility which enables them to be rolled out and then beaten into very thin sheets – and we mean thin, you can almost see through them and they will blow away on the slightest breath of air. This property also enables the foils of the metal to be formed into the tiny crevices, which exist on even quite smooth surfaces, so they will stick to paper, leather and wood quite well. They also have the property of taking a polish by burnishing which is essentially rubbing them hard with a very smooth agate tool so that they achieve a mirror-like finish.


Preparing the surface

We are interested in placing a few eye-catching areas of gold into our photographic image. The gold thus has to attach to a paper substrate such as an inkjet print, album cover or possibly a parchment. There is also the matter of controlling just where the gold sticks so that we can decorate our letters or images with precision. Letter parts, the veins of fairy wings and the like require accurate preparation of the surface before the gold is attached. There are two basic methods, the use of gum ammoniac (traditional) and diluted PVA glue (the modern, cheats way which is also fast!). The sequence is shown opposite. PVA (poly vinyl acetate) is used in most woodworking glues, eg Liquid Nails; it dries with a clear, shiny finish and should be diluted with water to make application easier and more accurate. The gold foil is attached by breathing on the hardened glue (after an overnight drying) through a paper tube (think pea-shooter) and the moisture of the breath makes the glue just sticky enough for the gold to adhere with a little bit of pressure. The excess is then brushed off and the remaining, accurate shape is burnished with an agate tool.

There are two types of gilding foils, one with a non-adherent backing paper, from which you lift the gold with a gilder’s tip – a long-haired brush. The other (transfer gold) has a slightly adherent backing paper and can be cut with scissors before rubbing down and burnishing.

Where should you put it?

Where, and how much gilding to apply is a matter of taste. Certainly, less is often better than more. A few examples may illustrate:

1. In calligraphy, to accent parts of ornate capital letters.

2. The photographer’s signature.

3. The model’s underwear or trimming – we saw a gorgeous image at Spring Fair in which the artist has applied a tiny gilded thong to the shapely backside of their model – very classy it looked too! Hand-embellishment to make each limited edition print unique is frequently used by artists, sometimes gilding, sometimes gouache.

4. The initials in the front of an album. Gilding has also always been used on the spines of books; it takes well to leather when correctly applied.


The “designed” album is now quite common and the use of both Photoshop and other layout software opens the opportunity to place poems and quotations as part of the design. With the written word comes the opportunity to include calligraphy as part of the design. The next step is to illuminate the calligraphy with gold to enhance the perceived value – we are back to the opening paragraph. You can even graduate your pricing policy according to gilding (silver, gold platinum in ascending order?) or perhaps only offer gilding for your premium product as an inducement to upgrade.

Leaf Gilding – The Sequence

1. A mix of PVA glue with 50% distilled water and a small amount of water colour (red in this case) is carefully painted onto the area where the gold is to be placed. The glue is available ready mixed from Wright’s of Lymm as “Ormaline”.

2. The PVA is allowed to dry, preferably overnight. This is the writer’s first attempt and it is not smooth enough – use a fully-loaded brush to achieve a rounded profile and try not to go over an area more than once.

3. This is the gold leaf on a backing paper, ready for use.

4. Exhale through a paper tube onto the dry PVA to slightly moisten it. The technique is to exhale, not blow, usually three breaths.

5. The gold leaf is placed in position and gently rubbed with the back of a spoon to cause it to adhere to the PVA.

6. The leaf is pulled away to leave gold attached to the PVA shape. Any bits that are missed are breathed on again and more is applied. Excess gold is brushed away with a soft brush.

7. The gold is burnished to a high gloss with the smooth end of a spoon handle or a specialist agate, burnishing tool. These come in various shapes and sizes; a dogtooth is preferred for intricate lettering.

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