Nancy’s Painting Blog

How to Prepare Gold Leaf for Oil Painting

I could have sworn I covered it all with my video on how to apply gold leaf. You know that old expression “everything but the kitchen sink”? Well that definitely applies to my  gold leaf video (see it for free here) which gives all the tips and tricks for creating a gold leaf surface to paint on, and then how to prepare the leafed surface for overpainting with acrylic paint. HOWEVER, it appears I was amiss to include how to prepare the leafed surface for overpainting with OIL PAINT! How silly of me. So here I go with additional information on using gold leaf with oil paint.

Real Gold Leaf vs Imitation Gold Leaf
First I want to repeat some info from the video to mention the difference between using real gold leaf and imitation (or composite) gold leaf (made with copper and zinc). In the video I explain why I choose to use the imitation gold leaf and not the real gold leaf for my painting purposes. In summary, these two types of metal leaf look exactly the same when using size (glue or adhesive) to adhere the leaf. Using real gold (involving extra expense) is worth the expense (in my opinion) when you will be showing it off uncovered and unpainted, like applying it to a picture frame, AND using a different application method – water gilding not size. Water gilding is extremely labor intensive. In my work,  I cover a good portion of the leaf by overpainting it with paint. So it doesn’t make sense for me to go to the expense of using water gilding and real gold as most of this will be covered. I know there are some good reasons some of you may have for using real gold, and that’s fine. I just wanted to share my opinion.


On left is real gold leaf; On right is imitation gold leaf

How to Apply Gold Leaf
Whether you are using real gold leaf or imitation gold leaf, the techniques for application using size adhesive are the same. So for this process, please watch my video (link here) to get all the information on using size adhesive to adhere the leaf.

Applying Gold Leaf OVER Oil Paint
If you plan to use OIL PAINT to overpaint the leaf, then make sure you stop the video I mentioned above when you get to the part about sealing the leaf. That is because there are different considerations to sealing the leaf for oil paint vs acrylic paint.

1. If you are applying gold leaf OVER oil paint, make sure the oil paint is fully dry before applying the adhesive and leaf. Drying times for oil paint depend on  how thick it is applied, and your climate conditions.

2. Once dry, follow my video instructions to apply the leaf using adhesive, BUT with one exception – use an oil based size adhesive, NOT the water based size adhesive. Best way to tell the difference? The oil based size will say on its container label to clean brushes with solvents, while the water based size will instruct you to clean brushes with water.

Does Real Gold Leaf Need to be Sealed?
Real Gold Leaf does NOT tarnish. So you do NOT have to seal it to protect it from tarnishing. HOWEVER, the real gold leaf is so thin (like the imitation leaf only even more delicate) that once it is applied onto your painting, and not sealed, it can be marred if mishandled. So even though you do not need to apply ANYTHING over the real gold leaf, you may still want to seal it to add some protection from getting scratched or damaged.

Are Sealing Requirements the Same for Oil Paint as Acrylic Paint?

NO! Sealing requirements are different depending on which paint you will be using to apply over the leaf.

If you are overpainting the leaf with acrylic paint, then stop reading this article and just follow my free video (link here) because acrylic paint will tarnish unsealed imitation leaf, as I mention in the video.

If you are overpainting the leaf with oil paint, you have a choice to 1) seal over the leaf before you apply your oil paint, or 2) apply oil paint over unsealed leaf, then seal at the very end over both leaf and oil paint when dry. To seal over the leaf before you apply oil paint,  use a permanent sealer, as opposed to a removable varnish sealer. The varnish I recommend in the video, Goldens Archival Varnish Gloss is removable, and therefore you should not put this under oil paint, (as solvents added to oil paint could redissolve the varnish.) You can use Goldens Archival Varnish Gloss (or any solvent based varnish or sealer) OVER the final painting at the end, over leaf and paint as a final coat. If using imitation gold leaf then you MUST seal at some point within 6 months after application, so it will not tarnish from exposure to air. Avoid using waterbased sealers (like Golden’s Polymer Varnish) at any stage when using imitation gold leaf and/or oil paint. Check with the company that makes your leaf to see if they carry an appropriate sealer.

Important Reminders for Acrylic Painters
Imitation leaf will tarnish TWO ways. It will tarnish when exposed to air, and also when exposed to the ammonia in acrylic products while the acrylic is still wet. Once the acrylic dries the ammonia has dissipated and will not tarnish your leaf. SO, if you are applying acrylic paint over real gold leaf you can opt to wait to seal at the very end when your painting is complete. If you are using imitation gold leaf along with acrylic paint, you MUST seal it BEFORE you apply any acrylic paint or acrylic products over the leaf.

I know this can get confusing, but I have to add a note here. You can seal your imitation leaf using an acrylic product IF AND ONLY IF the acrylic product you are using to seal is super fast drying, (so fast the ammonia will dissipate before it can tarnish the leaf) like the Archival Varnish Spray (not for overpainting with oil paint), or for oil or acrylic overpainting you can use Golden’s GAC200 or GAC500 (but you must apply several coats of these if these are your only sealers over the leaf.)

In Summary

Apply oil paint directly over real or imitation leaf without any need to seal the leaf before painting.

Do not apply oil paint OVER removable solvent based sealers. But these same sealers can be applied over the oil paint and leaf at the very end.

Apply acrylic paint directly over real leaf without any need to seal before painting (but sealing the leaf may allow the acrylic paint to be applied easier.)

When applying acrylic paint over imitation leaf, the leaf MUST be sealed before painting.

It’s a good idea to seal your painting at the very end, even if you already sealed the leaf before painting. Sealing with an archival varnish enables the painting to be cleaned, and adds UV protection

29 thoughts on “How to Prepare Gold Leaf for Oil Painting

  1. Once again, Nancy Reyner, you have breathed life into work I am creating for a solo art show next year. Your comprehensive and thorough instructions help me to finish work in progress, and I am so excited with this prospect for working through paintings this summer.

    Thank you so much!

  2. Thank you for sharing this information with the art community. You are so generous with your time and information. I took one of your classes when you were in Phoenix a couple of years ago. I have been following your work since then and enjoy seeing what you are creating.

    1. Hi Paige,
      I think you are asking what type of solvent based sealer you should use OVER the gold or metal leaf, that you later plan to overpaint with oil. Is this correct? In that case you would use the exact same sealer you would use when sealing to then overpaint with acrylic. I like to use Golden’s Archival Varnish Gloss which comes in a spray can, for smaller works, or ones with texture. I also like to use Golden’s MSA varnish which comes in a can, and you need to dilute it with mineral spirits (use TRPS to dilute as I found other solvents to not work as well) then you can brush apply over the leaf. Let the sealer dry about a week or more before applying any paint (acrylic or oil paints).

      1. So the sealer goes over the gold league before you paint with oil? I thought the sealer went over the leaf and oil paint at the very end?

        1. You say: “If you are overpainting the leaf with oil paint, then DO NOT seal the leaf before painting. The oil paint may redissolve the sealer. Instead paint with oil paint over the unsealed leaf, and when your painting is complete and fully dry, then apply a sealer over the entire painting – including both leaf areas and painted areas.”

          1. Hi Paige,
            Thank you for your clarification. I admit what I wrote about sealing is confusing now that I see your point. After this reply to you I will make corrections to my blog article. Yes, you CAN seal the leaf (real or imitation leaf) before applying the oil paint. However, you must use a permanent sealer, as opposed to a removable varnish. The varnish I recommended, Goldens Archival Varnish Gloss is removable, and therefore you should not put this under oil paint, as the oil paint if mixed with solvents could redissolve the varnish. In summary, (1) you can seal over the leaf before oil painting, (but you must use a permanent clear sealer for this layer). Or (2) you can seal over the leaf and oil paint after the painting is finished, thereby skipping the seal under the oil paint. In this case you can use any type of clear sealer. However when putting a final seal over a painting and want it to be archival you would want a removable varnish. (3) You can also seal twice – over the leaf under the paint, and then again at the end over both. I hope this helps. Thanks again for letting me know there is a glitch in my information. I will fix it now.

      2. Hi Paige,
        Thanks again for bringing some areas in this article to my attention that were confusing. I have now fixed it and hope I have answered your questions more clearly.
        Nancy

  3. Hi Nancy,
    Thank you so much for all your valuable information and guidelines. I use water based oil paint and wondered if it’s still ok to apply the varnish at the end of the imitation gold leaf application and over painting? Also, which is your preferred paint…oils or acrylics? Look forward to hearing from you.
    Best wishes, A Lavinia

    1. Hi Lavinia, Thank you for writing. For water-soluble oil paint you can apply a varnish at the end of your painting, over the leaf and paint, but with a couple of exceptions. First, I would recommend using a solvent based varnish (like Golden’s Archival Varnish Gloss spray, or MSA Varnish in a can for brush application), instead of a water soluble varnish (like Golden’s Polymer Varnish Gloss). If you have a product and are unsure, just check the label instructions to see if clean up uses solvent or water, to tell if a product is suitable or not. If it can be cleaned up with solvents it will work, but cleanup with water will not. As for my preference, I like both oil and acrylic, however I have not used the watersoluble oils. I use oil or acrylic depending on what I am painting. For the majority of my paintings I tend to prefer acrylic because it is so versatile, easy to layer, and best for special effects like poured layers and sanding. Thanks again! Best, Nancy

  4. Hello, thank you so much for writing this blog post, it’s very helpful. What kind of oil based size adhesive would you recommend? I would like to apply copper leaf on top of areas of an oil painting and am having a hard time finding oil based adhesive. Thank you!

  5. Hi Nancy, I would like to use acrylic glazes over gold leaf then finish with oil paints. What varnish do I need to consider for this before I apply the acrylic glaze and oil paints, also what would be best to seal with at the end?

    1. Hi Alison,
      Follow instructions as per my video to prepare your gold leaf for acrylic. Then apply your acrylic glazes. Let dry for two weeks. Now you can apply oil paint directly over the leaf whether leaf areas are glazed or not glazed and still unsealed. Oil will be fine applied over acrylic or leaf without any additional process or sealer or coating. To seal at the end use an appropriate varnish for oil paints, such as Golden’s MSA Varnish gloss for brush application, or the Archival Varnish Gloss in a spray. Both these varnishes are appropriate for either oil or acrylic so will work fine with your process.
      Nancy

      1. Thanks Nancy! Getting my head round it all now, I purchased your book which is fantastic for me to use as a reference. Now to just be patient and enjoy experimenting. Many thanks Alison

        1. Another quick question while it’s in my head, if using just oils can I go ahead as soon as surface is guilded or should I wait a few days for the size to dry?

          1. Hi Alison, Check the instructions written on the container of size you are using. On mine, the minimum wait time is three days for the size to dry. I recommend waiting for the size to fully dry before applying either oil or acrylic paint. I wait one week just to be sure. Nancy

  6. Hi Nancy, I have decided to work with acrylics ONLY to start with, I have two products Gac 200 and golden archival varnish spray. To seal at the end of applying the leaf which one is best? I would like to paint and then try the sanding technique, once I finish sanding what gloss do I apply before I start the glazing? Thanks again for all your support and advice

    1. GAC200 is a medium, while the archival varnish spray is a varnish. GAC 200 is brush applied, while the varnish is spray applied. I recommend to use the varnish spray first over the leaf. The leaf is delicate at this stage, and can be marred using a brush unless very carefully applied. So spray your first coat over the leaf using the spray varnish. Spray as many coats as you want, letting it dry as per the cans instructions in between each coat. The more coats, the more protection. I recommend a minimum of two spray coats, four coats are optimal. Once you finish the last spray coat, and let it dry a few days (or a week if you live in a humid climate) then brush apply one or more coats of the GAC200 over the spray coats. This may seem like too many coats altogether, but they can’t hurt – and will only help keep your leaf looking its best. Since you are sanding, the multiple coats using both sealers will help you sand back the paint without going into the leaf, although you still need to be careful you don’t sand through all the layers. Once you sand, and are finished sanding, you can then brush apply the GAC200 over the sanded areas to get the gloss glow of the leaf back. Now you can glaze. When your painting is complete, you can spray the varnish over the whole painting again for a different type of protection. As a final coat, the varnish will keep the paint colors from fading as it contains UV protection, and the painting will be able to be cleaned, because varnishes (the ones that are archival) are removable. For example, I varnished a children’s mural in a school that the students painted, with my direction. Later it got graffiti on it, and I was able to remove the graffiti along with the varnish layer, and then revarnish it just like new.

  7. Brilliant guidance Nancy, thank you so much once again! really looking forward to getting started now I know for sure what process to take x

  8. Nancy,
    How would you go about using gold leaf with watercolor? I’m thinking it would have to be applied on top as the sealer would make the watercolor bead up if you tried to paint over the leaf once sealed.
    I would love to be able to incorporate leaf in some of my watercolors as well as the acrylic and oil.
    Also, if you are using cold wax with your oils would you need to seal the leaf prior to paininting?
    Thank you for your patience as this is a process I am not familiar with at all.

    1. Hi Mary Ann,
      Yes that is correct. If you used watercolor directly on unsealed leaf, the water will not only bead up, it may cause tarnishing. Water will tarnish the copper in the leaf, when it is left wet touching the leaf for longer periods of time, such as would happen using watercolor. When you seal the leaf, the sealers would all be glossy (never use matte sealer on metal leaf as it will dramatically cut the leaf sheen permanently). So this means watercolor will bead up over the sealer layer as well. However, after sealing you could then apply a product that will offer a clear toothy grit, to allow the watercolor to settle onto the surface evenly.

      Here is a way to create a tooth over the glossy and sealed leaf surface. Make a mixture of Golden’s Pastel Ground (formerly called Acrylic Ground for Pastel) using 60 – 70% water with 30 – 40% of the Pastel Ground. It should be extremely watery. Apply with a brush over any area you want to use your watercolor paints (it could be the entire surface if you want). Let it dry overnight. When it dries it looks like it has taken away the metallic gloss sheen on the leaf. This is true but only temporary, as it will disappear later when you apply a gloss medium. In the meantime, apply watercolor on this dry ground and it will feel just like watercolor paper. Let dry.

      Once your painting is complete, using watercolor paints, you would need to spray apply a solvent based sealer (or spray a water based sealer that is fast drying so the watercolor will not bleed). If you brush apply any acrylic sealer with water in it, it will bleed the watercolor paint. After this last sealing layer has dried, you will not see the previous tooth layer anymore and your metal sheen will reappear like before.

      You do not need to seal leaf prior to using oil paint, wax or oil mediums. None of these will tarnish the leaf. However, you will need to seal the leaf at some point within a few month period, so the leaf does not tarnish due to exposure to air.

    1. I would use the solvent-based leaf size over oil paint. Then following directions for that specific product, apply the leaf over the size. Let it dry, again following instructions for that size, then paint directly over the leaf with oil paint with no need to seal until your painting is complete.

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