Gold Leaf and Acrylic Paint

by | Oct 31, 2009 | Blog | 17 comments

I received an email inquiry regarding gold leaf and acrylic paint, and thought I would share the question and my response for anyone else using this cool combo. This post is the inquiry and my reply, just scroll down to the next paragraph to read it. For other resources about this topic, my book Acrylic Illuminations has a full section with step-by-step demonstrations and instructions for these techniques. I also made a video available for free streaming on Youtube, demonstrating How to Apply Gold Leaf.

Inquiry about Gold Leaf & Acrylic Paint: “Your website popped up after I googled “acrylic paint over gold leaf”. I am using a similar technique to yours but with very different imagery. My technique: rigid panels primed with sandable gesso, sand gesso to eliminate wood grain, gold leaf size, gold or copper leafing, then as many as 30 layers of acrylic glazes. Finish with multiple layers of acrylic gloss varnish. Here’s my dilemma: I accidentally dinged a finished piece down to the gesso level and I was able to peel the entire painting off the support! So now I’m disturbed about the integrity of my finished pieces.
Have you encountered this problem? How have you resolved it? Thanks for any info you care to share and I like your work very much!”

Snake River, 48″ x 60″, acrylic & gold leaf on panel

My Answer:
It sounds like you have an adhesion problem. But also, after you dinged the piece and were able to get a grip on the layers you pulled at it – so this can also create a problem. Sometimes layers can be stable in a painting, but if you get just the right grip and angle you can still pull them up. This doesn’t necessarily mean the layers are not stable.

But, here are some things you can do to help adhesion at 2 crucial points: the first layer of acrylic that touches the substrate, and the first layer of acrylic that touches the metal leaf.

(1) I don’t know whether your painting came off after the gesso or before, but here are some tips. When using a wood panel clean it with denatured alcohol to remove any grease. If the wood panel is very smooth lightly sand the surface to get a grit. Apply a thin layer of Golden’s Gesso (or another brand that is high quality meant for acrylic adhesion). The cheaper gessoes are OK for oil, but not acrylic. Now apply anything else you want – multiple layers of gesso are fine, but I wouldn’t water the gesso down too much (not more than 20% water).

(2) After you apply the leaf you need to apply a coat of something that will help the acrylic to adhere. In other words, acrylic will not adhere very well to metal without extra help. By using any clear glossy mineral spirit based acrylic in a layer between the metal leaf and acrylic you help adhesion. I like to use Golden’s Archival Varnish in a spray, or their MSA Varnish (same thing in a can that you can brush apply).

Also, if you apply the same archival varnish over the finished painting at the end it will help with dings.

Acrylic paintings need to fully dry for 2 weeks before wrapping them up. This 2 week period is crucial for curing the layers and during this time the painting should not get below 50 degrees, and should have air circulating around it.

More Resources & Info on Gold Leaf

My book Acrylic Illuminations has step-by-step instructions on leafing with many painting ideas on gold leaf.

Article on acrylic with gold leaf from GOLDEN

My Youtube video How to Apply Gold Leaf

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  1. Michelle Johnson

    Hello Nancy,
    Have you ever put size & metal leaf directly onto gesso? is it advisable?
    I usually put a layer of acrylic as an under color but I tinted my 3rd layer of gesso with a little acrylic paint this time before sizing & leafing… the metal leaf is flaking off. I’m trying to figure out if it doesn’t works well or if it’s the metal leaf I bought online which is a different brand ( and blue in color). I’d love to hear your thoughts.


    • Nancy Reyner

      Michelle, The issue is with gesso being absorbent. When you apply adhesive directly to gesso, or tinted gesso, the adhesive will sink into the absorbent gessoed surface, making it not sticky enough to act as a glue for the leaf. The leaf will not adhere very well to adhesive that is not tacky enough. As a solution, if you want to apply adhesive directly onto the gesso surrface, you can apply two coats of the adhesive. Apply your second coat over the first coat once it is tacky, but within an appropriate time frame – probably as soon as 20 minutes after the 1st layer is applied and no later then 12 hours. The second way to do this is to apply a gloss acrylic over the gesso (tinted or not), or apply a layer of acrylic paint color that is substantial enough to change the absorbency (in other words don’t apply an acrylic paint color that has been heavily diluted with water, or it will sink into the gesso, and not coat it to decrease its absorbency. This is why your leaf is flaking off – because it is not adhering properly with the adhesive.

  2. Fredro

    Nice post!

  3. Royvia

    Great post.

  4. Rosalie mackenzie

    Hi there, love your videos. I put gold leaf all over my kitchen wall using a poly vine size. I then used klarlack clear paint which said it sealed gold leaf etc. 5 days later and I am still waiting for it to go transparent! After reading your advice, I note you say not to use a water based sealer 🙈 I thought it would be less toxic in the home. Can I stick more gold leaf on top and buy a different sealer as the tarnished look is not what I was after?

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Rosalie, I am not familiar with the size or sealer you applied over the leaf. It is always good to experiment on a small throwaway piece before doing something to a whole wall. I guess that isn’t helpful at this point. You CAN use a water based sealer over the imitation gold leaf. However, the trick is to apply it thinly enough and have it dry fast enough for the ammonia in the product to not affect the leaf and turn it brown. If your leaf isn’t brown, then the problem is the sealer. My first thought is that if you over brush the sealer, it can create a slight texture to the surface that appears milky even when dry. This may be the problem. Another issue is if you did not wait enough time between applying the leaf and applying the sealer. Usually 3 days is the minimum between these two processes. If you apply the sealer too soon, then it may reactivate the adhesive, and the combination of sealer and adhesive can remain milky as well. I would recommend to get a small board and apply products onto it in the exact way you plan to work on the wall. Wait the same times in between processes and apply each layer the same way. If it works out well on the small experiment, then you can apply the whole process the same way over what you already have on the wall that isn’t working. Klarlack Clear Paint does not sound like a “sealer” but instead sounds like a “clear” paint – which may actually not be so clear! Remember test everything first. Try using a clear water based sealer and apply it very thinly making sure it dries faster than it can tarnish. Hope this helps.

  5. Manica

    Hi Nancy,
    Big fan of your work!
    Can I use liquitex gloss varnish on my acrylic gold leaf project?
    This varnish is pretty generic & doesn’t says a lot about it will work on gold leaf .

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Manica, There are several choices of varnishes in the Liquitex line – all of them with orange labels. If you tell me the exact name of the product I can give you more information. However, here’s a good tip. If the varnish is water-soluble (on the label it will say to wash out your brush with water instead of solvent) then it will tarnish and you should NOT use it directly on unsealed imitation leaf. This varnish will be fine over acrylic paint, and also over sealed leaf, but not on unsealed leaf. If the varnish is solvent based (the label will say to clean brushes out with solvent, and also to wear protective gear because it will be toxic) then it can be used instead of the product I recommend in this video – Golden’s MSA Varnish Gloss or Golden’s Archival Varnish Gloss spray. In regards to how many coats of varnish are needed, I recommend at least 2 coats if spray applied, and 1 or 2 coats if brush applied. I am not sure you are asking about using the varnish over a finished painting or over unsealed leaf. I use varnish in two instances on each painting. I use a solvent based varnish over the leaf before painting. Then I can use the water-based varnish over the whole painting (leaf and paint) once you have finished the painting.

  6. Ann

    If I use the varnish will I still need to use a sealer over the golf leaf. I am applying gold leaf over acrylic on canvas

    • Nancy Reyner

      Sealer is the broad title for something that goes over something else, keeping the underlay from being exposed to anything else over it. Varnish is a type of sealer. This means if you use the varnish over the leaf, you have in effect “sealed” the leaf and do not need anything else. I like to apply two types of sealers, each in different layers. First I apply a varnish. Then as an optional additional layer, I apply a coat of GAC200 with GAC500 in a 1:1 mixture. This layer of specialty mediums is also a sealer, but I am using it over the varnish layer to add some ease to my subsequent layers of acrylic paint, plus these particular mediums together form a very hard acrylic layer and add strength to the adhesion between paint and leaf.

  7. Sarah ryu

    Your videos and painting store inspire me a lot.
    I do have one question.
    Where do you purchase gold leaf?
    I’ve been trying to find the Picasso gold leaf you mentioned in the video but no luck. Can you please share?
    Thank you.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Sarah, You can purchase gold and other metal leaf at art stores, craft stores and online art sites. I think you misheard me in the video, because I have never heard of Picasso gold leaf. I have used Speedball’s Mona Lisa brand, Nationale’s brand, and I have purchased direct from companies, as well as bought from stores. Hope this helps you find the leaf you are looking for.

  8. Audrey

    Thank you so much Nancy.You are fantastic and very generous with you information. I really appreciate all you have online.Will deffently buy your book.



  9. college board

    Having read this material, I have learned for myself a lot of the new. Thanks

  10. Anonymous

    It is rather interesting for me to read the post. Thanks for it. I like such topics and anything that is connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more on that blog soon.


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About Nancy

Nancy Reyner is a professional fine-art painter with over 30 years experience using a variety of mediums including oil, acrylic, watercolor and mixed media. She has appeared on television for HGTV’s “That’s Clever,” and authored several best-selling painting books with F&W Media. She currently lives in Santa Fe, NM. Read more.
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