How to Apply, Seal and Protect Gold Leaf for Artists and Painters

Landscape & Galactic Dust, 48″ x 60″, acrylic & gold leaf on panel


Working with Gold Leaf – especially for acrylic & oil painters

If you’ve seen my website and other blog articles, you probably figured out that I really really like gold leaf! I guess I just like shiny stuff! I like the challenge of combining leaf with paint. Anyone game to try? If so, this blog article provides all the details you need to dive right in.

First, I suggest watching the free video I made directly below, where I demonstrate the entire leafing process. After watching that, please return to this article for updated information. Instead of updating the video on Youtube, I add new information here. The sealing steps are especially tricky. As you can see from the comments, all types of issues occur at this step. If you (1) READ this article, and (2) Experiment on a surface you don’t care about BEFORE working on your actual piece, you will get best results.  You can scroll down to the bottom of the page for supply lists and additional resources.


Important tips

Please note that these instructions are for FINE ART PAINTINGS. If you want to apply leaf on a functional object that will get physical use, like furniture, then use a commercial sealer like polyurethane – NOT a fine art sealer as I recommend below.

If you plan on overpainting leaf with ACRYLIC PAINT, it’s important to know that water-based acrylic can tarnish imitation gold leaf, (only while the acrylic is still wet), if applied over unsealed leaf. Once sealed properly, and fully dry, then the leaf will not tarnish regardless of what you apply over it. This area of sealing is the most misunderstood, so I have included below more details on sealing.

If you are painting with oil paint, there are some differences in the preparation process between acrylic and oil. So first watch the video for general application methods even though in the demonstrations I use acrylic. Then scroll down further for more helpful tips to overpaint with oil.

Nancy Reyner applying gold leaf

If you’ve seen my website and other blog articles, you probably figured out that I really really like gold leaf! I guess I just like shiny stuff! I like the challenge of combining leaf with paint. Anyone game to try? If so, this blog article provides all the details you need to dive right in.

First, I suggest watching the free video I made directly below, where I demonstrate the entire leafing process. After watching that, then return to the article for a summary of steps along with any new information. I will continually update information on leafing here, but may not be able to update in the video. And please scroll down for supply lists and resources. 

If you plan on overpainting leaf with acrylic paint, it’s important to know that water-based acrylic can tarnish imitation leaf, (only while the acrylic is still wet), if applied over unsealed leaf. Once sealed and dry, then the leaf will not tarnish regardless of what you apply over it. This area of sealing is the most misunderstood, so I have included below more details on sealing.

If you are painting with oil paint, there are some differences in the preparation process between acrylic and oil. So first watch the video for general application methods even though in the demonstrations I use acrylic. Then scroll down further for more helpful tips to overpaint with oil.


Leaf Application

There are TWO WAYS to apply leaf, regardless of whether you are using real gold leaf or imitation gold leaf. One application method uses leaf adhesive (also called gilding size or leafing size) while the other method is called water gilding, and is more complicated to do.

In my video I demonstrate using the first option I listed – leaf adhesive. Water gilding is time consuming and difficult, but results in perfectly smooth glowing gold. This is great when used on a picture frame, for example. The reason I do not use water gilding (as well as real gold leaf) for a painting surface that will be overpainted, is because in my opinion, a sleek smooth leaf surface does not easily integrate visually with the way I paint, especially when used as a painting background.


Real Gold Leaf vs Imitation Gold Leaf

There are two different types of gold leaf you can purchase – real gold leaf and imitation gold leaf. Real gold leaf is made of mostly pure gold (under 22 kt and silver is added to the gold) which comes in different karats. Imitation (or composite) gold leaf is made of copper and zinc, and comes in a few variations of gold colors.

In my opinion it IS worth the expense to use real gold, as long as you also use the water gilding application, when the gold is mostly uncovered and unpainted, like applying it to a picture frame.

The benefit of using the adhesive method is that it will show some brush strokes, and therefore integrates better when used in a painting. Everyone has a different idea in mind when using gold leaf so you need to decide which works best for you.

For my paintings, I overpaint a good portion of the leaf, so it doesn’t make sense for me to use water gilding along with real gold leaf. 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.

In summary, you can use either application method – water gilding or adhesive – with either type of leaf – real gold or imitation gold. My video demonstrates the adhesive method with imitation leaf. You can use this same method with real gold. With the adhesive method, the two types of leaf will look very similar after application, because of the type of application method. In other words, when using the water gilding method, it makes sense to use real gold leaf instead of imitation gold leaf. When using the glue or size adhesive, then it makes sense to use the imitation leaf and not the real gold.

gold leaf compared to imitation gold leaf
Left: real gold leaf; Right: imitation gold leaf


Special Note About Sealing Gold Leaf

There are two different sealing processes you need to consider, for most projects involving leafing along with paint. Let’s call these two sealing processes Pre-Paint Sealing and Post-Paint Sealing.

Pre-Paint Sealing seals over the leaf prior to painting. This is important for both oil and acrylic painters. When you apply paint over the unsealed leaf, which is very delicate, it may get scratched, marred or removed accidentally. Sealing the leaf allows for over-painting with oil or acrylic without negatively affecting the leaf. This sealing process is VERY tricky when sealing imitation gold leaf. That is because this is where you can accidentally tarnish the leaf using the wrong sealer and the wrong sealing application process. See details and tips for avoiding tarnishing below in step 6.

Post-Paint Sealing is a good idea because it provides a protective coat to seal over your finished painting. This usually involves sealing over both leaf and paint, and adds an archival finishing coat when you use an archival varnish. Archival varnishes usually have UV protection and will keep your paintings from fading. They are also removable, which means the layer can be removed for cleaning purposes in the future if needed. This is described further in Step 8.

These two sealing steps have different purposes from each other, and therefore require different products and processes. They also differ depending on whether you are using acrylic or oil under or over the leaf. I have listed the more detailed information below in Step 6 and Step 8 for each of these two sealing steps.


Gold Leafing Steps

Watch video above for details & demonstrations, then read the following UPDATED INFORMATION.

1. Prepare Surface
Paint the surface a color. You can use oil or acrylic paint for this underpainting. If you use acrylic paint you can use the water-based adhesive over it to apply the leaf. If you use oil paint you MUST use the solvent-based or oil-based adhesive to apply the leaf. This color will only show minimally under the leaf if you will be covering your surface all the way with leaf. For a classic look use Red Oxide paint color. Optional – add texture using a mixture of Molding Paste with acrylic paint color.

2. Apply adhesive
Choose water-based or solvent-based leaf adhesive (also called gilding or leaf sizing). I use water-based because it is non-toxic and I apply it over acrylic.

The best way to tell if the size is solvent-based or water-based is to read product label instructions. When it directs you to clean brushes with solvents, it is solvent-based (also sometimes called oil-based), while the water based size will instruct you to clean brushes with water. Use either type if it will be applied over a primed or acrylic painted surface. If applying OVER oil paint you must use the solvent-based adhesive and make sure the oil paint is fully dry. Drying times for oil paint depend on how thick the paint is applied, which paint colors are used, and your climate conditions. Apply thinly. Let dry at least 20 minutes before leafing.

3. Apply Leaf
Place wax paper over leaf, rub gently to create static, lift and position to place. Once placed rub lightly, then lift wax paper and repeat to leaf other areas. Allow excess overlap of leaves.

4. Burnish
Place sheet of wax paper over leaf, then rub with moderate pressure using soft cloth. After burnishing let dry for at least 3 days (I prefer at least one week) so the adhesive is fully cured. Do not burnish without the wax paper in between your cloth and leaf or you will remove the leaf.

5. Clean Excess
Using a stiff small brush gently remove excess leaf on the sides of the panel or canvas, and wherever leaves overlap each other.

6. Pre-Paint Sealing: Seal Leaf Before Overpainting
There are two methods to seal leaf prior to painting with acrylic or oil. One involves a solvent-based varnish which is toxic and requires ventilation and proper protection. This gives a stronger coating with no risk of tarnishing the imitation leaf. Let me repeat that in a stronger way. This is the BETTER way to seal over the leaf before applying paint. It has better protection and less room for error in the application.

The other method uses a water-based acrylic medium which is non-toxic, but will require more coats as it offers a thinner coating then the toxic product. Even with multiple coats this will not provide as good a seal as the method above, when you are using aggressive painting techniques such as sanding, pouring acrylic layers, or using thick applications of acrylic paints or acrylic products. This water-based version also has some risks involved with its application. If applied using bad application habits, it can still cause tarnishing. This method requires some understanding about its application for good results. Tips for good application are described in the next paragraph. Unlike imitation gold leaf, real gold leaf will not tarnish, but sealing is still recommended so it won’t get harmed while painting. If using real gold leaf you do not have to worry about any of the cautions I am mentioning here, about tarnishing.

Very important!!! Do not use Golden’s water-based acrylic varnish called Polymer Varnish for the Pre-Paint Seal. If used directly on unsealed leaf it will tarnish the leaf. You can use it for a final Post-Paint Seal as a final coat. See Step 8.

Method 1: Water-based Sealers 

Before I discuss this method using water-based or acrylic sealers, I’d like to make a big point about this NOT being the best method for sealing over imitation gold leaf. The best method is Method 2 – using solvent-based sealers, and is described in the next section below. It is easier, with less risk of error, and provides the best protection for gold leaf – real or imitation. Some people cannot use solvent-based products because they are toxic and so I am providing an alternative here.

To apply a non-toxic sealer, make a mixture combining two water-based mediums from Golden, GAC200 with GAC500, in an approximate 1:1 ratio. You can also use the GAC200 by itself. If you do then apply it in a room with temperature at 70 degrees F or above. This warmer temperature will allow the GAC200 to cure extra hard – best for sealing. By combining it with GAC500 you do not need to apply it as warm, and also this mixture allows for an easier and possibly smoother application. Brush apply one coat of the medium or medium mixture over the leaf using a smooth flat soft brush. Please note – this method will NOT work if you are substituting the GAC200 and GAC500 with any other acrylic mediums. Here’s why these two mediums together will work as a sealer over leaf, but other water-based acrylic mediums will not.

Almost all acrylic products contain ammonia while wet. Ammonia will tarnish copper, the predominant metal in imitation gold leaf. Since the ammonia dissipates by the time the acrylic has dried we can use acrylic as a sealer if it dries fast enough to keep the ammonia from affecting the leaf. GAC200 and GAC500 are extra hard acrylic and very fast drying. Other gloss mediums will not dry as quickly as these GAC mediums and risk tarnishing. Other GAC mediums will not work for this purpose (sealing over imitation gold leaf) either, as they are formulated for different purposes.

This mixture of the two GAC mediums is a bit tricky to apply as you can see from the above information. If it dries too slowly, it won’t work. It you apply it too thickly it will dry slowly. If you add water to the mediums it will dry slowly. Therefore, eliminate any water on the brush and do not add any water into the medium. Smooth it out to a thin film so it dries fast. Do not use a stiff bristle brush, or overbrush by brushing it once it starts to dry and gets tacky (which happens within seconds) so you need to apply the mixture in very very small areas, smoothing it thinly before adding more medium. If you overbrush, you will create a cloudy film that is permanent and ruins your leaf surface.

Wow! Using water-based acrylic mediums as a sealer over imitation gold leaf is quite tricky, right? Please remember I do not recommend this unless you absolutely cannot use the solvent-based varnishes I recommend below and which I also use for my own work.

How many coats of the GAC200 or mixture of GAC200 with GAC500 should you apply? If you plan on overpainting the sealed leaf with heavy applications of acrylic, or other aggressive techniques that require extra protection for the leaf, apply four coats, letting each dry to the touch prior to applying the next. One to three coats will suffice when you plan to overpaint using thin layers of acrylic paint or if overpainting with oil. Once your last coat is applied and dry to the touch you do not need to wait for a longer period and can go ahead and overpaint with acrylic or oil paint.

Method 2: Solvent-based Sealer

Please read helpful safety tips for using toxic solvents, at the end of this article.

Any permanent clear gloss spray sealer or permanent solvent-based varnish will seal the leaf. First check the label to see if it is permanent. The way to tell is from the instruction label on the product container. Removable vanishes will instruct how to remove the dried layer, while permanent ones will not. If it is removable see special instructions in the next paragraph. With permanent sealers, two coats are recommended. Once dry you can apply oil paint over it. To apply acrylic over it, lightly sand, then apply the water-based sealer over it as described above in Method 1 for best adhesion between the acrylic paint and sealer. Here’s one I like. Krylon makes a few good premanent clear coat spray sealers.

I often recommend using Golden’s MSA Varnish Gloss, or Golden’s Archival Varnish Gloss spray for use over leaf when planning on eventually overpainting with acrylic paint. These two varnishes by Golden are what I use along with the application method described here. These are good fine-art products and seal leaf well even though they are both removable. Since they are removable, wait two weeks after application for the coating to fully dry, then apply a permanent seal coat over it using the water-based sealer I mentioned above in Method 1. You will need to do this whether you are overpainting with oil OR acrylic. You MUST apply something permanent over these removable sealers before applying paint. Once you apply the water-based medium in Method 1 over the removable sealer, you can then overpaint with acrylic once the GAC coating is dry to the touch. If overpainting with oil paint wait a week or more once the GAC coating has dried.

Important: DO NOT overpaint Golden’s MSA Varnish or their Archival Varnish with oil paint UNLESS you seal over the varnish with the mixture of GAC200 and GAC500 as instructed above. These varnishes have UV protection in them, and one of the essential resins used in the varnishes can interfere with the drying process of any oil paint applied over it.

7. Paint
Apply paint opaquely and/or transparently over the sealed leaf to get a variety of effects. For maximum variation and interest, allow some leaf to remain unpainted, some leaf areas to be fully covered, as well as some leaf showing through transparent paint. If you end up with too much paint coverage some of the paint can be sanded off. Here is where it helps to have substantial coats of Pre-Paint Sealing.

8. Post-Paint Sealing- final painting topcoat
It’s a good idea to varnish paintings at the very end, even if you already sealed the leaf prior to painting. Sealing with an archival varnish over leaf and paint is recommended. It enables the painting to be cleaned, and adds UV protection.

For oil painting over leaf, wait about a month for the oil painting to dry before this final varnish coat. Wait longer if oil paint is applied thickly. This final varnish is applied over the whole surface, including leaf and oil paint. Use Goldens Archival Varnish Gloss spray, Golden’s MSA Varnish, Gamvar by Gamblin or any other archival removable solvent-based varnish meant for oil paint.

For acrylic painting over leaf, I like to use Golden’s Polymer Varnish Gloss, which is non-toxic. Do not use this water-based varnish product over oil paint. However it is a good final varnish product to use over acrylic paint and the sealed leaf. And also very important!!! Do not use this product for the Pre-Paint Seal. If used directly on unsealed imitation gold leaf it will tarnish the leaf. If you did not apply enough sealer over the leaf in the Pre-Paint Seal, this varnish may still reach the leaf layer and tarnish it.

For non-fine-art projects like furniture, that will get physically used, apply a commercial sealer like solvent-based polyurethane instead of the fine art varnishes I recommend here.

gold leaf painting by Nancy Reyner
Stargate, 48″ x 36″, acrylic & gold leaf on panel

More Resources & Info on Gold Leaf

Acrylic Painting Techniques on Gold Leaf Video for purchase

View paintings on gold leaf

Acrylic Illuminations step-by-step instruction book and ideas on leafing for painters

Video – How to Apply Gold Leaf

Article on gold leaf by GOLDEN.

Please note! While I highly value the tech team at GOLDEN and their expert advice, I do not agree with everything listed in their linked article above. Everything I have written here has been verified by GOLDEN’s top tech advisor. If there are any discrepancies between my article and theirs, know that I have fully tested and verified everything I wrote here. GOLDEN has expertise in acrylic, yet I have more expertise and experience with gold leaf, as it pertains to acrylic and using their products. Therefore, you may find some contradictions between my article and theirs. YES you can use GAC 200 over imitation leaf in the way I describe. YES you can use the removable varnish in between layers as I also describe. The important thing to note is that Golden is correct, that normally their products are not meant for application in the way I am using it. As long as you follow my special application instructions their products will work well for the purposes I am using them here.


Supply List & Links

Any painting surface such as canvas, fabric, canvas panels or wood panels, objects and walls.

Links for wood painting panels

Links for metal leaf

LEAF ADHESIVE (also known as gilding or leafing size)
Remember there are two choices: water-based (which is non-toxic and can only be used over acrylic) and solvent-based (which can be used over acrylic or oil).

Links for leaf adhesive:

Remember there are 2 different sealing steps and these require different products. Review this article to make sure you get the right product.

Links for sealers:
Permanent Clear Gloss Spray by Krylon RECOMMENDED

Link for wax paper:

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  1. Luis Zamora

    Hello. I have a question. I am working on an oil painting with an element representing a mirror. I first toned my canvas with diluted acrylic paint before I adhered my imitation gold leaf on the mirror area, but it doesn’t look too reflective since it picks up the canvas texture. I’m thinking about sealing the imitation leaf with the Mona Lisa Speedball metal leaf sealer before I can paint the areas that are for oil paint. After that, I would add a few coats of Gamvar gloss varnish over the imitation leaf to make a reflective finish while varnishing the oil paint with Gamvar satin varnish. Do you think this overall process can still tarnish the imitation gold leaf? Thanks for sharing this article!

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Luis,
      I agree that gold leaf loses it’s glow when it goes over canvas texture. That is why I like using wood panel for it’s smooth surface. When I do need to use canvas I will apply Molding Paste over the entire surface with a knife to change the quality of the surface, so that the leaf looks better. I have not tried the Mona Lisa Speedball metal leaf sealer. It is water-based which means it probably has ammonia in it. It does say it is meant for leaf, but I would still be careful over the imitation gold leaf. I recommend trying it out on something you don’t care about before applying it to your painting to make sure it doesn’t tarnish the leaf. The Gamvar varnishes are solvent based so they won’t tarnish. I agree that the gloss varnish is best over the leaf, and the satin over the oil paint.

  2. Maria Alma

    Understood 😘 ,thank you ,thank you so much for sharing to us your expertise on gold leafing.

  3. Antz

    As a fairly new artist exploring with gold leaf on acrylic, I found this article very interesting and so informative. I happened to have a Krylon Crystal gloss spray from a previous project on coasters. Fingers crossed the gold leaf doesn’t tarnish as it’s not the UV resistant one recommended in here. Thank you for your informative page.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Tarnishing has nothing to do with UV. Tarnishing of imitation gold leaf happens two ways – with exposure to ammonia, or exposure to air. Just about all spray products are solvent based. This means they do not have ammonia and will not tarnish. By applying two to four coats you will seal the leaf sufficiently to keep it from tarnishing due to exposure to air. So no need to worry!

    • Maria Alma

      Hi Nancy thank you so much for the reply, greatly appreciated.
      I still have more question since amterdam varnish is archival and I cant find krylon solvent based +UV , what is available at the moment is GAC 200 as suggested by the sales person for sealing) but , i have Golden gloss spray varnish and Vallejo gloss liquid varnish can I use them to seal the amsterdam varnish for oil and acrylic that I have applied before painting over the leaf with acrylic? And use golden gloss varnish or vallejo gloss liquid varnish as sealer for the final varnish? May I also know if it will tarnish in years to come?

  4. Sherry Lynn

    Oohhh! The hint about using wax paper to apply the gold leaf was brilliant! A total game changer!
    I’m working on a 10 foot piece and using gold leaf (the real stuff!) for the first time. Because if you, I’ll probably use it again!

    You have offered me advice in the past, Nancy – I appreciate your generous sharing of your expertise!
    Thank you so much!

  5. Zaria

    Hello Nancy,

    Thank you for publishing this. I did a project that used acrylic paint, oil paint, and imitation gold leaf. The acrylic paint was applied as a background in thin layers and dried. The imitation gold leaf is on top of the acrylic paint. Would it be okay to use my usual varnish (Gamvar Gloss) on top of the entire painting since I am not painting over the gold leaf?

    Thank you so much!

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Zaria,
      I understand that you applied imitation gold leaf over the acrylic paint, but where and when did you apply oil paint? You can use Gamvar varnish over acrylic, oil and imitation leaf. Gamvar will make a good seal over the leaf. I was just curious about where the oil paint fit into your process.

    • Maria Alma

      Hi Nancy I want to thank you for a very informative ways in applying an imitation leaf. There is one question I’d like to know if I can use amsterdam varnish for acrylic and oil in sealing the gold leaf before applying acrylic paints. I think its solvent base since it cant be washed off with water. Greatly appreciate your expertise on this.
      Many thanks 😊

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Maria,
      Amsterdam Varnish is solvent based as you had said. That means it can go over oil, acrylic and real or imitation gold leaf without tarnishing. It is, however, removable. Archival varnishes are always removable. That is the key aspect that makes them archival. This means you would need to wait a week or two prior to using acrylic. Before painting on the sealed leaf with acrylic paint, you would need to apply a gloss acrylic over the removable varnish. I recommend GAC500 or GAC200 or a mixture of 1:1 of both. So basically you would need to seal the sealer!

      This is the same situation that happens when using the MSA Varnish I use and suggest to use in the video. However, I now suggest as an alternative, to use a permanent solvent-based sealer to seal the leaf before overpainting it. You can find these in any home improvement store. Look for a spray can of clear gloss and that should be permanent and solvent-based.

      There is a Krylon spray that has UV protection. If you can find that I think that is your best choice. If you use a permanent spray sealer you would only need to wait a few days before applying acrylic. You can still apply the GAC200, GAC500 or mixture of the two, over the permanent spray, after waiting a few days for the spray sealer to dry. The GAC200 and GAC500 are strong clear mediums that would also make it easier to apply acrylic paints to it.

  6. Bryony

    Hi Nancy,

    Do you know if gold leaf (imitation) can be applied over liquid gold leaf? And how this might change the varnish stage afterward?
    Thank you so much for all the help and information,

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Bryony,
      I have not tried applying imitation gold leaf over liquid gold leaf but I can give you my best guess on your question. When the liquid gold leaf dries you can probably apply leaf adhesive then the leaf without issue. If the liquid gold leaf is solvent-based (i.e. smells like solvent and the instructions say to wash brushes with turps) then you would need to use an oil-based leaf adhesive instead of the water-based one. The varnishing should not change. You will still need to apply a solvent based sealer (i.e. any gloss clear spray will be solvent based and these are easily obtained at Home Depot, Walmart or any home improvement store) over the leaf whether it is over the liquid gold leaf or not.

  7. Jenna Ferguson

    Hi Nancy! Firstly, thank you so much for your informative blog post, you’re so generous with your knowledge! It’s been really helpful for me to read.
    I have a collection of paintings that I’ve created using imitation leaf on wooden panels. I sealed the leaf using epoxy resin (Art Resin brand), before I painted on top of the resin using acrylic paint. The leaf didn’t tarnish on any of my paintings, which was brilliant! But I have been worrying that imitation leaf could still tarnish over time, even underneath the resin. Is that possible? Or will it not tarnish as it has been sealed with the resin?

    Really appreciate your advice! Thank you.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Jenna,
      No need to worry. Once the imitation gold leaf is sealed (with whatever you used) then it will not tarnish due to exposure to air (it is sealed so no air will get to it). It will also not tarnish when it comes into contact with ammonia. Ammonia is in all water-based acrylic paints and products BUT only when they are still wet. Once the acrylic paints or products have dried the ammonia has dissipated. If you apply acrylic paints or products over the sealed leaf, the ammonia that is in them while wet will not go through the seal. So your leaf should not tarnish. I have not used the epoxy resin you mentioned so I can’t say for certain but a seal is a seal!

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Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner’s blog about art, painting and creativity. Her career spans over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe in the US. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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