I thought my Youtube video How to Apply Gold Leaf covered it all. Remember that expression “everything but the kitchen sink”? Well that definitely applies to my video, which gives all the tips and tricks for creating a gold leaf surface to paint on. The video explores how to prepare the leafed surface for overpainting with acrylic paint. HOWEVER, it appears I was amiss to include some alternate instructions for those of you that use oil paint. How silly of me. So I decided to write this blog article which includes all the information on applying gold leaf with acrylic OR oil paint. I still recommend watching the aforementioned video for even more information about leafing.
Real Gold Leaf vs Imitation Gold Leaf
There are two different types of gold leaf you can purchase to use – real gold leaf and imitation gold leaf. Real gold leaf is made of mostly pure gold and comes in different karats. Imitation (or composite) gold leaf is made of copper and zinc, and comes in a few variations of gold colors.
There are two ways to apply leaf, regardless of using real or imitation leaf. One application method uses leaf adhesive (also called gilding of leafing size) and the other method called water gilding is more complicated. In my video I demonstrate using the first method with 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 it is because it’s sleekness will not visually integrate with paint when used as a painting background.
In my opinion it is worth the expense to use real gold when you will be showing it off 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 will visually integrate better when used in a painting.
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 apply real gold or imitation gold leaf, using the adhesive method I show in the aforementioned video, and they will look the same because of the application method. When you want to apply the leaf with the water gilding method, then it makes sense to use real gold leaf instead of imitation gold leaf.
On left: real gold leaf; On right: imitation gold leaf
Sealing Gold Leaf
There are two different sealing processes we need to consider for most projects involving leafing with paint: 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. Sealing the leaf allows for over-painting with oil or acrylic without negatively affecting the leaf.
Post-Paint Sealing provides a 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.
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 for each of these two sealing steps.
Gold Leafing Steps
(watch video for more details & demonstrations)
1. Prepare Surface
Paint the surface a color. This will only show minimally under the 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, 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.
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.
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: Sealing the 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. 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. This water-based version also requires some understanding about its application or could result in tarnishing. These points are explained 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.
Method 1: Water-based Sealer
Make a mixture combining two Golden mediums, GAC200 with GAC500, in an approximate 1:1 ratio. You can also use the GAC200 by itself, but combining it with GAC500 to it allows for a smoother application. Brush apply one coat over the leaf using a smooth flat soft brush. Please note – this method will NOT work substituting any other acrylic mediums. Here’s why. 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 either, as they are formulated for different purposes.
This mixture is a bit tricky to apply as you can see from the above information. If it dries too slowly, it won’t work. Eliminate any water on the brush and do not add any into the medium, as this will slow the drying. Don’t apply it too thickly. Do not use a stiff bristle brush, or overbrush by brushing once it starts to dry and gets tacky. If you do, you will create a cloudy film that is permanent and ruins your leaf surface.
If overpainting with heavy applications of acrylic, or you need 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 overpainting with thin layers of acrylic paint or overpainting with oil. Once your last coat is applied and dry to the touch you can overpaint with acrylic or oil paint.
Method 2: Solvent-based Sealer
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 in Method 1 for best adhesion between the acrylic paint and sealer.
I often recommend using Golden’s MSA Varnish Gloss, or Golden’s Archival Varnish Gloss spray for use over leaf with acrylic overpainting. This is 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 in Method 1. You can overpaint with acrylic once the GAC coating is dry to the touch. To apply oil paint over this wait a week or more.
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 GAC 200 and 500 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.
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
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 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 product over oil paint. Do not use this product for the Pre-Paint Seal. If used directly on unsealed leaf it will tarnish the leaf.
Above: Stargate, 48″ x 36″, acrylic & gold leaf on panel
Top of Page: Landscape & Galactic Dust, 48″ x 60″, acrylic & gold leaf on panel
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
Supply List & Links
Any painting surface such as canvas, fabric, canvas panels or wood panels, objects and walls.
Links for wood painting panels
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).
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:
Link for wax paper:
Nancy Reyner, painter, author and instructor offers assistance to artists in a variety of ways. Click here for more info.