Landscape & Galactic Dust, 48″ x 60″, acrylic & gold leaf on panel, Nancy Reyner
Gold Leaf + Paint = Fun
You’ve probably figured out by now that I really really like gold leaf! I like shiny stuff. But I also enjoy the challenge of combining it with paint. Anyone game to try? If so, this blog article provides all the details you need to dive right in. I have also created a video with complete demonstrations. Watch it below, then make sure and come back to read this article, for updated information, most significantly to important topics like sealing. This blog article also has other information not offered in the video such as supply lists and other tips.
My video above gives all the tips and tricks for creating a gold leaf surface to paint on, and also sealing the leaf for overpainting with acrylic paint. The most confusion seems to focus on sealing, so please read this article in full, with special attention to the sealing information. I update this article periodically with new information, while the video remains the same. If you are painting with oil paint, first watch the video for general application methods even though in the demonstrations I use acrylic. Then continue reading this blog article for some important changes when using oil. Scroll down for updates and links for suppliers and resources near the end.
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 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 (and real gold) for a painting surface, is because in my opinion, the sleek and smooth resulting gold surface, does not easily visually integrate with paint, when used as a painting background.
In my opinion it is worth the expense to use real gold and water gilding application, when you will be showing the gold 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 this type of 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 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 for more details & demonstrations) Then read the following for THE MOST 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.
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: 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. 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.
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.
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 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.
Above: Stargate, 48″ x 36″, 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. Please note! While I highly value the tech team at GOLDEN and their expert advice, I do not agree with everything listed in their article. Everything I write 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. I do believe I have more expertise and experience with sealing over gold leaf using their products. You may find some contradictions between my article and theirs. YES you can use GAC200 over imitation leaf in the way I describe. YES you can use the removable varnish in between layers as I describe.
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.