Gilding Made Easy

Giles de Laval

Nothing says "medieval manuscript" quite like the gleam of gold shining on the page. Gilding is the highwire act of the scribe's art, the skill that can boost a scroll from "not bad" to "wow!"

Gilding can be an intimidating skill, and all too many scribes give up after a few hesitant experiments. Gilding is not as difficult as it first appears, and the results are well worth the effort. This article is the result of several years' experimentation with gilding, so you'll be able to pick up in a few minutes the tricks it took me years to learn.

What Not To Use

Although there are a lot of gilding products available, not all of them are suitable to gilding on scrolls. Avoid gold inks and metallic textas, as they are oil based and will damage the paper in a matter of weeks (I teamed that the hard way). Gold paints such as Jo Sonja are formulated primarily for use in folk art, and aren't much good for illumination. Rub-on gold finishes and the "Renaissance" gold foil kits are intended for use on wood, plaster and metal, and I really wouldn't like to chance them on paper.

Gilding Techniques

The products recommended for use on SCA scrolls, on the grounds of authenticity and durability, are gold gouache, powdered or shell gold, and gold leaf.
There are several varieties of metallic gouache available. For my money, Pelikan Rich Gold is best. Windsor & Newton is rather lifeless and difficult to apply evenly. Pelikan Pale Gold is a bit anaemic, and Pelikan Dark Gold is too coppery in tone. This is only a personal recommendation, please use whatever you like best. The paint should be diluted to a creamy consistency, and stirred constantly to keep the gold from settling out. For the best results, paint the area to be covered with a thin wash, and while this is still wet, flood on a sizeable amount of gouache. The surface tension of the water will distribute the gold evenly, but you might have to tease it carefully into tight corners. When completely dry, polish it with a dog-tooth burnisher, using a circular motion and very gentle pressure. This will smooth down the gouache and give it a nice sheen.
Powdered gold is sold in small quantities, and must be combined with gum arabic and diluted with distilled water before use. It can also be bought ready combined in small dried tablets, which is called shell gold. Powdered / shell gold is applied with a brush like ordinary paint, and when dry has a finely grained, quite dull finish. It can be brightened up quite a lot with burnishing, but is can never quite equal the brilliance of leaf.

Since well applied gold gouache looks very like shell gold (at a fraction of the cost and bother), I tend to stick to that for scrolls, especially for illuminating AA blanks.

There are two types of gold leaf: transfer gold and loose gold. Loose gold is sold in books of 25 loose leaves, each sandwiched between sheets of backing paper. Loose gold is extremely thin and requires the most delicate handling. It can blow away very easily, and it disintegrates at a careless touch. I prefer to use transfer gold, which comes in single sheets affixed to a backing sheet, just like a transfer. It is cheaper than loose gold, much easier to handle, and there is less wastage.

Both types of leaf must be stuck down with an adhesive. Traditional size is made with gum ammoniac crystals, which have to be soaked in warm water overnight and strained through nylon stockings. It can also be bought ready made. I'm not very keen on gum ammoniac, as it is relatively expensive, smelly and can only be used for flat gilding.
The most commonly used adhesive in period was gesso, a mixture of plaster, white lead, fish glue and sugar. Gesso is sold ready made in liquid or solid form Gesso forms a raised "cushion", which lets the gold catch and reflect light from all directions. Using gesso is an art in itself, and one which can be tricky and laborious: nonetheless, it is well worth pursuing. Gesso has to be handled carefully at every stage, and although it the most authentic technique and unquestionably gives the most superior results, I find it's often too much hard work for my taste.

Minimum Effort, Maximum Effect

The most effective and painless gilding technique I've found uses transfer gold and PVA glue. That's right, good old-fashioned Aquadhere, that you can get at any hardware store. It is flexible, durable, chemically inert, and can be used for flat or raised gilding with a minimum of effort That's more like it.

To use PVA, place a small amount in a saucer and add a couple of brushfuls of water, enough to slightly reduce its viscosity, but not enough to make it runny. The more dilute the mixture is, the flatter the gold will lie. You want it thick enough to form a cushion, but just thin enough to get in to the corners. You'll get a feel for this very quickly. It's also a good idea to add a little gouache (usually red) so you can see the glue on the page when it dries. Mix water and colour in gently and slowly, or else you'll get bubbles (if you do, prick them with a pin to ensure a smooth surface on the cushion). Flood the area to be gilded with the glue, teasing it into the corners and glopping it on until it forms a raised cushion.

Once this is completely dry (there are no "cloudy" spots left), you must "re-activate" the glue by breathing on it. Put your mouth as close to the paper as you can without actually touching it, and exhale deeply several times on the glue. Try not to think about how stupid this looks. Breathe from your belly and keep your mouth wide, to get the maximum amount of moisture from your lungs onto the glue. Then, quickly place the transfer gold face down on the area and press firmly. The gold will stick only where the glue is, so there will be little or no wastage.

If there is excess flick it away with a soft, dry brush and polish the gold either with a dog tooth burnisher, or rub briskly with the pad of a clean, dry finger. This will remove any excess and burnish the gold, and the pad of a finger has enough give not to dent the glue underneath. The gold has a smooth, brilliant finish, as if it had been melted on to the page.

With only a small amount of practise, you should be able to lay gold fairly quickly and easily. I find this method works best for me, but please, experiment and practice for yourself. You may well find a technique that works better for you, and you should always strive for better results and greater accuracy. Whichever way, gilding will enhance the look of your work immensely, and make the scrolls you create treasures indeed.

Note from Yseult:  a haematite pebble from a New Age shop works well as a burnisher, too. I also find that having a cup of hot chocolate or coffee handy helps keep my mouth moist if I'm doing a lot of gilding in one go.


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Authored by Jehan, Giles, and Yseult AS XXXVIII (2003)