Gold. The word itself conjures many impressions…currency, ultimate value, the divine, the sun, enduring timeless beauty.
Gold has been used for decorative purposes for thousands of years and because of its impervious nature many examples of its use have endured for centuries without tarnish or decay.
The application of gold to surfaces such as picture frames and furniture has barely changed over the centuries. These techniques have been passed on throughout history by apprentices of the craft….to some, the technique of gilding is considered to be nothing less than the highest art form and indeed, a spiritual pursuit. One example of this would be Byzantine icons which date back to around the 11th century. These treasures were created as highly devotional and meditative stylizations of religious figures.
Essentially the gold, which is first pounded (historically by hand, although today some machinery is being used) into thin sheets merely .025″ thick, then trimmed into squares 3 1/2 “…seemingly, the breath of sunlight…too thin to be handled directly by human hands, must be picked up with a wide thin brush known as a gilder’s tip…the gold is held to the tip by static electricity generated by the gilder brushing this tip across his or her forearm. The gilder then positions the tip perfectly over the surface that has been painstakingly prepared with traditional gesso, which is a mixture of marble dust and rabbit skin glue. This surface, moments before the gold approaches, has been flooded with a solution of water and alcohol (gilders’ liquor). At this point, the gilder deftly and without hesitation brings the tip within a few millimeters of the water without contacting it…..it is at this moment that the magic happens…..the magnetism of the water to the gold pulls the gold off of the tip…the gold seem to leap to the surface smoothing and perfectly resembling every minute texture and detail of the substrate. Once the gold has been applied to the saturated surface it is allowed to dry…the water must dissipate for a day or so for the gold to become fastened securely…hence the term “water gilding”.
Once dry, the artist will then decide when and where to burnish the gold surface. The burnishing is where the gold is truly married to the substrate. The tool used for burnishing is an agate that has been attached to a handle. These burnishes come in a variety of sizes and shapes to suit the particular shapes and surfaces being worked on. The burnish is yet another magical stage in which the shine of the gold surface is achieved. If all previous steps and recipes have been successful, the shine of the gold may appear to be nearly black….as though light itself is emanating from the surface indeed this is what is happening.
We see many examples of artificial gold used today. These metallic surfaces, although seemingly the color of gold, lack the singing vibrancy and life that only genuine gold has. It is, after all, an element.
To further emphasize the laborious process, again, a process that remains virtually unchanged over centuries, mention must be made of the surface preparation. This is where the quality of the finished piece is begun.
Although almost any smooth surface can be gilded, I am aiming this article at picture frames specifically. The wood used must be perfectly smooth, sap and grain free. Basswood and poplar are the most common choices. These woods can be sanded and or carved very nicely.
The wood is then sealed with a warmed animal glue solution. Animal based gelatin sizing is also used. After the surface is sized, consecutive layers of traditional gesso are applied (this is not the ready made acrylic based gesso sold in art supply stores). Depending on the style, as many as 12 coats of gesso might be used. After the final coat the gesso is sanded with finer and finer sandpaper until a glass smooth surface is arrived at. Upon this surface, a paint like solution of “bole” or “clay” is built up…usually 2 to 5 coats. This material is earth pigment with the animal glue. The bole is usually red for gold leafing although other colors are sometime used for various effects. Remember, the gold leaf if only .025″ thick so whatever color the base coat is will inform the overall gold color. It is important to note that all the layers of base coating have the animal glue in common. This is what creates such a permanent bond to the wood. It is the alcohol in the gilders’ liquor that reactivates the glue after it has dried, thus adhering the gold.
Like a fine wine, a gilded frame improves over time. This is called the patina. Gilders have many techniques to emulate the effects of time on a surface. Toning and finishing the gold with a true sensitivity to the desired effect are the final steps in creating a truly beautifully gilded frame.
A visit to any major city art museum would be a great way to bask in the radiance of some of these truly splendid treasures of history.
Houston’s Custom Framing & Fine Art – 280 East Hersey St., Suite #11, Ashland, OR 97520