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Guide to Gilding Artwork

Gold, Copper and Silver leaf

I recently used real gold leaf on a Lino print and wanted to share my process with you. Gilding artwork can add a touch of luxury and sophistication to your piece! It comes in various colors, such as gold, silver and copper, and can be applied to a variety of surfaces, including paper and canvas.

Tools needed for gilding

Tools Needed:

  • Gold, Silver, Copper or imitation metal leaf

  • Adhesive (size)

  • Soft bristle brush

  • Cotton gloves

  • Soft cloth

  • Varnish for metal leaf that will tarnish over time

Step-by-Step Guide:

Prepare the surface:

The surface to be gilded needs to be dry, clean and free of any dust. In some cases, such as on canvas, it is recommended to prime the surface with a layer of gesso to ensure a smooth and even finish.

Apply the adhesive:

Apply a thin layer of adhesive, also known as size, to the surface using a soft bristle brush. I recommend rinsing the brush regularly before the size dries and ruins the brush. It’s also useful to tint the size so that you can see where you’ve applied the glue. I use Daler Rowney System 3 Acrylic ink to tint mine as the size I use is acrylic based but check that yours is compatible.. The size should be tacky but not wet. Check the instructions on the bottle for waiting times and wait for the size to dry until it feels sticky to the touch.

Applying copper leaf to the glue

Apply the metal leaf:

Take a sheet of metal leaf and gently lay it over the sticky size. I use a soft cotton cloth to gently press the leaf onto the surface. I also recommend wearing cotton gloves as they not only stop the leaf sticking to your fingers, they also stop certain metal leaves from oxidizing and tarnishing, which they will do even under varnish if the oils from your skin has come into contact with it. Real gold, palladium and pure aluminium leaf won’t tarnish which makes things a whole lot easier if your work doesn’t take well to being varnished.

Repeat the process:

Repeat the process until the desired area is covered. Overlapping the leaf is fine but to avoid too much wastage I try to keep this to a minimum. I also use a small jar in which to keep any decent sized leftover pieces. They can then be used to patch missed areas.

Burnishing the copper leaf

Burnish the surface:

Once the leaf has been applied, use a soft cloth to gently press and smooth out any wrinkles in the leaf and make sure the entire area is covered.

Brushing away the excess copper leaf

Brush away the excess:

Using a soft bristled brush, gently brush away the excess leaf to reveal your gilded area. If any areas have been missed you can go back in and touch it up by repeating the process.

Optional: Varnish:

For Silver, Copper and imitation metal leaf you will need to varnish your artwork as it tarnishes and oxidizes over time, unless of course you want this effect to become a part of your art. If working on paper as I do, varnishing can be a problem or impossible without the paper warping. I recommend using real gold leaf and palladium or pure aluminum leaf instead of silver. There are a number of different varnishes to choose from and I recommend a little research to find the right one for your particular piece.

Stand back and admire your artwork!


Important! Make sure that your artwork is dry before you start to gild. The leaf will stick anywhere the work is even slightly wet!

Similarly, make sure you are careful where you paint the glue.

Brush marks in the glue will show through the leaf, so either keep them soft for a smoother finish or incorporate them into your work.

For large areas try using a sponge to apply the size (glue) You can work quickly to cover a larger area but be careful when it comes to the edges as the leaf will stick anywhere the glue is!

Tweezers can be useful for placing small pieces of leaf accurately.

Make sure your paper doesn’t warp when you apply the glue. I tend to go for a heavier weight paper rather than some of the thinner papers that do this.

There are a range of products for professional gilding which can sometimes be expensive. Look for cheaper alternatives.

Use a vacuum cleaner to pick up all those pesky little bits! They tend to fly away from sweeping brushes.

Experiment with imitation leaf before spending out on the more expensive leaf.

If you are going to varnish your work consider using imitation metal leaf. As long as you wear cotton gloves to avoid tarnishing, it’s a much cheaper alternative to its real counterpart.

Make sure you practice and get used to handling and applying metal leaf before applying it to your finished piece!

Happy gilding!


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