Frame Talk #4: Traditional Water Gilding 23k Gold Leaf

In this edition of Frame Talk I’d like to give a short explanation of the traditional water gilding process vs. oil gilding.  There is absolutely no comparison to the final results of these two processes.  Very difficult to photograph but this painting titled Drifting by Diane Eugster is framed with a floater frame of my design which has a 23k gold leafed edge.  My goal was to rub back the gold to expose the lay lines and also the red clay base to compliment the palette of the painting.  It’s on stretched canvas and measures 24″ x 30″.

Drifting by Diane Eugster

The work began by milling the frame from Basswood which is 3/4″ thick by 2″ wide.  The width is usually determined by the material I have on hand and how I can get the most from a given board, since I had an almost 9″ wide piece it was economical to rip it for 2″ wide molding.  Precious gold leaf comes in sheets just over 3″ square so again, to economize on that cutting, them into 1″ wide pieces would yield 3 strips per sheet.  To mount the canvas there is a dado cut into the inside of the molding which places the canvas about 1/8″ below the frame, 1/4″ plywood is glued into that.  Once the frame was mitered, glued, and clamped it was time to begin the water gilding process.

That process is quite involved and exacting.  Always feel as if I’m doing a science experiment!  It begins by making a 10% solution of rabbit skin glue and distilled water.  After soaking overnight this is heated to 120° then filtered into a clean container.  It will be used to initially coat the frame and then to make up the gesso and clay/bole required for the process.  Multiple coats of the gesso (distilled water and basically chalk) mixed with the rabbit skin glue are applied to the frame and then sanded.  This is followed up with more coats of the clay/bole mix which is also mixed with rabbit skin glue.  Both of these need to be kept within a specific temperature range which is why you see a yogurt maker!

Next is that gilding process which I hope to master before I leave this earth!  Genuine gold leaf comes in a book of 25 leaves and costs can range from $40.00 to $100.00 or more depending on the country of origin.  To prepare the frame to accept the gold leaf it must first be wetted with a solution of distilled water and isopropyl alcohol.  Remember all of that rabbit skin glue? This solution reactivates it so that the leaf will adhere to the frame.  You can’t touch the leaf but need to pick it up with what’s called a gilders tip and forget about breathing or running your a/c — this is fragile stuff!  I won’t bore you with the details but here’s a little montage.  The magic comes in when after the newly gilded frame is dry enough it can be burnished and it’s stunning!

The final steps are aging the gold leaf and adding patina by gently rubbing it back with rottenstone to expose those lay lines and the base coat.  For this frame the outer edges have been finished with black casein paint and a ruby shellac wash.  Mounting is through the back and directly into the stretcher bars of the canvas.  I drill oversized holes so that the painting can be positioned with an equal reveal all around.  So, the question is how much time to do this.  I tried to keep a record and from raw wood to finished piece is about 14 hours plus approximately $100.00 in materials.  Market value?, hard to say but for me it’s more about the challenge and satisfaction of the artist and their future buyer.


About woodworksbyjohn

I'm a retired woodshop teacher. I build one of a kind furniture pieces and custom picture frames. You can see some of my currently available work, boxes, carvings through my Etsy store: Contact me about your project -- always up for the challenge of unique work.
This entry was posted in Diane Eugster art, Floater Frame, Frame Talk, Gilding, Picture Frames and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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