'Why use gold leaf when you could just reach for a tube of gold paint, or a pot of powdered metal?' asks Liz Chaderton. 'While they are super products, visually there is a huge difference in the reflective qualities of paint, ink and leaf. If you want warmth and decadence, gold leaf is the way to go'.

What is gold leaf?

Real gold leaf is metal hammered into extremely thin sheets, which is sold between pieces of tissue. Its price fluctuates with the world gold price.

Imitation gold leaf is usually sold in larger 14x14cm squares. It is an alloy of copper and zinc, while imitation silver leaf is made from aluminium. Imitation leaf is easier to handle and a tenth of the price of its genuine cousin. Given that you may wish to break up the gold or paint over it in places, it is quite sufficient and easier to handle.

Leaf comes either loose or as transfer. The transfer leaf is fixed to a sheet of tissue, which you take off once the leaf is stuck down. Loose leaf is better if you need to apply over a textured surface, while transfer is easier to handle, but less versatile.

The traditional gilding can be laborious. Liz's method (see demonstration below) is based on oil gilding, in that it uses size, a type of glue, but none of the specialist tools such as a gilder’s knife, tip and cushion.

Purists may not approve, but it gives the impact and is fun - a winning combination!


Golden Hare, watercolour, ink and metal leaf on canvas, (40x40cm).

In this hare, small pieces of red variegated leaf were used to add interest to the background.

Demonstration - Gilded Feather

Step 1

  • Clear your work area.
  • Close the windows.
  • Ensure your completed painting is dry.

I did a small, very loose study of a feather to show how even a simple subject can be made special with gold leaf. An autumn leaf would be another good starter subject.


Step 2

Tint your size with a toning colour, making it easier to see and act as an undertone in one.

I used a flat brush to apply the size to the larger areas, breaking up the edges, and a small fine brush to put on thin marks.

I did some fine splatters with the brush and used a syringe to put on big spots. The spots are far thicker than the surrounding areas so you will be able to see the three-dimensional effect.

Content continues after advertisements

I then left it to dry overnight. The thin areas dry to tack in just 15 minutes, but the spots take far longer. However, because the open time is indefinite, this gives flexibility.

Step 3

To avoid waste I cut pieces of leaf to the approximate size required.

Taking off the protective tissue, I use the static property of plastic to pick up the leaf and apply it to the tacky area.

I gently rubbed it down using a bit of the tissue to protect the leaf.

Step 4

Taking a soft brush, get rid of the skewings and use them to patch anything missed.

If you think you have not put on enough gold, simply repeat these steps, but as with so much in watercolour, less is more.

Step 5

Three thin coats of gloss varnish will stop oxidation.

If you use matte, it will diminish the shine.


The finished painting

Feather, watercolour and imitation metal leaf on Strathmore 140lb NOT watercolour paper, (28x18cm)

Liz Chaderton writes regularly for Leisure Painter and is a professional artist based in Berkshire. She runs weekly classes and regular workshops. Visit her website www.lizchaderton.co.uk for details.

This demonstration is taken from the December 2018 issue of Leisure Painter. Enjoy endless inspiration with access to past and present issues of both magazines, plus exclusive video demos, tutorials and more, with our Studio Membership! Discover how you can join today.

Discover how you can join today

Content continues after advertisement