Alison Woolley is a Scottish born artist who grew up in Canada, but now lives in Italy where for the past 30 years she has run a decorative painting and gilding studio in Florence, alongside creating her own works. She has many years of water gilding experience, having started as an apprentice in an artisan ‘bottega’. As her experience grew she established her her own studio for completing specialised decoration work. In this post Alison shares with us her passion for gilding.
In this article I wanted to convey some of my fascination for the gilded surface and how I use it in my personal art work. Maybe you have considered using gilding in your work and would be interested in some ideas. If you have never done water gilding before, there is a bit of a learning curve, but it is well worth the time to learn to do it because you cannot get the same results by simply applying leaf to your work with gold size (glue). For some resources on where to start to learn you might look up the Society of Gilders, (www.societyofgilders.org.), a volunteer organization where many teachers are listed.
The burnished gold surface is highly reflective and richly attractive. I find that it has a mysterious element to it as well as a decorative one. It was used extensively in the 14th and 15th century for depictions of saints and spiritual subjects for altar panels. The water gilded surface can be painted with egg tempera paints, and decorated with incising and punch-work.
To prepare a wooden surface for water gilding you must coat the surface with layers of homemade gesso prepared with warm rabbit skin glue and Bologna chalk. This fills the grain of the wood, and can be easily sanded to make a perfectly smooth surface. The next step is to coat the surface with bole, which is a type of clay. The bole comes in the form of a paste in jars and must be combined with a warm glue mixture, either rabbit skin glue or gelatin. Several layers of the bole mixture is then applied to the gessoed panel. This bole or ‘gilder’s clay’ has a very unique property: it polishes up to a high shine when you rub over it with a burnisher, so it is important to have bole under the gold leaf if you want to obtain a burnish. The individual sheets of real gold leaf are laid on the bole layer. The gilder must wet the surface with water first, then carefully lay the leaf, using a ‘gilder’s tip’ brush to pick up the leaves of gold. When the gilding layer is dry, it can be burnished to a reflective glass-like finish with an agate stone burnishing tool.
In my personal artwork I enjoy using these antique techniques, but I like to give the work a contemporary feel. For example, I like to see colors under the gold other than the traditional yellow and red, so I use some of the blue, green and Italian grey colored bole from Sinopia when I am preparing my panel, then wear through the gilded surface to expose some of the color. The Sinopia bole is a wonderful quality bole and burnishes up to a high shine.
Here are some examples of my personal work using water gilding:
Alison Woolley offers gilding, decorative painting and restoration courses in her studio in Florence. For more info: www.florenceart.net
Header image: The artist decorating a harpsichord in her studio in Florence, 2016 (photo: Lynne Rutter)