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Gold Grounds for Painting

Painting by Sonia Bukhgalter Title: It Comes with Rain

The gilded surface holds a fascination that is linked to the nature of the material itself. A leaf of real gold is visually captivating. Quite often when we demonstrate the gilding process, which involves coaxing the thin fluttery leaf of precious metal out of the book and onto the cushion, people gasp. The leaf flows like liquid, sensitive to even the tiniest breathe of air, catching and reflecting light like the surface of a brook. People often ask if they can keep a tiny fragment left behind on the gilder’s cushion.

A burnished gold surface reflects light, and depending on where you stand in relation to it, it can appear very dark in value, or extremely light. It can shine luminously with strong reflected light, or it can present the viewer with a vague reflection of themselves in a warm golden alternative reality. The changing nature of the gold adds challenges for the painter who wishes to paint on gold grounds, but also adds a mobile dimension to the work that is intriguing.

The 14th century Italian masters understood the qualities of the gold ground very well. An angel placed on a field of burnished gold is placed as in a sky or a sea whose depth is undefined. It evokes wonder and reverence as we brush up against the undefinable. The punchwork, raised pastiglia and sgraffito decoration on the gilded surface invite direct appreciation of the material. This skilled use of beauty ensures our emotional involvement. A masterwork like the Annunciation with St Margaret and St Ansanus in the Uffizi Gallery has the enraptured viewer moving between the ephemeral and the material as the eye travels over the wings and cloak of the angel coming to announce to Mary the impossible. We are clearly in the realm of the spiritual and this is a suitable language for these topics.

I asked my daughter Sonia why she likes to use gold grounds in her work. (See her work in the photo above). She paints shifting clouds and moody ‘Turneresque’ sky-scapes. Lately she has been painting clouds producing rainstorms. She explained that the storm clouds are in transition from a state of gas to liquid, and the gilded surface is between the defined space of matter and a more spiritual state. As you move around the painting it changes completely because of the reflective nature of the gold. If art reflects nature then this state of flux is accurate. It depicts the nature of reality as an ever-changing state of being.

For more reading on creating water gilded surfaces and to see some of my artwork with gold leaf, you can read my blog post on Jackson’s Art Supplies, or if you want to learn to gild you can start with our online course.


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