Guide to Gilding: Applying the Gold

Now that we have our substrate ready to go, the time has come to apply gold to the frame. The gold is the tomato in the salad, the omelet’s goat cheese, or the chocolate for the cake. It’s both essential and exciting.

To get started, one of the gilders at Lowy Frame and Restoring Co. sets up the workspace with brushes, a gilder’s knife, gilder’s liquor and booklets of gold leaf around the prepared frame. The gold leaf comes in boxes of 500 sheets, separated by very thin tissue paper. The purity of the gold can range from six to twenty-four karats, and it is common for us to work with both white and traditional yellow gold. Whether restoring an existing frame or applying an entirely new finish, the frames at Lowy are a product of art history and aesthetic preferences.

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The gilder starts at the corner of the frame. He or she will cut a section from the booklet of gold leaf with a gilder’s knife on a leather pad. The width and shape of these sections are dictated by the size and pattern of the frame. Very thin pieces are required for the most ornate schemes, while larger rectangles can be used for flat panels. When the gold leaf is cut, the gilder uses a brush to pick up the leaf and lay it on the frame. The brush is about three inches wide and made from very soft squirrel hair, weighing less than an empty paper cup. A gilder must be practiced and steady-handed to apply this layer properly because gold leaf is an unforgiving material. Once the leaf has been placed, the gilder uses a sable brush to paint a layer of gilder’s liquor over the gold. Gilder’s liquor is a combination of water, alcohol and gelatin glue, which when used by a gilder to adhere gold leaf to the frame produces a bond that can last hundreds of years.

The skills, experience and understanding of Lowy’s gilders and their knowledge of traditional materials used in gilding make us a great resource for your framing needs.

Featured Frames of the Week

This week, we bring you two more antique Spanish frames, this time with a back-story. As many readers of The Lowy Blog will know, the ardent community of frame enthusiasts spans the globe. Lowy Frame and Restoring Co. will gladly travel thousands of miles to inspect particularly unusual or engaging pieces. For the frames below, Larry Shar made the trip to Salamanca, Spain to view a collection of 17th and 18th century antique Spanish frames that had been collected by an elderly antiquarian over the course of his lifetime.

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This extraordinary 17th-century Spanish receding Baroque parcel-gilt frame comes from the Salamanca-based antiquarian’s collection.

Before being permitted to see the frames, Lowy’s president had to be interviewed to make sure he was worthy of owning the collection’s treasures. After passing the test, he examined the frames and beckoned the drivers of the truck he had hired to take them to the exporter for shipment. To Larry’s amazement, he was surprised to learn that it was not possible because the three-hour siesta had just begun. The good news? He was treated to a two-and-a-half-hour lunch.

At Lowy, we’re visual people, and we love faces. This small late 17th-early 18th century carved, gilt and polychrome frame contains shells and painted masks connected to cherub heads and stylized scrolling leaf carvings.
At Lowy, we’re visual people, and we love faces. This small late 17th-early 18th century carved, gilt and polychrome frame contains shells and painted masks connected to cherub heads and stylized scrolling leaf carvings.

The Cultural Heritage of Gilding

Gold leaf has been used to embellish objects serving significant social and cultural purposes for thousands of years. Foremost among this history are religious traditions involving gold. A plethora of gilded devotional objects and architectural elements were used in medieval Western religions, relying on the brilliant qualities of gold to signify the presence of the divine and to convey an aura of reverence.  Some of these, such as miniature icons and charms, were portable, while others, such as wall murals, carvings and spires, remained stationary. One example of a large architectural project is the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine in Jerusalem. A landmark for Muslims and Judeo-Christians alike, the central dome is covered in gold.

The Dome of the Rock is embellished in mosaic patterns and gold. When the dome was refurbished in 1993, 80 kilograms of gold were required to complete the project. (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Dome of the Rock is embellished in mosaic patterns and gold. When the dome was refurbished in 1993, 80 kilograms of gold were required to complete the project. (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Eastern religions have also been known to employ gold as a signifier and a narrative aid. In Thailand, statues of the Buddha are often gilded to literally convey religious text, which describes the spiritual teacher’s golden complexion. Buddhist visitors to a temple can show their devotion to the faith by applying their own piece of gold to a statue. Other times, Buddhist religious scripts are written in gold lettering.

Figure of the Buddha Amida seated on a lotus pedestal, made of lacquered and gilded wood.From Dairenji Temple, Osaka, Japan, mid 18th century. (image courtesy of The British Museum)
Figure of the Buddha Amida seated on a lotus pedestal, made of lacquered and gilded wood. From Dairenji Temple, Osaka, Japan, mid 18th century. (image courtesy of The British Museum)

In a secular context, gold symbolizes power. The material is seen in the Far East on objects including Chinese porcelain, Korean beads, Japanese screens, Indian armlets and Middle Eastern coinage. In the West, we have shoes, Italian armor, English bodkin cases, French brooches and dozens of other treasures befitting each national tradition. Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” boasted gold scrollwork on the bows of each of 16 functioning naval battleships.

Nowadays, visitors to the U.S. Capitol and other official buildings are greeted with an awe-inspiring onslaught of gilded ceilings, frames and column details. Many of the frames received conservation treatment from Lowy’s master gilder, R. Wayne Reynolds. Curators, art lovers and high profile clients have trusted Lowy Frame & Restoring Co. for over a century.

Featured Frame of the Week!

This week’s featured frame is an exceptional 17th century Spanish Charles II-style frame embellished with carvings, gold, and polychrome panel. The design features extended corners with scrolling acanthus leaf carvings, flower-head and leaf carvings, and panels with intricate sgraffito and faux-leather punchwork.

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Spanish frames from this time were known for their bold braggadocio, due partly to the emerging influences of Baroque art and visual culture from Spanish colonies including Mexico, Peru and Chile. Old master portraits, such as the below painting of Don Pedro de Barberana by Diego Velázquez, are likely candidates for the energetic and often colorful frames of this period, though later Spanish artists such as Picasso, Dali and Miro also admired the style. These modern masters frequently created abstract and surrealist works to be housed within a textured, engaging frame, displaying the change in artistic styles and techniques to stunning effect. Such diverse aesthetic appeal testifies to the joy to be found in these ornate creations, which invite the viewer for an intimate experience of both the framed artwork and the frame itself.

Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Don Pedro de Barberana (image courtesy of Frameworks by Paul Mitchell and Lynn Roberts)
Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Don Pedro de Barberana (image courtesy of Frameworks by Paul Mitchell and Lynn Roberts)

Guide to Gilding: Preparing the Surface

Lowy’s antique and reproduction frames represent various historical periods from the 15th through 20th centuries. The process of creating a gilded reproduction frame starts with the entire frame designed on paper, which is then carved in wood. Wood is one of the most common and useful substrates for gilding because it is stable over time and because it is true to traditional techniques. In accordance with fashion, culture and custom, frame makers have worked in a variety of woods such as pine, poplar, oak and limewood. In the 19th century, the newly developed material called composition, a thick moldable mix of rabbit skin glue, whiting, linseed oil and rosin, gained popularity for its ability to mass produce ornament. Composition made it possible to make complex frames with many different designs because the ornament could be cast into molds and applied to the frame, instead of being hand carved.

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Even when elegantly carved, bare wood is irregular and must be smoothed before applying gold. First, we apply a layer of rabbit skin glue to ensure that bonds will form properly. Then, we brush on 10-12 coats of warm liquid gesso, a protective covering typically made from calcium carbonate or calcium sulfate, water, rabbit-skin glue and sometimes linseed oil. After the gesso dries, it is sanded. Next, we apply layers of traditional bole, a fine particle clay also mixed with rabbit skin glue. The bole, which is usually yellow, red or grey, will over time start to show its color through the gilding due to abrasion of the finish. When applying these base layers, gilders must balance even coverage with maintaining detail, keeping the original design intact. Sometimes this requires that we recut the design by carving back into the gesso layer to redefine or augment the ornamentation.

In this 17th century Italian frame, red clay is visible through the finish.
In this 17th century Italian frame, red clay is visible through the finish.

Lowy has facilities for antique frame reproduction, carving and gilding. That’s one of the reasons why we have been sought out for frame fabrication and restoration projects for such a long list of venues, ranging from government buildings to private collections and public exhibitions. If you would like more information, please ask! And stay tuned for the rest of our series on gilding.