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Updated: Dec 27, 2021

Embellish your books or calligraphy with this centuries-old technique

Gilding is the applying of gold or silver, here in the form of very thin foil called leaf, to surfaces as an embellishment. Many old manuscripts, like the Book of Kells, dating back to around 800 AD, were profusely illuminated (decorated with gilding and cartouches of scenes pertaining to the text, or just intertwined fantastic animals and floral motifs.)

This practice fell in disuse with Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press, except for some manuscripts commissioned by nobles and royalty. It also saw a brief revival during the 19th century as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution through the work of William Morris, the prominent figure in the British Arts and Crafts movement.

I am going to write the first verse of the 23rd Psalm and I will do raised gilding on the letter "L", only instead of raising the letter with gesso, as it would have been done traditionally, I will do "blind embossing", raising the letter by burnishing it from the back. I bought the 23k gold leaf and the paper from Paper and Ink, a mail-order catalog, but imitation gold, silver, coper and size can be found at many art supply stores and are a lot more affordable.

The paper I am using is called "Pergamenata" and it imitates somewhat the vellum, in that it is very stiff. Because it is translucent, it works best as you can see the outline of the letter drawn on the front, making it easy to emboss from the back. I am using a burnisher with a ball end, I found it in a pencil box that I picked up at a garage sale. A hobby shop where they sell copper foil should also have this type of burnisher.

I paint the background of the letter after the gilding is done, using gouache from Winsor and Newton from a set that I bought while in college in the early 90s. Although they're all dried up, being reversible, I add a drop of distilled water to some crumbs I shave from the solidified paint and after mixing it thoroughly, it's ready to go. I use ultramarine blue and when it dries it is matte which further contrasts with the shiny gold making the letter to stand out.

For the flourishes around the letter I use Bister Ink granules dissolved in distilled water, a gift from a dear friend (thank you Judy!) I draw them with a pointed steel nib. For writing the text I use a Pilot 2.4 mm pen and since I don't do calligraphy that often and my writing doesn't "flow" as I'd like it to, I do it on a piece of paper several times until I'm pleased with the outcome, then lay that under my piece with the gilding all done (remember, the Pergamenata is semi-transparent) and use it as a guide. For a paper that doesn't have the transparency, I would use the light-box and do it in the same manner. This way the risk of a boo-boo is much reduced. The Pergamenata has another benefit, because of its stiffness and hard finish, small mistakes can be easily scraped off with an Exacto knife.

I am hoping to do a video of the process soon.

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Judy Moyer
Judy Moyer
Oct 31, 2021

I wish I would have thought to give you some leafs...I got a book at a sale... cheap... 24k what a blessing... and I'm still afraid to do it. how bout an on-line demonstration.

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