Sunday, 15 January 2012

Elephant No. 105: Gilding

For today's elephant, I thought I'd take something cheap and make it look a bit more expensive by applying gold leaf—not real gold leaf, of course, but something that bills itself as "Imitation 23 karat color". I've never tried gilding this before, although my husband gilded all the wood mouldings in his study—an activity that, strangely, I managed to dodge.

Gilding involves the application of thin gold leaf, flakes or powder to a solid surface, such as stone, plaster or wood. It can even be applied over other metals. In the West, gold leaf is usually applied over silver, resulting in "silver gilt" or "vermeil". In China, gold leaf over bronze is more common, and is called either "gilt bronze" or "ormolu".

In addition to gold, other metals such as silver and copper can be applied in a similar fashion, although this is called "metal leaf" rather than "gilding". Objects that are gilded over only a portion of their surfaces are known as "parcel-gilt".

Gilding dates back to at least the fifth century B.C., when the historian Herodotus writes that the Egyptians gilded both wood and metal. In Ancient Greece and Rome, gilding was an important part of architectural decoration. Originally found only on the ceilings of temples and palaces, gilding later trickled down to the homes of ordinary citizens, where it was used to decorate walls as well. Interestingly, the gold leaf used in antiquity was about ten times thicker than it is today, and the traces of ancient gilding that remain are still solid and bright.

Traditionally, gold leaf was produced by hammering gold into thin sheets—a practice that is thought to date back at least 5,000 years. Today's gold leaf is so thin that it is semi-transparent when held up to the light, and tends to fall to pieces when handled.

There are many gilding processes, including application by hand, glueing, chemical gilding, and electroplating. For an excellent overview of the various processes, see the Wikipedia page on gilding. Today, gilding and other forms of metal leaf are most commonly used on picture frames, woodworking, cabinetry, art, interior decoration, bookbinding, leatherwork, and pottery, glass and porcelain.

A period fauteil frame being burnished.

For today's elephant, I bought a kit that contained four plaster animals to paint, including an elephant.

I also went out and bought a gold leaf starter kit, which includes everything I need to leaf this little guy, except for a soft paintbrush. I think that I can probably scare up at least one out of the 93 brushes I seem to have.

The first step is to paint the item with a red-brown basecoat. My husband says that there's a yellow ochre basecoat that he prefers to the red. But my kit comes with red, so red it is. The basecoat does two things: seals a porous surface like plaster, and creates a coloured undertone. I was originally going to gild only the top of this, but I thought it might look weird if the gilding stopped at the lower edge, so I painted the underside as well.

Next, I painted the front with the adhesive. Although the instructions didn't say, I assumed that it should be applied thinly. I also guessed that it might be a good idea to make sure it wasn't too glopped into the crevices.

Once the adhesive had dried to a light tackiness—about 30 minutes or so—I could begin applying the fake metal leaf. I started with a bit on the elephant's hindquarters, detaching a small piece with my fingers, then picking it up with a brush and placing it on the elephant.

Then I read the instructions, which suggested applying a lot at once, so I tried that, too. I was actually able to gently pick up a large piece of foil in my fingers—although it's not necessarily a good idea to go that route, as the leaf is very fragile. The instructions recommend making it stick to a piece of wax paper then upending it on the sticky surface, but that seemed too complicated.

I don't recommend trying to cut it with scissors. The leaf sticks to the scissors, then to itself, then to you, then to anything else with the remotest bit of static charge. It was so annoying that I began to suspect that the leaf was some kind of metallized plastic, rather than actual metal. I'm just glad it didn't get anywhere near my hair.

Once the leaf more or less covered the surface, I gently pushed it into the crevices with the same soft brush I'd used to place it on the elephant. The loose bits will just flake off as you brush, so it obviously doesn't stay this junky-looking. Where you can see bits of red peeking through, I just applied more leaf, then pushed them in with the brush as well.

Following my first application of the leaf, there was still some red showing. This could be due to a number of things: rubbing too hard with the brush; static caused by the brush and lifting the leaf away; not enough adhesive in those spots; or even just bad luck.

I suppose that, if you wanted it to look distressed before it's actually had time to get distressed in real life, you could leave it like this. I don't like that kind of thing, however, so I decided to cover up the red bits. The instructions suggested simply adding more adhesive wherever the base coat was showing through, and plastering on some more leaf.

Once it was as covered as I wanted it to be, I burnished it. With this particular process, all that means is rubbing the entire surface gently with something soft like a cloth or a tissue. This not only gets rid of any extraneous bits, but also smooths and buffs the surface.

When I was happy with the front, I covered the back as well, using all the same steps.

To finish up, you're supposed to seal the whole thing with the clear sealant included in the package. I haven't done that yet. There's also an antiquing solution which I'm assuming will make the crevices darker or something, but I decided not to do that, either.

I like the final result well enough, although it does have a slightly garish upscale-chocolate-bonbon look about it. It's a rather poor imitation of any 23-karat gold I've ever seen, but it has a certain charm, and should make an excellent paperweight. Not bad, I suppose for a plaster elephant magnet worth about fifty cents.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In Ancient Greece and Rome, the words elephántinos (Greek) and ebur (Roman), although technically referring to the animal, were more commonly used to describe ivory: a luxury material even in antiquity. Some ancient writers knew that the tusks that provided ivory were teeth, while others were convinced that they were horns.

The most common use of ivory in the ancient world was for carvings and statuary. Interestingly, some of the most prestigious statues in Ancient Greece were produced in a style called "chryselephantine". The word referred to figures made of gold (chrysós) and ivory (elephántinos). Often monumental in size, chryselephantine statues usually graced temples and palaces, and were comprised of a wooden frame, featuring slabs of carved ivory for the figure's skin, and sheets of gold leaf for everything else. Precious and semi-precious stones were sometimes added.

Reproduction of the Athena Parthenos, as it might have
originally looked in 440 B.C. The skin would have been made of plates
of ivory, with clothing and accessories gilded in thick gold leaf.
The original stood 11.5 metres (38 feet) tall.

Due to the value of their materials, most chryselephantine statues had been destroyed by the Middle Ages. By the nineteenth century—particularly during the Art Nouveau period—smaller chryselephantine-type statues were being made. These still featured ivory and ivory-like substances to represent skin, but the gold was now supplemented with bronze, marble, silver, onyx and various stones or glass.

Art Nouveau chryselephantine sculpture.
Collection of the Museum of Art Nouveau and Art Déco of Salamanca, Spain.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation

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