Art and Iconography
MAKING AND USING SHELL GOLD
SHELL GOLD ASSISTE;
FINE GOLD LINES APPLIED OVER PAINT
Method learned from Dmitri Andrejev
There are several methods of applying gold leaf lines, known as "assist" or "assiste," over egg tempera paint.
Some artists use concentrated dark beer or dried garlic juice, or a manufactured product known as "size," to apply
a sticky coating in small areas, then adhere gold leaf sheet or tiny pieces of gold leaf over that. I have not tried
this technique. Some expert iconographers prefer it, especially for larger size icons, but in the hands of a non-
expert, it may result in a "flaky" effect and relatively coarse lines. If you would like to try this type of gold assiste,
see the detailed instructions by Edward Beckett, at the bottom of this page.
With shell gold assiste, you can make your gilded lines and edges noticeably thinner and more precise.
Shell gold, so named because it was historically made and stored in a shallow shell such as a clamshell, consists
of finely powdered gold leaf mixed with gum Arabic. It is mixed with a bit of water and applied over paint in fine
gold lines. After drying an hour or so, it can be burnished to a high sheen, using an agate stone or a metal
burnishing tool. With its gum arabic binder, it is relatively fragile and is best applied late in the process.
Apply as third highlight in fine parallel lines, rays, and small highlights. Although shell gold may be applied over
any color, the base color to which it is applied (usually orange or red-orange) is typically dark enough to set off
the brilliance of the gold, and should be smooth in texture. Other highlights are not necessarily used on that color.
This technique requires experience with highlighting, and is not recommended for beginners.
Shell gold was used in many historic icons, often quite extensively, and especially for the golden garments of the
Christ Child and for the gold trim on Mary’s garments. It is also appropriate for the garments of Christ Emmanuel
and the Risen Christ.
I have seen beautiful work and heard good reports of the expensive shell gold ("painter's gold") from Easy Leaf
Products, but have not yet tried it. I have not heard favorable reports of other ready-made shell gold. You can
save money by making your own from gold leaf and gum Arabic, although it’s a lot of work. Use 10 or more sheets
of water-gilding real gold leaf, 23K or higher – including the leftovers from gilding. Liquid or powdered gum Arabic,
commonly used with watercolors, is available from art supply stores. You will need a shallow sauce dish with
smooth rounded interior, 5 inches diameter or smaller, preferably heavy white porcelain. Do not use a plastic dish.
Prepare yourself, because both of your hands will be covered with sticky goop for an hour. Drink your coffee,
wash up, make your phone calls, whatever you might plan for the coming hour. Assemble sauce dish, gold leaf,
liquid gum Arabic, distilled water, and 2 eye droppers. Thoroughly wash and dry your hands.
For 10 sheets of gold leaf, pour liquid gum Arabic the size of a quarter into the sauce dish. This recipe will make
enough for about 3 icons. (I used to recommend a smaller batch, but this quantity works better.)
Add a sheet of gold leaf to the dish. Strike the gold leaf with your finger, a series of quick decisive pats, to shatter
it into tiny pieces and gradually pound it into a powder. Pat pat PAT pat pat pat pat. Do not rub or stroke the gold
leaf, which would cause it to roll up and become hard to break. Work quickly, before gum Arabic starts to dry.
When the first round of gold leaf is free of visible particles and is no longer shiny, add another sheet of gold leaf,
and repeat. Repeat again, for a total of 10 sheets of gold leaf. Then add leftover scraps of gold leaf. By this
time, the mix will be extremely thick, sticky, and infuriatingly hard to handle, like dry peanut butter. You may add a
very small amount of liquid gum Arabic as you work. When all gold leaf is broken up, add one drop water.
Roll and grind the mix with your finger, for at least 45 minutes. When the mix gets really dry, add a drop of
water. When adequately ground, the gold mix should develop a noticeable pearlescent sheen.
Use eyedropper to add distilled water, and wash the gold powder from your fingers and the dish into it – the gold
will swirl beautifully into the water. The gum Arabic dissolves, and the gold settles to the bottom of the dish. Cover
the dish with plastic wrap and let stand at least one hour, preferably overnight.
For a particularly radiant and glowing effect, indicating divine
energy, SHELL GOLD highlights the robes of Christ Emmanuel.
Left, by Betsy Porter; Right, by Loretta Hoffmann
For practice or an easy non-traditional substitute assiste, use a mica pigment such as Jacquard Pearl Ex
657 Sparkle Gold, mixed with yellow ochre and egg tempera base. This is less luminous than shell gold and
cannot be burnished, but it’s still very pretty, especially for thin borders. Work carefully, because mica pigment
will smear if you try to remove it.
You can also paint radiating "assiste" lines as part of the second or third highlight, using the pigment
mix recommended for that highlight, to attain some of the stylistic effect of shell gold assiste.
Next morning, carefully remove liquid, first by slow cautious pouring, then with
an eye dropper. Let the remaining liquid evaporate. There’s your shell gold!
It does not look very impressive, but you have enough for about three icons.
Store covered with plastic wrap, enclosed in a zip-lock sandwich bag.
On a copy of your drawing, plan the shapes and lines where shell gold will be
applied. Paint them for practice and to verify location. Shell gold cannot be
removed without smearing.
You may then lightly draw your lines on the smooth red or orange background
paint, using a soft red pencil such as Prismacolor.
Shell gold is applied as "combs of light" with the rays running in the direction
of the folds. Lines should be evenly spaced and usually parallel. A few larger
spots, usually triangles or parallelograms, may be added for emphasis.
Against a dark background, the entire figure meay be outlined in gold. Study
reproductions of historic icons to develop your assiste highlighting technique.
To use shell gold, add just one drop of water, mix, and paint it on, repeating
for 2 or more coats until the gold covers underlying paint. When the gold
paint gets dry, add another drop of water. Better to apply in 2 or more thin
coats than in a single thick pasty coat, which will be hard to burnish.
Powdered metal is rough on paint brushes, so use a dedicated brush. Then
you won't have to rinse out that precious powdered gold.
When the shell gold on the icon is thoroughly dry (allow at least an hour),
burnish the gold with your stone or metal burnisher. Use the fine point for thin
lines, and a rounded surface for larger areas.
HOW TO APPLY GOLD ASSIST BY THE SIZE METHOD
By Edward Beckett
I prefer to use gold assist using size, because it is much more dimensional and brighter than shell gold. It just
looks more substantial. Before trying the following techniques on a finished icon, practice on an old practice
board with paint samples on it.
Gold assist requires application of a glue, known as “size,” that sets up to a tacky stage where gold leaf can be
applied, which then hardens permanently. I have seen and used almost all of the home remedy type of assist,
and I have found all of them lacking.
I use ROLCO quick dry Gilding Size. This is clear, so I add a red tinting agent in order to better see the line
quality and where the brush is going. You will also need a small amount of turpentine to clean the brush and to
lightly thin the size when it gets too thick on the brush.
ROLCO quick dry Gilding Size, 8 fluid ounces. Small amounts are preferable, because the size will dry and skin
up in the can after opening. Pour out a small amount into a disposable glass jar, and then mix in the dye. This
mixture will dissolve a plastic cup.
TransTint Bordeaux Red, 2 fluid ounces - a tinting dye for oil based paint and wood stain.
Turpentine or Mineral Spirits – to thin the size when it starts to thicken too much for brushing thin lines. Use
just a little in your brush at a time.
KEEP IN MIND WHEN USING SIZE
Your icon must be absolutely dry before you apply any size to it. If the paint is not cured out, the gold leaf will
attach itself to the damp or uncured egg emulsion, and you will have a big clean-up job on your hands.
Use a brush which is finer than the line you want to make. The size is liquid but thick, and it makes a wider line
than you expect.
Solid painted areas to receive gold assist should be smooth, without pinholes. Check them in bright light before
Apply the size and gold leaf to one section of your icon at a time.
Keep a practice board with cured paint samples beside your icon. Apply lines of size to the practice board at
the same time you are applying them to your icon. Check the first area on the practice board for tackiness.
When the practice board becomes tacky, it is time to apply gold to the icon.
If you let the size get too dry or apply it too thinly, you can re-apply the size and gild again after the first coat
dries. With average air temperature and humidity, you have about an hour per section before it is ready.
Apply gold leaf with a soft brush. I use a quarter-inch (6 mm) flat brush. Hold the gold sheet in the book with
the rouge paper, and tear off a chunk at a time. Once the gold is on the brush, held there by static electricity,
lay it on the prepared area, and lightly brush it onto the tacky size. Keep applying this way until the area is
covered and the gold is evenly adhered to the size.
If you experience some small clogging of lines, wait until it is dryer. Then lightly stroke with a kneaded eraser
shaped to a point, to clean off the painted area between lines.
To see Edward Beckett's work, go to www.beckettstudio.com and click on "icons."