Betsy Porter

Betsy Porter
Art and Iconography

Making And Using Shell Gold

By Betsy Porter

For a particularly radiant and glowing effect, indicating divine energy, SHELL GOLD highlights the robes of Christ Emmanuel.

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.

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 backgroundpaint, 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.

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.

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 applying size.

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 and click on "icons."

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