water gilding

When gilding goes bad (again).

I had been planning a detailed post about water gilding and how much I love it. Fatal error of course.

I began by taking photos of the sanded gesso boards, with outline marked & some masking fluid to protect the gesso from bole – a sticky red clay that is mixed with varying strengths of size (rabbit skin glue) to form the cushion for gold leaf.

I then carefully applied the first coat of bole, with higher proportion of size: it looks rather thin but bear with it.


I even took a photograph of the wet bole layers, so you could see that it wasn’t ready for another layer (I usually do at least ten, so that they’re not sanded through afterwards).


Finally, the bole was ready to be sanded – I had some first rate photos from this afternoon but I can’t download or upload just now… It looked rather like this. (Except it wasn’t upside down obviously)…


I set up my desk, packed small child off to her grandparents for the afternoon and then gilded without incident – I actually enjoy it. Until this happens.


Now I know that I could add a few more layers of gold and it will look alright. Maybe. But this time I have decided I’m taking everything off, right back to the wood. Last week, I had to do the same after my gesso was more like polyfilla than cream (as it should be to apply on top of the scrim layer).

I now have two icons ready to paint but boards a long way from ready. I wanted to let you know that everyone has gilding issues from time to time (you may not resort to chocolate and coffee for consolation). Feel free to post your commiserations or questions on gilding (oil or water) below & Lord have mercy.

commission fresco icon Panselinos water gilding

St Theodore the Recruit

gilded orthodox icon showing saint theodore the recruit in armour and holding a spear and sheild
Nearly Completed: an icon of St Theodore the Recruit based on a fresco by Panselinos for the birth of Theodore, our friends’ first baby.

I painted this icon in 2008, shortly before the birth of my daughter, as a gift for the first child of dear friends. It is based on a fresco by Manuel Panselinos, a master iconographer of the high point of Byzantine iconography. His style is masterful: a single line, a fluid brushstroke, is enough to perfectly form an eyebrow or a fold in fabric. His use of colour is sensitive and shows how the underpainting affects the overal tone of the finished painting: the proplasmos is often a cool green and in spite of that the faces have life and vitality. As Aidan says, iconography shows life transfigured, not distorted. Although certain periods of iconography have different emphases, I feel it is very important that at all times we remember that it is humanity shown in its full transfigured form: Life as we truly are or can be, not an abstracted exaggeration which distracts from the holy subject shown (“those hands are how big? wow, look at that massive head! etc). At the same time, avoiding sensuality (too much emphasis on earthly beauty) is the other extreme… The middle path, as always, is the narrow one.

Anyway: the fresco looks like this: amazing, isn’t it? That level of skill is breathtaking.


My initial drawing never looks anything like the final painting, but it’s crucial to get it as close to right as I can. It can take hours, spread over many days (or weeks) until it is acceptable. With this one, I was sticking as close as I could to the original. Five years on, I’d be a bit less copyist. Maybe.

The placement is tricky: how central is the head? is the halo big enough? what’s going on with that twisting torso… I see so many faults now. Still, having a large impending baby meant I had to press on. Skipping ahead many stages, most of the underpainting is completed here.

You can see that I’ve put a piece of paper over the gilded surface. Whenever possible I use water gilding. Although the surface is more fragile than oil or mordant gilding, I truly love it. It can be left matt or semi burnished, it can be burnished to a mirror like finish and best of all, it doesn’t give me a headache from the size, shellac or meths involved. Hooray. Not being too ‘precious’ about things, I also think that we should use natural materials as far as possible in icons: what could be more natural than water, clay, rabbit skin glue, gold leaf and a little alcohol? I could, at a pinch, make all of them from materials around me. Oil size not so much.

In this painting, the technique I used was the ‘proplasmos’ one: we begin with the darkest colour and build up slowly to the highlights. Normally for flesh we would use a dark ochre or a mixture of black and yellow. Following Panselinos, I wanted to try a greener foundation. This is terre verte, a very slippy clay based pigment. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it and nowadays use what Aidan describes as the ‘membrane’ technique, where the modelling of the flesh and form is done in a dark pigment before layers or membranes of flesh tone are laid on top. That’s a vast and crude oversimplification but it has astonishing results.



More modelling has been done but it’s a long way off. You can see how the yellow ochre of the main skin tones transforms that ghostly green. I can’t begin to describe the feeling when the Saint begins to look back at you. The closest I can think of is when (as a mother) you begin to feel the baby move – and finally respond to a touch or a word. Suddenly there are two of you in one body. It’s *that* kind of a thrill – you realise that you never were alone but now you know it, emphatically.


When painting faces, a fraction of a millimetre makes a massive difference. There’s still a lot of work to do on this but you can see how the green has almost been covered. Although it’s no longer so obvious, it informs all of the tones on top. The wonderful thing about tempera is how the light bounces through the layers and unites them as we look at them. It’s like impressionism in that respect. I have to add, again, this is an old work: so many things I’d do differently, although I still like the knotted cloak!



I did very little work to the icon after this stage: now I would of course but that’s another story. I used bright, simple colours as it was a gift for a young boy. I wanted him to be drawn to it, inspired by the sensitivity and strength of this Saint, close to the very direct gaze. I left the water gilding semi-burnished, polished only with a squirrel mop, so that some of the scratches would be less obvious – and sometimes I just prefer it too. Please let me know what you think and ask questions: I’ll answer what I can!