How to Gold Leaf an Artist's Canvas

Gold leaf adds a rich textural detail for artist paintings. There are two basic strategies for applying gold leaf on an artist canvas. The first strategy is to size and leaf the entire canvas as part of preparation, the second strategy is to prep the points where leaf is wanted and to apply the leaf at the completion of the painting. Each technique will produce a different finished result, so it is a good idea to test out each process before working on a larger canvas since gold leaf is expensive.

Prepare the artist's canvas with gesso.

Apply a red oxide acrylic over the gesso to create an undertone colour for the gold. Other colours such as yellow or black can also be experimented with for different results. It is likely that some undertone colour will show through at points, so the tonal colour should relate to the anticipated finished work.

Apply sizing to the entire canvas, and allow the sizing to dry to a tacky condition.

Float gold leaf (it is extremely thin and comes in small square sheets) onto the canvas using the squirrel hair brush to help lift and guide the gold to the location you are gilding. This will take practice and a very quiet and still room (no blowing fans). Lightly pounce the gold down so that it attaches firmly to the sizing. Work the gold into the canvas and burnish to affix it solidly. Burnish by rubbing down with a burnishing tool.

Apply additional leaf in areas that are thin or where the undertone shows through. Collect the extra gold material with the brush to fill in gaps.

Finish by spraying the gold with varnish. Allow the varnish to dry thoroughly before applying paint to the leafed canvas.

Prepare the artist canvas with gesso.

Paint the canvas. Paint a red oxide (acrylic or oil) over the gesso areas where gold will be applied. The red will provide an undertone colour for the gold. Other colours such as yellow or black can also be experimented with for different results.

Apply sizing to the dry red oxide, and allow the sizing to dry to a tacky condition.

Cut small pieces of gold from sheet gold and float the small pieces over the sizing. Use a squirrel-hair brush to pounce the gilding into position. Gold leaf is very delicate, so this may take some practice to achieve the desired look. Rich gold may require several layers of gilding. Burnish the gold down.

Spray varnish the entire painting to preserve the appearance of the gold at its best condition. Unvarnished, the gold may scratch off or discolour slightly.


Gold is expensive and gilding can be challenging, particularly if the painted surface is rough. Practice in small areas until you develop a level of expertise. Gilding takes a lot of time and patience, a quiet atmosphere and simple, but appropriate tools. The results can be spectacular. Gesso is a thick, white, glue and plaster mixture that is used to prime and seal canvas before paint is applied. Sizing is an oil-based varnish that works as an adhesive for gold leaf. Burnishing is a process where rubbing slightly deforms the surface and makes it appear more shiny.

Things You'll Need

  • Artist's canvas
  • Gesso
  • Red oxide paint (optional)
  • Sizing
  • Gold leaf
  • Squirrel-hair application brush
  • Gold-leaf sizing
  • Burnishing tool
  • Spray varnish
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About the Author

F.R.R. Mallory has been published since 1996, writing books, short stories, articles and essays. She has worked as an architect, restored cars, designed clothing, renovated homes and makes crafts. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley with bachelor's degrees in psychology and English. Her fiction short story "Black Ice" recently won a National Space Society contest.