Home / ArtWhy Artists Use Gold Leaf and How You Can Make Your Own Ethereal Paintings

Why Artists Use Gold Leaf and How You Can Make Your Own Ethereal Paintings

The History of Gold Leaf

The use of gold leaf in art dates back to ancient cultures. In Egypt, it was employed for its ethereal aesthetic and used to decorate statues of gods, precious amulets, and other sacred objects placed in pharaoh’s tombs.

Gold Leaf Art Gold Leaf Sheets Gold Leaf History

‘Heart Scarab with a Human Head’ (Photo: Met Museum (Public Domain))

Roman medallions and pendants featured secular depictions of people rendered in gold leaf. A similar approach to gilded portraiture is also found in Byzantine art, though these works often depict Christian iconography.

Gold Leaf Art Gold Leaf Sheets Gold Leaf History

‘Medallion with a Portrait of Gennadios’ (ca. 250-300) (Photo: Met Museum (Public Domain))

Gold Leaf Art Gold Leaf Sheets Gold Leaf History

‘Bowl Base with Saints Peter and Paul Flanking a Column with the Christogram of Christ’ (ca. 4th century) (Photo: Met Museum (Public Domain))

Byzantine artists continued to use the medium in religious depictions, including their well-known gold-ground paintings. In these works, gold leaf sheets were used to compose the background, making the figures appear to float against a heavenly sky.

Gold Leaf Art Gold Leaf Sheets Gold Leaf History

‘Evangelist Mark Seated in his Study’ (ca. 1025-1050) (Photo: Walters Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons) {PD-1923])

During the Middle Ages, the gold-ground style was also used in panel paintings and altarpieces featuring the Madonna and Child. This was popular until the Renaissance, when artists began to reject this transcendent aesthetic in favor of naturalism.

Gold Leaf Art Gold Leaf Sheets Gold Leaf History

Simone Martini, ‘Madonna and Child’ (ca. 1326) (Photo: Met Museum (Public Domain))

In addition to religious icons, gold leaf was also used in illuminated manuscripts during the Middle Ages. Illuminated manuscripts are handwritten books enhanced with illustrations, decorative borders, and other embellishments, such as intricate initials intended “to mark important passages, or to enhance or comment on the meaning of the text” (The British Library).

Gold Leaf Art Gold Leaf Sheets Gold Leaf History

‘Illuminated Psalter’ (late 1100s) (Photo: Met Museum (Public Domain))

Gold Leaf Art Gold Leaf Sheets Gold Leaf History

‘Master of the Brussels Initials’ (1410-1420) (Photo: Met Museum (Public Domain))

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Japanese artists incorporated gold leaf into the paintings found on folding screens. Similarly, they began to paint directly onto gold leaf paper to produce their own gold-ground depictions.

Gold Leaf Art Gold Leaf Sheets Gold Leaf History

‘Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons’ (late 16th century) (Photo: Met Museum (Public Domain))

Gold Leaf Art Gold Leaf Sheets Gold Leaf History

Shibata Zeshin, ‘Lacquer Box and Gourd’ (ca. 1615–1868) (Photo: Met Museum (Public Domain))

In modern art, the use of gold leaf is most commonly associated with Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. As a member of the Secessionist Movement and a pioneer of Symbolism, Klimt produced experimental and ethereal paintings that glisten with gilded patterns and planes of gold.

Gold Leaf Art Gold Leaf Sheets Gold Leaf History

Gustav Klimt, ‘Adele Bloch-Bauer I’ (1907) (Photo: Neue Galerie New York via Wikimedia Commons)

Gold Leaf Art Gold Leaf Sheets Gold Leaf History

Gustav Klimt, ‘The Kiss’ (ca. 1907-1908) (Photo: The Belvedere via Wikimedia Commons)

Today, artists continue to use the medium in an eclectic range of work, from scientific art to massive murals. Much like gilded creations of the past, these precious pieces showcase the endless versatility and timeless aesthetic of glimmering gold leaf.

Gold Leaf Art Gold Leaf Sheets Gold Leaf History

Photo: Fin DAC

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