On Gilding and Humidity

I’m from Austin, which gets sticky in the summer. It can be incredibly humid (if we’re not having a seven year drought). That’s nothing compared to the humidity of living on a marsh in the lowcountry. It’s so humid here that it can be hard to breathe. I didn’t know it was possible to sweat that much. Like more than going to a Bikram yoga class. It’s revolting….even if my skin does look amazing. All of this humidity has thrown a major wrench in my scribal work.

I LOVE me some gold. While real gold leaf is more expensive than fake gold, it behaves itself, looks much better, and usually only adds about $2 in materials to a piece. The fact that it’s so humid here I can’t make raised gilding work right has gotten me so frustrated that I stepped back from scribal work for a while. Other hot, humid climates have gold on their manuscripts. What are they doing?

Off into a research rabbit hole I went, chasing after Ottoman, Persian, and Indian materials and methods. The good news is that it’s not just me being a dummy. It really is a unique climate-based issue where the things that work in England or Vienna simply do not work in Mumbai or Istanbul or Savannah, GA.

Vellum and paper warp and buckle if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky, they absorb enough atmospheric water to slowly mold and disintegrate over time. If the surface you’re gilding isn’t stable, your goldwork can’t be stable or predictable. These cultures used paper way before it came to Europe – and not just any paper! Ahar paper. Ahar is a treatment given to a good rag paper (linen, cotton, and hemp are what you can find today that are good choices). It’s run through a bath of starch, alum, and egg glair, allowed to dry in the shade, burnished vigorously with a large agate or shell (minimum of 15 minutes per side for a normal sized sheet of paper!), and then it MUST age in a flat, dark place for AT LEAST one year.

What happens in that magical year (or three)? The ingredients in the ahar penetrate the paper and enact glorious chemical changes. The paper is slick, flexible, and durable. It can take wet inks and paints without buckling. There are manuscripts in collections that are over a thousand years old and still have perfect, flexible pages with no foxing. Just as the writing material is different in composition and manufacture, the gilding method is different.

Shell gold is the gold of choice – not raised gilding. Shell gold is gold leaf that has carefully been dissolved in pure water by hand. The gold settles, the water is drained off, and the process begins again. The result is pure, paintable gold. This is laid on the manuscript, which is then placed face down on a piece of very smooth marble and burnished from the back. It works just like burnishing raised gilding. The gold particles are bonded, aligned, and brought to a marvelous shine. And because the ahar paper is burnished smooth already, that gold can get S-H-I-N-Y.

Because of this marvelous workaround for living in a climate with a monsoon season, I’ve been thinking a lot more about Eastern calligraphy styles and works. The problem is that the only US seller of good ahar paper hasn’t restocked his store in months and suddenly stopped replying to emails. I can order it from India, but it’s a wholesale order and international shipping. Not cheap for an experiment. I’m in nursing school, so everything is on fire and crazy, so I might just try to make some ahar soon and pull it out next winter break to work. Or I can call my uncle in Turkey and see if he can find some and mail it to me.

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