Raised gilding with gesso is one of those things that really takes scribal work to a new level. Most of us do either flat gilding or use a modern PVA liquid as our gilding base because they’re easy options. Paint it on, wait a few minutes or hours, breathe, pop the gold down, and you’re done. Gesso seems to live in the realm reserved only for in-depth competition projects where every element is historically correct. I get it. Gesso is incredibly sensitive to humidity, so it behaves perfectly one day and is impossible the next. It requires some solid time with your mortar and pestle or muller. There are weird supplies. It’s a diva of a material. In spite of all that, you should give it a chance. (Note: gilding gesso is NOT the same thing as the gesso used to prep board or canvas for painting.) There’s no other way to get the perfectly smooth, shiny gold that looks like it was poured liquid onto your page. These are from a Knighting scroll I did a few years ago.
Every time I use a period material, I find that it answers the question: “Why can’t I get my work to look like the historical work?” Period materials behave differently and give different results, resulting in work that looks far more medieval. IMAGINE THAT. Modern materials are generally more convenient and have a shallower learning curve. That doesn’t mean they do the job better. They just make it easier. If you’ve ever tried to replicate raised gilding with modern liquids, you are familiar with surfaces that dent or cave in or have a crepe-paper texture. They don’t look anything like the high, even pillows that we see gold laid on in manuscripts. What gives? These acrylic or plastic-based materials don’t have anything to hold up that raised pillow. The water evaporates out as it dries, the blob collapses, and you’re left with an uneven surface. Gilding gesso has a base of plaster and animal glue, so as it dries, there are little particles of rocks holding everything up nice and high. No collapse. And because it’s made out of rocks and glue, you can work with the dried surface to polish it gently, giving the gold the smoothest possible foundation. The smoother the ground the gold lays on, the shinier and more reflective it appears. The mirror shine people talk about with gold? This is how you get it. It’s hard to photograph, it’s so shiny.
You’ll play with your gesso some, figure out what tweaks are needed for your general climate, and will be good to go. I was good in Texas, where 90% of the state is of similar humidity for most of the year. It was easy to make the stuff, it worked beautifully, and you could even share it among friends to cut the cost and labor. I live in Savannah now. SAVANNAH. It’s a marsh next to the Atlantic Ocean, where the humidity ranges from 50-100%, often in the same week. Atlanta is about 200 miles away and has humidity around 30-40% on the same day that I have 60-70% humidity. When we’re talking about a recipe that you adjust based on your local weather over the next three days, gesso suddenly became tricky. Gesso I had moved with me stayed so tacky that it came through the gold leaf and stuck on the backing paper and glassine. I had to start re-learning something I thought I knew. The only way is trial and error.
Below, you can see some gesso that’s been laid and had a chance to dry. It hasn’t been polished yet, so you can see tiny bumps and imperfections. In the diamond at the top, you can see a tiny air bubble that didn’t get pricked. All of those things can get smoothed out with a glass marble or an agate burnisher. You could patch a little crack with some animal glue and put another skim coat of gesso over the whole thing. Is your gesso too dry? Add a drop or two of honey. Too sticky? Add a touch more plaster. Too crumbly? Add a tiny bit more glue. Cennini offers a recipe that can be adjusted for climates that are more or less humid. There’s definitely a learning curve, but it’s a really adaptable material that’s worth getting to know.
Why the sudden resurgence of interest in gesso? I had signed up to teach gesso gilding at Midwinter A&S. There was a deadline for me to get gesso sorted out in Georgia. I sort of failed. I don’t think that it’s possible to make something that works in Savannah’s marshy climate and in the foothills of the mountains in the northern part of the state. I made and remade gesso. I made batches that were too sticky for me, but did alright in Atlanta. I made batches that worked fine for me and were very difficult for participants to get activated and sticky in Atlanta. I had wanted for everyone to leave with a magnificent golden letter and a heart full of gesso love and confidence. What we got was a bunch of people getting to go through a troubleshooting and usage session. Most everyone left with something successfully gilded, though the work required varied. I was pleased that I could offer people a chance to test the material and learn how rough they could be and have personal experience of what it’s like when it’s too dry or too sticky. It will make their home experiments more successful, but it made for a slightly less successful day. Want to try it at home? Here’s my handout, complete with a non-toxic recipe that’s been passed around the SCA for ages, resources, and tips – Period Raised Gilding with Gesso
How gesso is made: What we’re working with is a mixture of slaked plaster/lime/chalk, hide or animal glue, sugar or honey, some water, and a little coloring. Slaked plaster has had its pH neutralized from the slightly acidic state it comes in (and you know acid is bad). You wash it in water, let it settle for a few minutes, pour off the water, add more. Repeat until neutral, drain, and dry. For the glue, you can use hide glue, rabbit glue, fish glue, glue you made from boiling down parchment scraps outside. The coloring helps you see where you’ve put it and works like underpainting to mask areas where the gold is thin or got rubbed. Armenian bole is traditional, but other red or yellow earth pigments or gouache work fine.
You warm the liquids by letting their bottles sit in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes. Then, pop everything in in your mortar and pestle, and begin the slow and gentle process of thoroughly combining them while trying not to incorporate any air. This part takes 30-45 minutes. You want it to be about the thickness of pancake batter. It should never be thinner than Elmer’s glue. It will make a sort-of gross sticky sound. Recruit friends or children or spouses. Bribe them with baked goods. Or do it all yourself and feel like a morally superior art purist. Whatever makes you happy. I just want you to be happy and make pretty art. You’ll get the very best and silkiest gesso if you can use a muller and big marble or thick sanded glass tile. If you have that, go for it. If not, a mortar and pestle works perfectly fine. You might just have to spend a little bit more time refining the dried gesso with your agate or glass that you’re using to polish it. Since a nice-sized muller is about $75, and ceramic lab-grade mortar and pestle sets are about $7 on Amazon Prime, I’m willing to spend a little extra time refining.