Gesso for Gilding

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.1517528_10202111416080702_1633011969_n


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.1546353_10202111450841571_649675377_n


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.16142359_10210097490447570_2480518043413486875_n

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.


Russian Rose – Complete!

This was completed, framed (temporarily for shipping and presentation), mailed off, and presented the first weekend of October. Whew! So glad that it made it to its final destination safely!


There were some last minute problems… Even my smallest broad edge nib was too big for the text, plus I made a mistake, so I had to scrape off the first inch of work and redo it with a pointed pen nib. That whole text area is only 2×3″, and the scroll text was slightly longer than this. I had to shorten it a tiny bit.


Some of the gilding that I’d done with a bronze powder (a later period thing) had painting over it, which didn’t adhere right and popped up in spots. I scraped that down and just did raised gilding with no designs. This looks significantly better to my eye. I need to not be scared of  putting all the gold on Russian things… As always, I learned a lot that will make my next time working on vellum smoother and the end product better.

Namely, I learned from asking questions on one of the bigger SCA scribal FB groups how to prep the Pergamena vellum more thoroughly to manuscript grade. It’s quite a bit of extra sanding and hand work at the outset, but I am told that it is a far better surface for writing and scraping mistakes from.

Russian Court Barony Scroll

The upcoming reign in Meridies is themed around all things Kiev Rus, and scrolls in this style have been requested. It’s been about a year since I got to do a whole scroll with painting and everything, so I thought I’d knock out one or two while I’m waiting on the Latin translation for my next Peerage scroll.

Russia has a lot of Byzantine aesthetic influence through the spread of Orthodoxy. That’s evident even today. Lots of gold, beautiful geometric patterns, lots of circles and roundels. I looked at a ton of manuscripts, found a resource that had converted some of the knot work and geometric designs into line drawings, and got to work.


It’s turned out to be a great chance to try out my new Finetec gold palette! This stuff is fantastic – like Schminke good. Except for $5 more than a tube of gouache, you get four golds, a rose gold, and silver. Replacement pans run about $5. You should get one next time you put in an order at John Neal or Paper & Ink.

I chose a limited color palette based on the colors I saw repeatedly through manuscripts. There were some cool light verdigris greens and a wonderful purple burgundy and some dark grays, too. I didn’t use them because some pigments shift over time, so I’m not sure about what they were supposed to be originally without having to do a bunch of research. The gray looks fantastic to my modern eye, but I suspect it was vermilion that went to black. I’m in the outline and cleanup phase of this (still on the fence about white-work noodly bits on the blue…). Naturally, I forgot where I’d just outlined and smudged bits of black everywhere. I should have been patient and gone to refill my Rapidograph ink that dried up.



I made up a faux Cyrillic alphabet for this. I know a nice one probably exists somewhere, but I didn’t find it. I’ll share it once I’m done and have had a chance to tweak it a little. It’s penciled in on the scroll for now. If you’re going to do a faux script like this, be kind to the herald and kingdom scribe – write out the text on the back of the thing for the herald and write out the a=? equivalent for each letter on the back so that the person who has to do the name and date can match it. If you’re extra kind, put what size nib you used.


Peerage scroll completed


My first peerage scroll is done and was given in court at Ansteorra’s crown tournament, so now I can show it to you! I made a knight cry, so I’m calling it a success.

The wolves turned out ok after I calmed down about them and spent a little bit of time with a teeny detail brush outlining in a furry kind of way. It was a good experience to do something so large and understand how long it takes me to do the work, what I wish to improve upon and should practice (shading and highlighting for the leaves and flowers), and what little things make a vast difference in the end, like laying down the gold, outlining, and putting in all the fine squiggles and details that help fill the space and unite the illumination.


Instacoll Gilding

20131003-172632.jpgLook at this fancy A just waiting to be covered in gold leaf. No, it’s not made out of caramel. It’s a gilding size called Instacoll, which can be used alone within a fixed window of time, or as part of a two step system that lets you activate the size at any time. This is a favorite material of some very big name calligraphers, so it seemed like a good place to go after my experiments in gesso went so poorly. All of the examples were done on calfskin vellum.

I’m using it as a one step process, sans activator. Since this is a thick letter, I let it dry for as long as it wanted, then painted a thin, watered down coat over it, let it dry maybe 30 minutes, then gilded.

The Good: I like the Instacoll a lot. It’s easy to work with, already comes tinted this yellow ochre color, and cleans up well. It activated easily with the breath. In the areas that aren’t the A (see below) and weren’t so thick and big, it behaved perfectly and gave lovely, smooth as glass surfaces to work on. They make a version that’s thinned to an ink consistency for lettering, which is nice, as this is too thick to letter wigilded ath. If you want to do mostly flat gilded lettering, I would recommend ordering the Instacoll ink rather than trying to thin this.

The Not Exactly Bad: It doesn’t offer any stunning improvements over any other modern size when it comes to building up big, smooth pillow letters. Gesso still wins on that front. This one didn’t crater like it would have with PVA, but it settled a little, drying to a fine, leathery texture. Watered down coats filled it in well enough, but it took several of them and never did wind up as smooth and lovely as it looked before it dried.

What I Learned: Next time I work with it, I may burnish the Instacoll a little with agate to see if it smooths out. Or, for these kinds of puffy gilding surfaces, it may be better to build them up slowly over several days with thin coats, then use the activator.

…and then I painted it in with my homemade paints. In a fit of being overly-confident, I did the lettering without making sure it all actually fit on the page first. It was in iron gall ink I made with friends a few weeks back, which is great stuff that stands the test of time. How? By eating into whatever you’re writing on. oopsThat means I couldn’t wipe it off. I tried to scrape it off with a scalpel and was doing well taking down the thinnest layers of vellum until I scrubbed at it with the blade and went right through the paper. Ugh.

Good thing I’m researching period materials and methods for this year’s Kingdom A&S competition, as I can use this mistake to have learned a number of lessons and practice the art of removing mistakes from your vellum with it.