Gold Gesso Ground as a “Metaphor of Light” in Landscape Painting

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Several years ago, while at an exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, I came upon one of those rare paintings that can lead to a formative moment in a painter’s life. It was a painting by Japanese artist Tsuji Kako. The large-scale screen painting, awash in colored ink and gold, projected a sense of light unlike anything I had ever seen.

gold-metaphor-tsuji-kako-green-waves

Tsuji Kako (1870–1931), Green Waves, ca.1910, ink and gold on silk 67 7/8 x 109 1/2 in.

gold-metaphor-monet-haystackI was reminded of an earlier formative moment, as a young painter, standing in front of one of Monet’s haystack paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the gently illuminated gallery, for the first time, I experienced the luminosity an Impressionist painting is capable of. Thus began my lifelong pursuit of the landscape painter’s Holy Grail — a convincing illusion of natural color and light. The Impressionist’s means of doing this was to reject darker tonalities in favor of lighter-value colors, in which color itself became the stand-in for natural light. I have always called the various strategies painters use to depict natural light “metaphors of light.”

In Kako’s piece, here was an entirely different metaphor from the Western Impressionist approach I was raised on. Yet it was an approach thousands of years older than Impressionism. We see it in ancient Egyptian art, in Byzantine and Renaissance art, and in Chinese and Japanese painting. When gold paint or gold leaf is the primary color chord, the metaphor becomes a combination of the yellow hue of the gold and the reflections themselves. Gold is light — in both perceptual and metaphorical terms.

I wondered what my own light-filled, atmospheric landscapes would look like with this new metaphor applied. I began a series of experiments and studies. I have not become an expert on working in gold, but I made some discoveries  that may be of interest to my readers. I’ve also included comments at the end about the gold gesso and pigments I used.

My approach

My approach was to use a gold gesso ground (as opposed to gold leaf). I built my color composition over the gold ground, leaving the gold exposed for areas I that wanted to represent light or sun. I wanted the gold to be an integral part of the painting, woven into the fabric of the color tapestry, not simply a flat, unvarying patch of “background” gold, as it so often is.

Since the gold ground was to represent the light, I couldn’t use any other color that would be lighter in value than the gold itself. On a 1 to 9 scale, with 1 being lightest and 9 being darkest, gold is equivalent to about a #3 value, like a light yellow ochre. Reflective color also changes depending on how the light strikes it. The value and color of the gold doesn’t remain constant. At certain angles the gold appears brilliant, at other angels it actually appears darker.

Traditional landscape painting color compared to painting on gold gesso ground.Left: Crossroads, oil on panel, 16″ x 16″. Right: Crossroads, Study in Gold, oil on paper with gold gesso ground, 10″ x 10″. For my first experiment, I redid one of the pieces from my Azure and Asphalt series. Side by side, the difference between the two approaches is remarkable. Some might argue that the first piece, on the left, is a more naturalistic depiction of natural light. That might be true in terms of a traditional Western approach to color, but the gold is effective in its own way.

Landscape painting on gold gesso ground by Mitchell AlbalaMitchell Albala, Fiftieth Street Toward Salmon Bay, Ballard, oil on paper with gold gesso ground, 8″ x 10″. I took my lead from Kako’s Green Waves, and chose a similar set of limited colors: a tarnished copper-green and black. These colors were quite different than what I might choose for a similar piece done with a full range of pigments, but they are very compatible with the gold.

Landscape painting on gold gesso ground by Mitchell Albala
Mitchell Albala, Grasser’s Lagoon, Study in Gold, oil on paper with gold gesso ground, 8″ x 8″.

Gold acrylic gesso

Daniel Smith's Gold Gesso and Holbein's Gold Gesso

There are two brands of gold gesso: Daniel Smith and Holbein. There is a significant color difference between the two, as seen in the side-by-side comparison below. Daniel Smith’s is yellower in color and lighter in value, while Holbein’s is redder and darker. For this reason, I much prefer Daniel Smith’s. As I noted in “My Approach,” the gold ground serves as the lightest value in the painting. If my lightest value is going to as dark as the Holbein gesso, my ability to get an effective value range will be limited.

Daniel Smith and Holbein gold gesso - color comparisonThere is also a cost difference. A 16 oz. jar of Daniel Smith’s gesso retails for $16.50 (list $30), while just 10 oz. of the Holbein retails for around $48. Gold gesso is quite transparent, so you’ll need two to three coats to get a fully opaque gold. Brush marks can affect the reflective quality of the gold, so you may want to gently “fluff” out and blend away the brush marks while they’re are still wet, with a very fine-bristled hake bush.

Gold oil paint

Brands of gold oil paint - color comparison

I tried four gold pigments, one from Daniel Smith, one from Holbein, and two from Gamblin. Like the gesso, each of these pigments has their own “color.” Daniel Smith’s Iridescent Gold is the lighest and most yellow-gold of the set. Holbein’s is darker and, depending on how the light hits it, can have a coppery shift. Gamblin’s Rich Gold is less red that the Holbein, while their Pale Gold has a distinct green shift. Both of the Gamblin golds have a larger pigment size, so is more granular that regular pigment. This is even visible in these small swatches. Since I would be mixing gold paint with other colors on my palette, I liked having different gold hues to play with. The Holbein and Daniel Smith pigments nicely match their gesso, so whichever gesso you use, you’ll want to get its matching pigment.

Gold pigments are all extremely transparent. Anything other than an impasto stroke will require several layers to achieve adequate coverage. If you decide to apply gold over an area that already has pigment on it, be patient; you’ll need to apply several coats.

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About Author

Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). A best-seller with over 35,000 copies in print, it has been called the "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, Mitchell currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, Winslow Art Center, and Arte Umbria in Italy. He has also lectured at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines.

15 Comments

  1. Hi Mitch, this is fascinating and I wasn’t aware that gold gesso even existed. I’m excited to try this soon so thank you for this excellent information! Jean

  2. Great post Mitch! The gold is very luminous. I have a few questions. Did you try any paintings leaving it translucent (meaning fewer coats) so it would be lighter, or was it really streaky? Second, how would you qualify the absorbency of the two and did that affect your decision at all?

  3. Mitchell Albala on

    Good questions, Maggie. A translucent ground, with fewer coats, was streaky and did not achieve the reflective quality I desired. As for absorbency, the gold gesso is incredibly slick. It doesn’t absorb that first layer of pigment the same way regular white gesso does. Once the paint is dry, it sticks very well to the gold ground, but it’s initial application is very slippery.

  4. Mitchell Albala on

    That’s an interesting idea, Rebecca. I have not yet tried their metallic pigments, but now it occurs to me that I might be able to add the gold metallic pigment to my paint mixtures. In the examples featured in the post, I did routinely add some gold oil paint into my color mixtures as I worked. I found that helped, for example, with the darker black-like tones because it made the black harmonize better with the gold; e.g., there a little bit of gold even in the shadows. Adding the raw metallic pigments might be useful in the same way.

  5. Wow, excellent post, Mitch! I was using a lot of Dan Smith gold gesso from a gallon can I bought when I thought they were discontinuing it – I’m SO happy they still offer it! Thank you for introducing me to Tsuji Kako’s work.

  6. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks, Patty. I thought of you work when I was writing this. If I ever do a more expanded version that includes other “gold” painters, I’d like to include your work.

  7. I’m so glad you posted this, Mitch. It makes me wonder how light would look if it were done as a glaze, with the gold. What if you got some Linquin and somehow got some pure gold tiny tiny flakes and added it over a pale yellow. I’m thinking of “Rays of Gold.” What do you think about that?

    One time I painted a pigeon. I bought some iridescent powder and put a little on the bird I was painting. I mixed it with the same color I was going to use on the bird. It was very subtle. It actually worked very well. You didn’t see the iridescent colors unles you looked at certain angles, just like what happens in real life with a bird.

  8. Mitchell Albala on

    I’ll have to experiment with that. The “rays of gold” that you speak of would act symbolically, at least how I’m picturing it. What I’m after is to have the light be more embedding into the fabric of the color scheme. That why I mentioned in one part of the blog, “I also wanted the gold to be an integral part of the painting, not simply a flat, unvarying patch of ‘background’ color, as it so often is.” There’s much to experiment with here. No rest for those in search of the Holy Grail of color!

  9. Malinda Dreyer on

    I learned in my interior design studies at the University of Washington, that the reason the Japanese use gold in a lot of their decorative items, like screens and lacquer wear, is that it reflects light in traditional dark homes at night, which are lit by candles.

  10. Mitchell Albala on

    That’s fascinating. Who would have thought that a reason for using gold had something to do with conditions in the pre-industrial ago, before electricity.

  11. Thank you for sharing your experiences using gold acrylic gesso with us. I couldn’t believe it when I started to read your blog because I had been thinking of using gold gesso as a background for my paintings of flowers.
    I wrote Daniel Smith last friday asking if they knew whether their gold gesso is archival and could be used with oil paint. I haven’t received their answer yet but I appreciate all the information you gave us since I also was wondering about gold gesso available from other suppliers.

  12. Great article. It’s got me thinking about artists who paint on metallic grounds and panels. Not long ago I saw reproductions of gorgeous landscape paintings on copper panels, though I can’t remember who the artist was.