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.
I 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.”
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 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.
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.
Mitchell 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.
Mitchell Albala, Grasser’s Lagoon, Study in Gold, oil on paper with gold gesso ground, 8″ x 8″.
Gold acrylic 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.
There 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
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.