Alternatives to Gesso for Water Gilding

Patrick Okrasinski

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Patrick Okrasinski
I've been learning about watergilding frames for the past year, and have a question. I was wondering if there's anyone out there that has substituted rsg gesso with a different primer before using bole and watergilding a frame.

I find that most of the issues I've encountered when making frames have been from using gesso as a primer- it cracks at the mitered corners, applying with a brush it is very easy to encounter air bubbles, especially in parts of the frame profile where the gesso pools together and takes longer to dry, along a few other issues.

But what if I primed the wood with a water based primer (like bin 1-2-3) sanded up with a fine grit, then went to several layers of bole, sanded and polished before water gilding? Is the worst thing that could happen be that the bole doesn't properly adhere as well well to a water based primer as to gesso, but in that case the primer can still be sized with a rsg solution before adhering the bole? Does gesso serve any purpose other than filling the pores of the wood and creating a very smooth surface to which you can then apply bole and gild?

Is there any reason to believe that this will be a worse way to create a water gilded frame that will last over time?

I'm posting a frame I just finished, Initially I used a water based primer out of a spray can, and then a water based spray paint, and forgot about it for a while in my studio until I decided to just try to apply bole and water gild it and see how it comes out. Pretty happy overall, no signs of cracking at the miters. With all the issues I've been dealing with from using gesso, I'm wondering if its not possible to just forget about the gesso all together and use an alternative primer for the bole.


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Terry Hart cpf

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I'll be following this with interest. Yes, I believe the rsg gesso is a better link to the bole but I'm not sure how a layer of rsg on top of the primer you're using, is it acrylic?, would hold up. I think someone recently talked about using bondo as a base so maybe alternatives could work? I've had good luck using Golden pva size to seal the wood instead of rsg but then use rsg gesso on top of that before the bole.
 

Ylva

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There was a discussion fairly recently. Little different, but maybe interesting to read up on?

 

David Hewitt

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I have heard of people putting a layer of silk in the corners, with the gesso, to help with cracking. ( Same theory as drywall installers papering the seams. )
In the frame below, I chose to oil gild. I to had a cracking problem, ( mostly due to the nature of the wood, you will see a very slight crack at the inner portion of the frame ) till I did this. What I did on this frame, was mix Corner Weld ( Because of its flexibility ) with Durhams Rock Hard Water Putty, to make my base for the gilding. I also sealed it with a red automotive primer instead of Bole, as you can see, no cracks. The frame is about 20 years old.
Water gilding needs a much harder surface ( Reason for Bole and RSG ) in order to get the luster then the oil gilding process, which has a softer look.
I fully know this is not by any means a traditional method, ( I have been educated in the traditional methods by the way, such as the classes Marty taught ) but I like to experiment. Considering my back ground has been in research and development.
 

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vintage frames

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It is probably better to analyse the physics of what happens when we water-gild. As you know already, the process relies on floating the gold leaf onto a wet surface and allowing the water to soak into that surface and so pull the leaf down flat. If that surface contains RSG, then the water re-activates the adhesive properties of the RSG and so holds the gold firm as it dries.
You can gild directly onto bare wood because the wood is porous enough to accept the RSG. Pre-Raphaelite framers used this for their oak frames, although the gilding was mostly oil-laid.
If we want a perfectly flat surface then we would use gesso to first fill the wood grain and further build up the surface independent of the wood. The chalk or whiting provides the material bulk required for this. RSG gesso is fully porous, so will soak up any water used in water-gilding.
If we now want a perfectly smooth surface, then we use a clay bole over the gesso. This has a much less build property and is only really useful for that final fine finish.
Because the bole, like gesso also contains RSG, it will stick best to a water porous surface. If painted over an artificial surface like acrylic or other, then you are taking the risk that there is sufficient adhesion in the RSG to hold it on to that substrate.
I wouldn't risk all that later work on such an uncertain foundation.
If you are having gesso problems then it most certainly down to the quality of the RSG you are using.
Only buy RSG from a reliable gilding supplies company. I use Manetti brand, if you can get it. It is a refined RSG and always gives me reliable results.
Cracking in the corners suggests too strong a gesso.
 

Rick Hennen

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I know absolutely nothing about gessoing so this post may have no basis here but we do a large amount of woodworking at our shop. We use a water borne titanium pigmented lacquer as a primer. We find that it fills in voids and is incredibly easy to sand vs acrylics. We spent many years searching the various types of primers and settled on one called Acqualock sold by Vista Paints. I am not sure if they are a national company.
 

vintage frames

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That's good to point that out and I'm sure the paint you describe does a superb job in filling the wood grain and as a primer for over-painting. But for water- gilding, we do need a water porous substrate.
Practically all water borne paints are based on an acrylic binder which will resist the absorption of gilding water.
 

Patrick Okrasinski

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Still figuring out how to use the forums, reply, etc., but I appreciate all the responses, they're very insightful! I'm leaning towards continuing experiment with other primers.

I have heard of using silk/linen in corners, but don't know enough about it to attempt it myself.

You can oil gild on top of almost anything, but then you're not able to burnish the gold, and I think leaf overlaps do not show on the final guilding? I would prefer to stay away from using oil sizes and their fumes.

It seems like the biggest concern is adhesion to an acrylic primer. When a primer is water based- does that mean it is not water porous? I'll look into the Aqualock, it seems like the spray primer I was using was some type of acrylic resin by the msds.

Obviously I wouldn't be water gilding on the primer, but on the bole on top of the primer. I did notice on this first frame that was essentially bole over acrylic, after applying the gilders water and leaf, it took much longer until I was able to burnish the gilding, so perhaps the water wasn't absorbed into all the underlying layers as fast as if if the was gesso underneath the bole.

Something I noticed is that bole seems much more robust than gesso. I use plastic spoons when mixing either RSG size or gesso or bole, and when the bole dries on a plastic spoon it is extremely hard to clean it off. Gesso cracks and breaks off with extreme ease. If there's such a great adhesion of the bole to literally a plastic spoon, maybe there isn't much cause to worry about using an acrylic primer? Also maybe this is something wrong with my gesso mixture in particular, but I know there's lots of research that's been done about RSG and gesso's poor longevity, since they're hygroscopic. In painting, using RSG to size stretched linen is guaranteed to create cracking, and almost all linens are now primed with PVA. I guess lots of people are really worried that modern acrylics/plastics might not hold up another hundred years...
 

Rick Hennen

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Still figuring out how to use the forums, reply, etc., but I appreciate all the responses, they're very insightful! I'm leaning towards continuing experiment with other primers.

I have heard of using silk/linen in corners, but don't know enough about it to attempt it myself.

You can oil gild on top of almost anything, but then you're not able to burnish the gold, and I think leaf overlaps do not show on the final guilding? I would prefer to stay away from using oil sizes and their fumes.

It seems like the biggest concern is adhesion to an acrylic primer. When a primer is water based- does that mean it is not water porous? I'll look into the Aqualock, it seems like the spray primer I was using was some type of acrylic resin by the msds.

Obviously I wouldn't be water gilding on the primer, but on the bole on top of the primer. I did notice on this first frame that was essentially bole over acrylic, after applying the gilders water and leaf, it took much longer until I was able to burnish the gilding, so perhaps the water wasn't absorbed into all the underlying layers as fast as if if the was gesso underneath the bole.

Something I noticed is that bole seems much more robust than gesso. I use plastic spoons when mixing either RSG size or gesso or bole, and when the bole dries on a plastic spoon it is extremely hard to clean it off. Gesso cracks and breaks off with extreme ease. If there's such a great adhesion of the bole to literally a plastic spoon, maybe there isn't much cause to worry about using an acrylic primer? Also maybe this is something wrong with my gesso mixture in particular, but I know there's lots of research that's been done about RSG and gesso's poor longevity, since they're hygroscopic. In painting, using RSG to size stretched linen is guaranteed to create cracking, and almost all linens are now primed with PVA. I guess lots of people are really worried that modern acrylics/plastics might not hold up another hundred years...
If you want to give Aqualock a test run let me know. I would be happy to send you a small bottle. Please note that our use of this primer is entirely different from yours but after 30 plus years of doing this type of woodworking it is the best sanding primer we have found and so far every top coat we have tried has stuck very well.
 

vintage frames

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You can of course go ahead and use whatever primer you like. If you can get the bole to stick to any of the artificial gesso's then that will be a little bit of a win for you.
But take a moment to reflect on why traditional frame makers have been using RSG gesso for centuries.
If you touch the surface of gesso with water, the gesso will not only suck up that water, but partially melt around that area. So, painting on wet bole causes the underlying gesso to melt slightly and so creates a 'welded' bond between the two materials.
You will appreciate that this does not happen with synthetic primers.
Given that the bole might superficially adhere to your primer, any water gilding will then rely on the gilding water evaporating from the bole and not being sucked down as with gesso. And then a further hazard arises when you try to burnish the gild. Rubbing down hard on the bole with the agate stone can easily cause the bole to flake off from the primer.
As I said previously, your problem is with the quality of the RSG you are using.
Try this -
Soak 30gm of RSG in 500ml water, and heat to melt.
Make gesso with 400gm whiting to 400ml RSG.
Add 2x teaspoon brandy and sieve gesso through a paint sieve ( you can buy paper disposable sieves on E bay )
Paint on one size coat, leave for 1/2 hour then slosh on as many further coats as you fancy.
 

Matthew Hale

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You can of course go ahead and use whatever primer you like. If you can get the bole to stick to any of the artificial gesso's then that will be a little bit of a win for you.
But take a moment to reflect on why traditional frame makers have been using RSG gesso for centuries.
If you touch the surface of gesso with water, the gesso will not only suck up that water, but partially melt around that area. So, painting on wet bole causes the underlying gesso to melt slightly and so creates a 'welded' bond between the two materials.
You will appreciate that this does not happen with synthetic primers.
Given that the bole might superficially adhere to your primer, any water gilding will then rely on the gilding water evaporating from the bole and not being sucked down as with gesso. And then a further hazard arises when you try to burnish the gild. Rubbing down hard on the bole with the agate stone can easily cause the bole to flake off from the primer.
As I said previously, your problem is with the quality of the RSG you are using.
Try this -
Soak 30gm of RSG in 500ml water, and heat to melt.
Make gesso with 400gm whiting to 400ml RSG.
Add 2x teaspoon brandy and sieve gesso through a paint sieve ( you can buy paper disposable sieves on E bay )
Paint on one size coat, leave for 1/2 hour then slosh on as many further coats as you fancy.
I know nothing of gilding so I'll be following this thread with enthusiasm. In just the last few minutes of reading, I've already learned a great deal. I had no idea how the process of water gilding worked, nor how it differed from oil gilding. Fascinating! one question - What's the brandy for?
 

framah

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It's for the alcohol in it.
Plus in you as well!! :beer:
 

vintage frames

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I'm glad you are enjoying the subject.
There are a number of benefits to adding brandy to gesso -
The alcohol in brandy reduces the surface tension making it smoother to paint.
As gesso is painted on hot, the alcohol speeds up the cooling between coats, allowing the gesso to gel a bit before the next covering.
And the brandy has a pleasant smell.
 

Rick Hennen

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I'm glad you are enjoying the subject.
There are a number of benefits to adding brandy to gesso -
The alcohol in brandy reduces the surface tension making it smoother to paint.
As gesso is painted on hot, the alcohol speeds up the cooling between coats, allowing the gesso to gel a bit before the next covering.
And the brandy has a pleasant smell.
I agree with Matthew, this is all very fascinating. Thanks for the information.
 
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