The time has come when I need to tackle the prep and installation of the 24K gold leafing. I'm not as far in the writing as usual for this next phase, but given the complexity of the piece, and the days flying by, I just need to get the gold leafing done so that I don't have that hanging over me. Once the leafing is done, I can then focus on completing the icon without worrying about the process of moving everything in order to lay the icon down on the saw horses, and setting up the plastic etc. to control dust and hair (which also creates a bit of a sauna given that the buildings hot water pipes run under the studio's floor!
So tomorrow morning, I will need to start by finding a way to move my painting storage unit somehow as I will need to spread out part way into the dining area (hasn't been used as such for months now). Once I sort that out, with my son's help, I will first need to lay the icon face down onto the saw horses (protecting the surface) in order to make sure there are no repairs to make on the back since it has been on the easel, and do the finishing touches on all 4 sides of the panel. When done, the icon gets flipped over. My poor fingers always dread this part. The semi arthritic fingers and swollen joints are from the years of sanding. Very hard work and equally hard on the fingers. But it can't be done by electric sander. It's all about 'feeling' the surface as you work and making sure that all grit has been removed. The touch of the finger tips and your palm are the only tools for this.
I then do the first coat of oil gold size, a special adhesive for gold leafing. But with oil size leafing, I let the first coat completely dry without leafing. It is usually fully dry later on the following day. It all depends on the weather and humidity. Sometimes it takes longer to dry fully.
The gold size is very heavy and fills any imperfections on the surface. Once dry, I repeat the sanding process again, but this time with a finer grade sand paper. Sanding the dried size makes it easier to see any flaw in the surface or areas that need more sanding. Again once all grit has been removed with a tack cloth, and test with palm and fingers, the decision is made whether I need to do another coat of sizing to let dry, or proceed with leafing. If I decide it best to repeat the sizing/drying/sanding, it takes an extra day out of my time.
If I decide that I don't need the second drying coat, once I have the gold size in place, it is critical to control air flow, dust and hair. If anything falls on the drying size as you wait for 'tack', you will need to let it fully dry and then start over. Any hair or particle that gets stuff of the size will show though the gold leaf.
What is 'tack'? It a point when you test the adhesive surface using a knuckle to touch the surface gently. You will feel if it is still too wet or whether it has dried enough and your knuckle sticks and no adhesive stays on the knuckle. It really comes down to experience. The trick is to get it dry enough so that the gold has a nicer metallic shine once it is burnished.
With oil size, there is a slow drying size and a faster one which is usually reaches tack in around 4 hours on average. Sometimes it will reach tack sooner. I find that with my sauna of a studio, the added heat will speed the process. I have to be careful to get it right, and when it is time, you have to move quickly and get the gold down on the entire icon before the size dries too much. The gold won't adhere if the size gets too dry before you complete.
An aside: A gold leafing story from the mid-1990s when time came to gold leaf the background of my Deesis mural which was 10ft x 10ft. It was a cool damp day. It brushed on the oil size and then waited. I had planned to complete the leafing in the early evening. Well, 4 hours came, not ready. 5 hours, 6 hours, 7 hours and still not ready. I had a choice to make. Get turn in for the night and let it dry (starting over the next day) or wait and get it done whenever I had tack. At around midnight, the tack was ready. Remember I was having to work fast. I was very tired by now, but I was committed to push along. *see image of mural.
Once the gold leaf is done, you do a gentle burnish over the gold with a soft sable brush. The gold isn't set enough to work it too much. This burnish is to make sure that there are no air pockets under the gold. and to check if there are any spots without leaf. These need to be caught before the size fully dries. I then leave it set for at least a day (sometimes 2). If you fully burnish the leaf too soon, the brush will leave brush marks in the gold.
When fully dry, I take the sable brush again and remove all lose ends of leafing and do a final burnish. Before I can apply the sealer on the gold (varnish) I need to paint all the halos, inscriptions etc. (which go on the gold). This too is a tense time as you need a steady hand and to keep your hand from touching the gold. I use a smooth piece of paper to keep under my hand at all times. Once the paint has dried, it is then OK to do the first coat of sealer. I let it fully dry (usually until the following day) before I can return the icon back onto its easel and continue writing.