March 29, 2008

A Brief Word on Painting Gold

When it comes time to pour gold accessories on a figure - capes and necklaces and chains and belts - the naive artist will reach for their tube of gold p
aint. It seems to make sense: gold thing is painted with gold pigment, which looks like it's made from actual gold. By the same logic, when we come to paint flesh tones, we should reach for that tube of 'flesh' pigment, made from real flesh.

I have nothing against gold paint, and have a nice collection of tubes and jars of it, including all sorts of bronzing powders and gold leaf, and on summer afternoons I pull them all out and look at them sparkle in the sun. But when rendering a gold object they don't work, at least not by themselves.

Gold paint is generally a particle with some natural iridescence, such as mica, suspended in a clear binder, and this iridescence catches the light in a pleasingly metallic way. But there are several objections to it's use when trying to depict an object in space. Were we to paint a gold ball, for instance, and dutifully drew a circle and filled in the shape with gold paint, it would glitter nicely but would remain looking like a circle - there would be no sense of the third dimension, no shadow or highlight, nor would it reflect the world around it.

The best method is to paint gold with an opaque medium like gouache, as a mass of several colors, and to do so we must acquaint ourselves both with the colors of gold and its behavior. In the example I have done of a golden statue, I have followed a classic scenic painting technique, with the following steps:

1. A brown underpainting, in raw sienna and black, which models the form - this is transparent and layered.
2. Another wash with olive green, for gold has more green than one suspects at first.
3. Highlights and reflections painted with cadmium yellow deep, which as you can see is a lovely orange color.
4. Finer highlights and reflections in cadmium yellow pale - and this is the trick: the yellow is painted only on top of the orange color. Also, it is used mainly for the highlights - reflections generally remain orange.
5. The brightest highlights are then added with permanent white, which as before is only painted on top of the yellow.

6. As this statue is outdoors, I added a little cool sky blue - mixed ultramarine and white - to pop out the warm tones by contrast.

Let's look at actual, real painters, like Rembrandt and "Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer" - the whole painting sparkles and shimmers like gold, but he used no gold paint. If you can, go to the Metropolitan Museum and stand before it, and look especially at Aristotle's chain - thin glazes of rich oranges and browns with thick glops of yellows and whites on top.

If you can get to the National Galley in Washington DC, take a look at David's portrait of Napoleon. Gold objects abound, like the chair to the right, and the epaulets on his uniform - again, no sparkly gold paint used, just browns, oranges, yellows and whites.

As I said, you can use gold paint if you want, why not? My suggestion would be to not paint it directly over white, or to use it flatly. Try painting it over a black or dark brown base, and try to stipple and model the object you're trying to convey, as in my quick example here:

(One of the issues with using gold and metallic pigments is that they copy and scan unpredictably, and obviously without their sparkling character translating.)

Observation is the key, as ever, so look at all the reflective, shimmering things in the world and take note.

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