How to paint with 24 carat shell gold
As I periodically offer practical courses on how to make 24 carat “shell gold” pigment, I feel it might be useful to cover some of the applications of this marvellous pigment. The next shell gold workshops will take place on March 20th – 21st and 17th – 18th April – please follow this link for more details.
Shell gold can be purchased from specialist suppliers and shops, but it is really not ground fine enough to enable you to understand and exploit its full capabilities. In my workshops participants can learn the craft and make the very finest product, comparable to that used in the sixteenth century royal ateliers of Iran.
The use of paper, as opposed to vellum or parchment, developed very early in Islamic book arts , and ground gold pigment is more suited to the delicate flexibility of paper pages than solid areas of applied gold leaf. An excellent overview of the development of Islamic art and the arts of the book in this context can be found in Barbara Brend‘s publication “Islamic Art“, originally published by The British Museum Press, 1991. In the introduction, Brend speculates that from the tenth century, “The greater clarity offered by paper as a vehicle may well have had a bearing….” (on the increasing refinement of Arabic calligraphy) (p 81), and further on, she comments that “Illumination at this period becomes more complex and delicate…” (p.84).
By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the production of books, both sacred and secular, had reached a stage of unprecedented refinement in the royal Ketabkhane or workshop/libraries of Islamic rulers. The extensive and innovative use of shell gold at this period has inspired me over the years to look very carefully at original manuscripts, and to try to decifer the sensibility with which the masters manipulated this precious medium. It is from this experience, rather than from current pedagogy, that I seek to share some of the techniques I have gleaned.
One of the manuscripts that I have been privileged to look at very closely is a Divan or collection of poems by the Iranian mystic ‘Jami‘ in the collection of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. It was created in Herat around 1534 by artists trained in the Timurid style. You can access my illustrated paper about the illuminated opening pages here.
In the close-up detail above you can see several different ways in which shell gold has been used. At the very top, you can see a bright interlaced border in which a highly polished band of gold is over-painted with black ink. It is bounded by ruled gold lines, which may have been done with a brush and straight edge (and a very steady hand) or with a ruling-pen. All the gold vegetal lines and leaves against the blue lapis lazuli ground have been painted and polished before the ground was applied. But on the main golden element, the Taj or crown, the ground is blocked in with shell gold and left unpolished. The vegetal details have been drawn in with the burnisher or polishing stone, so you get a subtle contrast between polished and unpolished gold. Finally, the solid gold grounds, both polished and unpolished, are pricked with a blunt needle to create further texture and scintillation. Below are some pictures in which I demonstrate these techniques.
The techniques I have described above are quite rigorous and formal, most suited to the exacting art of illumination. Properly prepared shell gold is also suitable for calligraphy – it flows like ink from the master’s pen. I had the opportunity to work with a Calligrapher in Cairo, which I have recorded in a previous post.
Shell gold also lends itself superbly to looser and more painterly handling, as is often seen on the outer margins of manuscripts and albums. You can see some of my work using these techniques in Strange Creatures in the Margins. I shall give step-by-step details on the basic approach below.
The design I have chosen is a classic Timurid/Safavid motif featuring flying storks (or are they cranes?) and strap-clouds. That they are reminiscent of Chinese design is no accident, as Iranian art had over the centuries absorbed influences from further East. Designs such as these may have been used over and over again within a single manuscript, traced from master-copies kept in the workshops. The usual method of transferring the design to the page was to trace the lines of the master copy with fine pin-pricks, and then lay this over the desired area of the page and rub charcoal or dry powdered pigment through the holes to create a dotted guide.
Stage 1: The base drawing is executed with a fine brush and diluted ink, as above. Make sure you use a very good quality writing paper with a smooth surface.
Stage 2: Dilute some shell gold with distilled water and apply discerningly using light, broad sweeps. This is very subtle, and imparts a delicate definition to the elements. At this stage you can polish the work, and watch the dull gold washes (as above) acquire a soft gleam.
Stage 3: Using a more concentrated solution of shell gold and distilled water, and a fine pointed brush, re-define the original ink-drawn lines. In the picture above you can see the contrast between the polished washes of gold and the newly applied linear work.
Stage 4: Gently polish the lines (Use an agate burnisher. A sheet of glassine paper between the burnisher and the work helps protect the gold work from accidental snagging) The final effect is very subtle, with textural contrasts between the washes and the lines. It glimmers as you move the page – this was the intention, as the pages of a book are intended to be held close to the viewer and gently moved. Below is a magnified detail of the work, where you can see the contrasting texture of the washes and the lines. You can also just see the individual particles of gold.
Below is a detail from a private commission I undertook, showing a slight variation of this technique. I began with a light linear drawing, then applied gold washes as above. The rocks and vegetal details are defined with gold lines as above, but for the snow-leopard, I defined the outlines and texture of the fur with with black watercolour. There are also small accents in silver and malachite.
Copyright Notice: Anita Chowdry and anitachowdry.wordpress.com, 2014 – 2015
This post contains original material and is intended as a resource for my readers, so please no unauthorized use and/or duplication of any designs, images or written material without express and written permission from this site’s owner and author.