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The Art of Gilding
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

Gold leaf, silver leaf, or Dutch metal, no matter which leaf, gilding is coming to Texas in a big way, especially at the hands of decorative artist, Kathleen Allen. Over the fourth of July, Allen gilded one of the dining rooms in Citizen restaurant located at Turtlecreek Village. Previously, she gilded the couture department in Saks Fifth Avenue in Austin, and in her residential work, which makes up 90 % of her business, she?s gilded many notable local homes since taking up the decorative arts craft in 1992. Now, she?s signing up students to teach a class in decorative arts.

?People think gold leaf is paint,? said Allen. Actually, it?s metal, 22-karat gold and 24-karat gold. Dutch metal is composition leaf made of brass, not pure gold. Beaten down as thin as 0.00009 millimeter and packed between tissue paper, metal leaf sheets are being branded across banisters, wall scones, ceilings, and even walls in a very methodical, artistic technique that dates back to the swashbuckling days of the rococo period and even further back to the earliest of Egyptian tombs, when water gilding first developed.

Allen uses the newer of the two gilding techniques, namely oil gilding, a varnish-based procedure developed in the 18th century by French craftsman, Gouthiere. This method requires a base surface made with gray primer and several coats of color oil or acrylic paint. The best color varies with the choice of metal; under gold leaf and Dutch metal are usually the reddish hues; under silver and aluminum are blue or black; and under copper are either green or red colors. After the paint dries and Allen sands down a smooth surface, she applies a size (glue), which creates a tacky surface for attaching the metal leaf. Sizing is a critical step; it establishes a time window for making the best contact between the glue and the metal without allowing adverse chemical reactions to dull or tarnish the sheen that Allen further embellishes with a fine layer of tinted lacquer spray for staining and/or antiquing.

?I?m almost like a chemist,? said Allen. ?I love to mix paint and see the reaction. And I?m fascinated with how color really works with metal.? Mixing and sanding on a scaffold 30 to 40 feet up in the air under a gigantic ceiling medallion that?s maybe ten or so feet across, Allen at times compares herself to Michelangelo painting the Sistene Chapel in Rome back in 1508. For decorative arts has taken Allen from Venetian plaster to faux marble and granite and to the mural.

One of Allen?s favorite projects was to design and execute all the finishes in a 5,500 square foot home, where every surface was meticulously planned. She embellished the entry and circular staircase with soft monochromatic neutrals that complemented and were accentuated by a large mural draped along the wall behind the staircase. Allen applied gold leaf gilding on the staircase banister, on two wall scones, and on the gilded mirror on the first floor, all of which blended with a chandelier hanging from above. The champagne silver paint on the staircase balustrades, Allen created her self to highlight the antiqued gold on the banisters and the ivory painted railing in the mural.

The owner of the home had a vision of what he wanted on canvas, and Allen and her two associates executed the design. The mural?s blood red and gold tasseled border came from ideas found on the borders of old books, and the medallion in each corner was inspired by a piece of Russian jewelry. Allen chose to hang the canvas in loose folds, rather than stretched out, from eight silver leaf finials so that the weight of the material pulled down on the fabric much like a tapestry. Altogether with the peacock sitting on the railing watching the embracing statuary, the mural extends the perception of space and adds drama and romance at the mid-point of going upstairs. When descending the stairs, the gilded mirror on the first floor opposite the staircase wall further extends the perception of space, only in reflection. Around the corner and down a hallway, the pale palette gives way to earth tones and a different hallway lined with sharp copper leaf and gold leaf diamond patterns leading into the more organic part of the home, according to Allen.

Before turning to the decorative arts, Allen spent 25 years in women?s fashion, fine jewelry, and interior design. But when the demand for high fashion and expensive jewelry, declined, Allen took an interest in how the artisans accomplished the designs. So, she studied at the Sepp Leaf and the Finishing School in New York, where she continues to visit with annual trips to keep abreast of the trends. And on her latest trip this year, she saw gilding everywhere.

?I really feel that we?re each of us given in life something,? said Allen. ?I was fortunate enough and probably had the courage enough not to give in and go to work inside a corporate structure, so to speak, but really find what my true expression is. And it is really art. That is who I really am. As I look at what I do now, nothing gives me a greater sense of myself or ever had. Fashion never did. Fashion is just showing. Now, I?m able to create something beautiful?the design.?

Allen?s designs, in fact, take on a jewel like quality, especially her ceiling medallions, for instance an octangularly pointed gold, pearl, and black medallion that looks something like a pendant or neck broach on quick glance. The outer and inner rings of another medallion accent the blaze and the black on the antique black iron crystal chandelier. Incidentally, this particular medallion was gilded while the chandelier hung, draped and covered, but nevertheless an obstacle underneath the work.

More muted is the use of crushed leaf, especially on the walls, where the matted forest leaf designs, created by crushing the leaf sheets?at a cost of $150 to $300 a roll can be applied in a random pattern, stenciled, or free hand. The possibilities are endless. But Allen knows when to stop.

?There?s a fine line between tasteful and gaudy,? said Allen. ?The things I do are embellishments. But some people go overboard with it.?

?I don?t think people are educated enough to know a good finish from a bad finish,? said Allen. So, the public is at the mercy of the industry. But Allen hopes to start teaching the basics of decorative painting and gilding to all people, from beginners to those serious about doing their own painting, and to experienced painters interested in developing new techniques in this seemingly endless field of artistic craftsmanship.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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