My Adventures with Gold Leaf

By Charlie Plant

When I was younger, I worked as a union painter in Los Angeles (District Council 36, Painters and Allied Trades), and in the early 1980s, I had the opportunity to work on a Bel-Air mansion that belonged to descendants of the late, great California oil baron and philanthropist, William Keck.

The mansion was patterned after the Versailles chateau “La Lanterne,” and it included a huge, formal living room, probably thirty by forty feet. The entire room was adorned with ornate trim, including a massive fleur de lis crown molding on the ceiling, which the mansion’s owners (Howard and Libby Keck) wanted covered with gold leaf.

I haven’t thought about this for years, but when I read “The World’s Greatest Goldbeater,” Craftsmanship Quarterly’s profile of Marino Menegazzo, the Venetian master of handmade gold leaf, it all came back.

In those days, it was common for European craftsmen to be recruited by high-end shops to handle the old-world finesse of the decorative arts. These included stenciling, trompe l’oeil (a painting technique that makes objects appear to be 3-D); faux designs such as Strié (another painting technique that simulates the natural lines in materials such as fabric or wood); and of course, the delicate work of applying gold leaf. The masters of these crafts were mostly from Germany and Holland.

Photo by Amy E. Adams

We had ten painters on that house, for a solid year. One was my mentor and good friend, John Vidrinskas, a master painter from Lithuania, who was assigned the job of gold leafing the living room, and he asked for me as his helper. It was a joy—and incredibly exacting.

The room had to be totally airtight to prevent the slightest whisper of air from disrupting the process. Before we started each day, we had to seal off the doors and tape up all the windows. We had to work with special varnishes, which had to be applied to the surface at exactly the right pace before laying on the gold leaf; the surface couldn’t be too wet, nor too dry, too thick nor too thin.  And each segment of gold had to be carefully color matched as there could be slight variations from one book of leaf to the next.

My job was to keep John supplied with the appropriate varnish and leaf in a timely way so he could work at a steady pace. Fleur de lis molding has many nooks and crannies and each leaf had to be cut, applied, and brushed in with precision. We would cut a small piece of leaf on a leather pad held like a painter’s palette, which was surrounded by a thick paper “curtain” of five or six inches to shield the leaf from any air. To cut the leaf into the size and shape needed for each piece of molding without tearing it, we used an artist’s palette knife. To pick up the leaf, we used camel hair brushes and static electricity, which we generated by flitting the brush against our own hair. It was an inch by inch proposition.

Transferring gold leaf is such a delicate operation that gilders use a special brush—in this case, one made of squirrel hair. When stroked on the face, these brushes develop just enough static electricity to lift the gold leaf, and hold it during positioning.

The principle danger was our own breath, so we wore dust masks. As the leaf was brushed into nooks and crannies, the excess floated onto our staging equipment, or the floor. I remember hearing that we applied over $50,000 of leaf in that one room, in 1980 dollars. The cleanup boy saved the dust that he gleaned from beneath our staging – supposedly ending up with $2,000 worth of gold dust at the end of the job.

One of the drawing rooms at the Keck Family Mansion in Bel Air, Los Angeles, CA.

It’s probably worth noting that Libby Keck was an artist herself and an avid art collector; she loved all things French, and was the engine behind the home’s decorative art. From time to time, her husband would wander through the house grumbling “Just paint it Navajo…” Ah, life.

Charlie Plant has worked as an advisor, teacher, and principal since the inception of Big Picture Learning, a 20-year-old public-school reform movement that is striving to elevate respect and support for students who love working with their hands. Big Picture Learning is now partnering with Harbor Freight Tools for Schools to help the trades to be “understood as just as viable, valued, and authentic a career pathway as college.” The Craftsmanship Initiative and Big Picture Learning are currently exploring partnership opportunities.

Photos by Erla Zwingle unless otherwise noted.