A stunning painting should be surrounded by an equally beautiful frame. Gilded picture frames add a layer of beauty to a piece of artwork that other frames cannot achieve. This guide will answer the question of, “what is a gilded picture frame?” It’ll also summarize the process of how they’re made.
What is a Gilded Picture Frame?
Gilding is the process of applying gold or silver leaf to a surface. Gilding, a technique that began in Egyptian times, transforms a wooden picture frame from a basic item into something luxurious and extraordinary. While karat leaf is the real deal, it’s more common to use gold colored metal leaf for the cost savings (about 1/3 the cost of karat leaf). When a frame is gilded, it is constructed before the metal leaf is applied. Gilding hides the corners of a frame so that people can’t see the corner joints. It’s called a closed corner or finished corner frame. You can gild a picture frame in several ways but the 2 most common are oil gilding and water gilding. It takes years of experience to gild well so please make sure your framer has the requisite skills and experience to create a gilded frame. Many framers will order gilded frames from a national vendor. Through our sister company, Dry Creek Gold Leaf, we’ve been gilding frames for more than 25 years. That means we control the quality of the finished product and we can tone the finish to exactly what works best for the art.
The start of the process.
The first step, after the frame has been chosen from the multitude of choices, is to build the base of the frame. We use basswood for our gilded frames. Depending on the profile we’ll mill raw basswood ourselves or, sometimes, we’ll purchase pre-milled. The legs are cut to size and joined. If the frame is to be hand-carved this is done once the frame is joined. If any composition decoration is to be used that will be applied once the frame has been sanded to a smooth finish. The frame is now ready for the gilding process.
Oil gilding is named after the size that is used on the frame, although the size is now also available in water based form but it results in a slightly different finish.
The first step is to paint the frame. Different colors are used depending on the required tone of the gold and whether there’s a rub through finish. Once the paint is dry, the size is applied and allowed to dry until tacky. The leaf is then applied over the tacky size. The leaf is worked into any carving or ornamentation and finished using a variety of gilders tools. Once everything is ready, a layer of shellac based finish will be applied. Sometimes color is added to the shellac to alter the color of the leaf.
Water gilding is a much more labor intensive process than oil gilding which is one of the reasons it’s so much more expensive. It’s called water gilding because some of the steps involve rabbit skin glue dissolved in water-based solution.
The first step is to create a size that is applied over the sanded frame (again after any carving or application of composition) that is basically a solution of water and rabbit skin glue. After this multiple layers of gesso are applied to the frame with each layer being sanded before the application of the next.
A substance called bole (basically colored clay and rabbit skin glue) is applied next. The clay color is chosen in the same way as the paint color in oil gilding – to achieve the correct tone to the gold and rub through. Again there may be multiple coats of bole applied to the frame. After the bole a solution of water, rabbit skin glue, and alcohol is applied and then leaf is laid on top of this.
Karat leaf can be worked (burnished) to achieve a very high sheen. In the olden days this was used to reflect what little interior light was available onto the painting inside the frame. No matter how much light is available it is a spectacular finish when done right.
I hope this article helped explain what a gilded picture frame is and how it is made. If you need any further details, have any questions, or are looking for framing in Denver, please contact AUM Framing & Gallery.