How to make shell gold – a practical guide

To make your own paint from gold leaf is a simple and straightforward process, but it can also be laborious.  In this post I will share the step-by-step process for making gold pigment – also known as “shell gold”, the way it has been practiced and passed down from generations of gold makers in India. I’ve used this method in my own practice and have always been more than pleased with the quality of outcome. So let’s take a moment to look at this age-old method.

  • Gold leaf. As we know gold is one of the most malleable metals on earth. A gold leaf is as thin as 0.1 micron and could be dissolved by just rubbing between fingers. Silver leaf is about 2 microns thick and can also be worked into pigment. That being said, if you want to use imitation gold/silver leaf made of other alloys such as brass and copper, this method would not work well.
    Technically you can use any number of gold leaf to grind down into paint, but since it is a long process, to make it efficient you would want to dissolve a sizable amount, say a book of 25 leaves. 
  • Gum arabic/honey. A thick paste of gum arabic or honey binds gold leaves to be ground into paste. A few drops is all you need for grinding down a whole book of 25. The binder has to be thick in order to grind (much more so than normally used in mixing pigments), I made the gum arabic solution in advance so some of the water has evaporated leaving a concentrated solution.
  • Flat-bottom ceramic plate. Basically you want a smooth and flat surface to work with. Use all-white plate so you can see the area covered clearly.
  • Filter cloth.  Use a very fine silk or muslin cloth to filter.
  • Purified water.
  • Glass or ceramic bowls. Have at least two bowls handy.
  • Additional containers for storage (optional). Gold pigment is traditionally stored in mussel or oyster shells, hence the name “shell gold”.  Nowadays ceramic ware has become commonplace; small, plain ceramic dishes are the most ideal for gold pigment storage. It is also possible to store the gold pigment in one of the bowls mentioned above, if you don’t have additional containers handy.

1. Dissolve – Apply a few drops of thick gum/honey and spread over the flat surface of the plate with side of the palm. Use this part of the palm to pick up a piece of gold leaf, tap and grind in circular motion until the gold leaf fully dissolves into particles to form paste before adding another leaf, and repeat the process for each leaf. Try to keep the area limited to the flat part of the plate, and on your hand, the side of the palm where the muscle bulges. As you continue to grind moisture will evaporate from the paste, so add a few drops of water, but keep the mixture tacky. If too much water is added, any more leaf added will form clots and will not dissolve.

2. Continue to grind. After you go through all the leaves, continue to grind the mixture for at least an hour. This part is laborious but the longer you grind the finer the gold particle will be.

3. Wash. Now the hard part is over! Wash everything from your hand back into the plate with water, wash the edges of the plate back to collect every particle of gold.

4. Filter. Pour the solution into a bowl through fine filter cloth, add warm water and rub a couple times over to take out the entire solution into the other bowl. Then pour some water over the filter cloth and squeeze it to get any extra gold out. You will find that any unground gold, along with some atmospheric dirt and fibers would be caught by the filter, so all the more important it is to grind everything thoroughly.

5. Decant. Stir the bowl well and then cover, allow it to sit for more than an hour to let the gold particles to settle in the bottom. Then carefully pour the water to the second bowl (the liquid here should be only water and gum, but if you happened to pour some gold into bowl 2, you can decant off the liquid later to collect the gold here). This step can be repeated for 2-3 more times by adding warm water to get rid of all impurities that might affect the gold shine.

6. Drain. Stir the remaining mixture, then pour into the storage container(s) of your choice, in my case I used a smaller dish. Cover, and leave it for 24 hours. After which the gold will settle completely at the bottom, and you can drain off the clear liquid and let the gold pigment air dry while covered. The dried pigment can be kept in a dust free manner indefinitely.

Now the pigment can be mixed with a minimal quantity of gum arabic or animal gum and ready to paint. Note that the gum used should not be much otherwise the gold would not shine.

Burnish the gold with an agate stone to achieve a high luster.

Watch the short clip from earlier instagram post here↓

A small tip: When you make shell gold for the first time it may feel like the gold is getting all over the place. You can use a bit of water to wash and collect the gold that got to other parts of the hand, edges etc., and if there’s too much water, just let it evaporate to a thicker consistency before continuing to grind. You can also grind with your finger. This would keep the contact area small, but it would be a lot of strain on that finger.

Mr. Khan at the City Palace atelier, Jaipur

Are you ready to make your own shell gold? It is indeed a very satisfying experience when you get the final gold pigment for painting. If there’s any question or suggestion, or if you simply enjoyed reading, please let me know in the comment.

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