Acrylics on Gold Leaf

Image 1: Imitation leaf, coated with Gloss MSA Varnish w/UVLS, and painted with Fluid Acrylics.

Gold leaf can be a wonderful addition to acrylic paintings, as it provides contrast in sheen and reflectance. We are often asked if it is possible to paint on top of gold leaf with acrylic paints and whether it is necessary to seal the gold leaf before doing so. The short answer is: intermediate coatings are required on most imitation leafs, before painting with acrylics, in order to reduce tarnishing. Since ammonia, which is found in all waterborne acrylic paints and mediums accelerates tarnishing of copper-based imitation gold leaf, we recommend our MSA Varnish or Archival Varnish w/UVLS as a protective coating, before painting over imitation leaf with acrylic paints.  

Genuine Gold and Imitations

Genuine 24k gold consists only of the precious metal gold and does not tarnish. Thus it can be painted over with acrylics directly. Fewer karats of genuine gold have different color shades, and are created by the addition of base metals in the production process. The most common alloy components are copper and silver. The greater the addition of these base metals, the greater the likelihood that the gold leaf will tarnish. Gold of 23k or 22k should not tarnish when used indoors for fine art or decorative purposes, unless handled and touched. Genuine gold of lesser karats should be protected with a clear coating.

Imitation gold is a very cost-effective alternative to genuine gold and therefore a much-used material. Gold colored imitation leafs have various names, such as ‘Dutch’, ‘Composite’, or ‘Schlag’, followed by either ‘Metal’ or ‘Leaf’. So Dutch Metal or Dutch Leaf, etc. These are made of copper-zinc alloys, whereby the composition is specifically controlled to create tones that closely mimic genuine gold leaf. Similarly to genuine gold, imitation leafs are packaged in booklets and are either placed loosely in between silk papers, or as transfer, pressed to specially treated tissue paper (Image 2). Imitation leafs are noticeably thicker than genuine gold leaves, and are therefore, easier to handle and less prone to tearing.

Image 2: Imitation leaf on transfer paper can be handled without touching the metal leaf.

Acrylics and Tarnishing

The great advantage of genuine high-karat gold leaf is that it will not tarnish, whereas Imitation Gold is very prone to it. While oxidation on copper sculptures, for instance, often adds an aesthetic attraction (patina), it rather destroys the illusion of real gold on imitation leaf. Oxidized imitation leaf produces spots of various colors, which are not removable (Image 3). Oxidation is accelerated by ammonia, which can be found in many of our products since it is part of the formula for most waterborne acrylics, which includes all of our acrylic paints, mediums, and Polymer Varnish w/UVLS. The application of clear acrylic mediums tends to create a darkening and more orange color on imitation leaf. We have found that Polymer Varnish in particular, triggers a greater amount of oxidation with green-blue oxidation products, and it even cracked and flaked off (Image 4).

Image 3: A drop of tap water directly on imitation leaf became visible after 1 day.

Image 4: Imitation leaf was coated with Polymer Varnish Gloss, Gloss Medium, GAC 500 and GAC 200. All coatings caused darkening of the metal leaf and streaks along the direction of the brush strokes. Polymer Varnish caused the most oxidation and GAC 200 showed the least oxidation.










Protective Coatings

To avoid ammonia and water coming in contact with imitation leaf and thus triggering oxidation, we recommend brush applying diluted MSA Varnish Gloss, or enough spray coats of Archival Varnish Gloss (the aerosol form of MSA) to create an even glossy surface (Image 5). Usually 2-3 spray coats are sufficient. This can help slow down the tarnishing process, however, since acrylics are porous there is no guarantee that the imitation gold leaf will not tarnish in the future. Of course it is also important not to touch the imitation leaf with bare fingers, as areas with finger grease could tarnish drastically and will continue tarnishing, even underneath a varnish or topcoat. Once the varnish layer has dried, one may paint with acrylics over our MSA or Archival Varnishes.

Image 5: MSA Varnish Gloss applied to imitation leaf, left to dry for one day and then painted with Fluid Phthalo Green. This sample was exposed to elevated temperatures and humidity to test for resistance to tarnishing. After one week the color of the imitation leaf is still bright and spotless.

Further Tips

  • Specialized gilding suppliers often provide real as well as imitation leafs, and often have their own recommendations for suitable sealers to protect their specific products from tarnishing.
  • If the imitation leaf is integrated mid-process into a painting, the underlying paint layers should be left to dry thoroughly before gilding, to ensure all volatiles have evaporated.
  • Control humidity levels (radiator in winter and dehumidifier/air conditioning in summer). High humidity levels accelerate oxidation of imitation leafs during their application.
  • Apply acrylic-based gold sizes thinly and follow instructions of the size manufacturer.
  • Do not touch imitation leaf with bare fingers, as fingerprints continue oxidizing, even underneath a protective coating. Use transfer leafs that can be handled on one side, and/or wear cotton or latex gloves.
  • Apply a clear protective coating the same day.


MSA and Archival Varnishes are solvent-based systems and therefore, require proper health and safety precautions, which are described in the Product Information Sheets:

10 Responses to Acrylics on Gold Leaf

  1. Margie Crisp May 30, 2019 at 12:57 pm #

    Hi, I’ve been painting with acrylics over 24k gold leaf for a number of years now. I use an acrylic size with 24k patent gold leaf. Let the gilded area cure for several days before painting or top coating. I only top coat when my painting will be detailed or require many layers: the gold is thin enough to be damaged so I often top coat with MSA spray varnish. Works really well. Transparent glazes over gold work really well. I also use Dutch gold (imitation) leaf but be aware that it can start oxidizing long before it is used (in the package) so be aware of any color shifts in the squares of gold.

    • Mirjam Hintz May 31, 2019 at 1:35 pm #

      Hello Margie,

      Thank you for sharing your experiences and techniques! It seems that you have found a good way to work with real gold leaf as well as imitation leaf. I too have seen oxidized imitation leaves that were still in a book. Keeping the imitation leaf in airtight packages certainly helps to prevent that. Thank you for that extra tip!


    • Karin July 1, 2019 at 6:00 pm #

      Thanks for the heads up on imitation Dutch leaf gold! I just wonder if those imitation leaves that are already tarnishing in their packages will stop that process once protected with either paint or a medium.

      • Mirjam Hintz July 2, 2019 at 5:40 am #

        Hello Karin,

        Thank you for your comment. Mediums and varnishes can provide significant protection against tarnishing but they are permeable to moisture. Therefore they can only slow down the oxidation process, but not stop it. At what rate the imitation leaf will continue to tarnish also depends on the environment in which the artwork is placed. The less humidity the imitation gold is exposed to, the better. To err on the safe side it would be better to use new imitation leaf and keep it in air-tight containers or packaging.

  2. Glenna Tissenbaum May 30, 2019 at 1:00 pm #


    I learned metal-leafing from Golden certified instructor Nancy Reyner who counsels coating with Polymer Gloss Medium as a sealant.

    If I want to brush Archival Varnish Gloss – what do i thin it with and at what ratio?

    Appreciate your assistance!

    • Mirjam Hintz May 31, 2019 at 1:51 pm #

      Hello Glenna,

      Thank you for the comment. The Gloss Medium definitely creates some color change, making the imitation leaf darker and deeper in color. Some artists might actually like that. The Archival Varnish w/UVLS comes in an aerosol and is ready- to-use for spray applications. For brush applications the MSA Varnish can be used. That is thinned with MSA Solvent or full strength/high aromatic mineral spirits in a 3:1 ratio (3 parts varnish to 1 part solvent). The mixing ratio can always be adjusted as desired, going thicker or thinner.

      Reach out if you have more questions or take a look at the Varnishing resources.

    • Nancy Reyner August 1, 2019 at 9:44 pm #

      Just want to add my comment here as I am misquoted. I would never recommend to seal imitation leaf with Golden’s Polymer Varnish. As you can read here it will tarnish the leaf. I always recommend using the MSA or Archival Varnish to seal the imitation leaf. After my painting is complete OVER the sealed leaf, then as a final topcoat I will use the Polymer Varnish. This way the Polymer Varnish never comes in direct contact with the imitation leaf.

  3. Judith Demaestri July 30, 2019 at 12:23 pm #

    Very valuable information,thank you all.


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