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:

19 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.

      • Renee November 30, 2019 at 11:04 pm #

        Nancy, the YouTube video you have posted recommends sealing the imitation leaf with GAC200. Has your opinion on that process changed?

        • Nancy Reyner July 22, 2020 at 11:15 am #

          Hi Renee, in the video I recommend to use a solvent-based varnish (like Golden’s MSA or Archival Varnish) to seal imitation leaf. That is what I use in my work. I get many requests for alternatives for artists that do not want to work with the toxic nature of solvent-based varnishes.So that is why I added in the video this alternative. I wrote an updated blog article here with more specifics, as Youtube does not allow changes to the video:

          In that article I explain how YES you can use GAC 200 as a substitute for the solvent based varnishes to seal the imitation leaf. The issue is that it must be applied very carefully, so that it is not drying slow enough for the ammonia to tarnish the leaf. If it is applied as I instruct in my article then it will work. I’ve used this in workshops for many years, and have experiments in my studio that do not show signs of tarnishing after years of leaving them out to see.

          GOLDEN’s tech specialist Sarah Sands and I discussed this alternative process – using either GAC 200 alone, or in a mixture of GAC 200 with GAC 500 (the 500 makes it easier to apply – adding a bit more glide). Sarah approved it. The issue is that many artists who try this are applying it in a way that slows the drying, and will then tarnish. If water is added to the GAC mixture, or if it is applied too thickly, or if it is overbrushed – any of these application errors will cause tarnishing.

          Note of caution: Just applying ONE coat of the GAC200 (or mixture with 500) will NOT keep the leaf from tarnishing if heavy amounts of acrylic are applied over it – such as with pouring. I recommend at least 4 or 5 coats of the GAC 200 (or mixture with 500) then letting it dry for at least a few days, prior to applying heavy applications of acrylic.

          So in conclusion – Use a solvent based varnish whenever possible as a first coat sealer over imitation leaf. If and only if that cannot be used, then using GAC200 (alone or mixed with GAC 500) in multiply coats, and applied CORRECTLY (so that it dries within seconds) still holds as a good solution.

          Thanks for the opportunity to explain more clearly.

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

    Very valuable information,thank you all.

  4. Taylor November 19, 2019 at 12:35 pm #

    This seems like an odd question, I know…but, a client of mine wants to attempt to remove some of the gold leaf that is used as heavy accents on a acrylic canvas painting she recently purchased from me. I’ve told her that if she wishes to keep the painting, it is hers to do with as she pleases, but a full refund can only be forthcoming if she ships the painting back to me in its original state. Now she’s asking me for tips on removing the imitation gold leaf from portions of piece. She says it’s detracting from the aesthetics of the color layers and that it didn’t seem that heavy in the purchase photo. This was an in stock painting; I’ve not altered or changed it all since I originally painted it three years ago. I’m kind of feeling discouraged at her response to the piece, to be honest, but I’m also trying to retain professionalism and quality customer service. Does anyone have any idea how she might remove the leaf without lifting or scratching the paint layer and thus, destroying the work? If not, any advice on what my next reply should be? The piece is sealed with GAC 400. No additional varnishing besides that. The paints were primarily Golden and Liquitex.

    • Mirjam Hintz November 20, 2019 at 8:12 am #

      Hello Taylor,

      It is unfortunate that the buyer of your work is dissatisfied with it, however, we would not encourage any attempt to remove the gold leaf, which would most likely only serve to ruin it. Overpainting the gold leaf with a matte medium to tone it down, or with more colors would be possible, but whether or not you should change the piece in order to please your buyer, is a question we cannot help with.

      We would also like to point out that artist’s works are protected by the copyright law – The right of Integrity clause, which says: The right of integrity is one of the moral rights now protected by the Copyright Act for works of visual art. The right of integrity is the right of an author to prevent others from doing things to his work which can hurt his reputation. So the author can prevent others from distorting, mutilating or misrepresenting his work.

      We hope this helps.


  5. Hailey May 9, 2020 at 4:03 pm #

    Do any of these products react with metal leaf sealers? I generally use Speedball Metal Leaf sealer as instructed over the imitation leaf – then I apply a gloss medium over that before I start painting.

    • Mirjam Hintz May 14, 2020 at 1:47 pm #

      Hello Hailey,

      thank you for your question. Since we have not tested the Speedball Metal Leaf Sealer and there is little information on the product online, we cannot be 100% sure that the product is compatible with our acrylics or with imitation leaf. However, since the product is especially formulated to seal gold leaf, it is likely fine, especially if you have used it successfully in the past. Oxidation stains occur relatively quickly and if 1 year old applications still look good, the sealer should be trustworthy.

      Warm regards,


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