What is it?
Metal leaf is the term for metal that has been hammered into very thin sheets. Gold leaf has been created and used for thousands of years as a decorative element in painting, sculpture, furniture, architecture, tapestry, jewelry, and more. Other metal leafs often seen as decorative elements are silver leaf and copper leaf, which are comparatively much less expensive than pure gold leaf. With each type of leaf, the metal is pounded or processed with rollers until it is extremely thin (often 1/250,000th of an inch!), cut into sheets, and attached with an adhesive to the desired surface.
Examples from art history:
Gold leaf has been used since ancient times by many societies across the world, beginning with ancient Indian temples, Egyptian sarcophagi, and even some ancient cave paintings! It became very heavily used throughout Europe for religious iconography, painting and mosaics, often comprising the entire background of a work in a technique called “gold grounding.” The Japanese, however, were perhaps the most advanced in their use of gold leaf. They perfected their technique for using gold leaf through many generations of dynasties, and some of the most beautiful examples of using gold leaf on a large scale are found in Japanese screen paintings, though they also adapted their technique to create threads from gold leaf which they incorporated into clothing and tapestry.
Both the Byzantine mosaics and iconography as well as the Japanese tradition of using gold leaf in paintings had an influence on the “golden phase” of 20th century Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. In fact, of all Klimt’s work, the pieces containing gold leaf are among the most popular and well-received. Here are a few cool examples:
Examples from Principle Gallery:
Several cool examples of using leaf in art have come through Principle Gallery over the years! A couple of years ago, we were treated to a few landscapes by GC Myers with brilliant copper skies:
The use of metal leaf gives these vibrant, stylized landscapes an extra glamorous dose of visual interest and texture, and the coppery color paired with the scenes of trees seems to almost offer a nostalgic aspect. A few of the other works the gallery has shown that involve the use of leaf include some gorgeous portraits by Argentinean artist Alejandro Rosemberg, one of which uses silver and gold leaf and another with gold grounding, as well as a beautiful figurative piece by British artist Fletcher Sibthorp that uses silver leaf:
There’s something truly delicate, lovely, and eye-catching about seeing these painted figures with a background of leaf. It adds such an understated level of elegance to the already beautiful paintings. We also often see the use of leaf on the more ornate frames surrounding the paintings that come into the gallery, a nod to a very long historical tradition of using leaf on frames for decoration. Sometimes, there’s really nothing better than leaf to add that perfect glint to a work or its frame!