The Alchemy of Pure Gold Pigment

Persian Manuscript Illumination by Anita Chowdry

The 24 carat gold paint that I made, gleaming invitingly in a freshwater mussel shell

I spent the weekend in my Woburn Walk studio making another batch of 24 carat gold pigment. It was used historically by painter and illuminators both in the Western world and in the East, and it is known as “shell gold” because it was usually stored in a shell. Shell gold should be used with a small amount of gum Arabic solution to bind it (like a watercolour), and works best painted onto very smooth fine-grained paper or parchment.  In painting there is no substitute for pure gold – when it is burnished with a smooth agate stone, nothing can gleam with quite the same fire.

It takes about three days to fully process this wonderful product, using painstaking procedures that are almost a kind of alchemy. I first witnessed this amazing method twenty years ago in India, in the house of my master Bannu in Jaipur.

The process I watched then was based on a method that has been unchanged for over a millennium. An Iranian artist from the 16th century called Sadeqi Beg Afshar wrote a wonderful treatise in verse, which includes a very precise set of instructions for “the dissolving of gold and silver”. “If your heart desires to dissolve silver and gold,” he begins poetically , ” by this method I will (dis)solve your difficulty”. Working through the Persian text with my teacher, it is stunning how careful and precise his instructions are, within the flowery couplets. That was a time when artists had to acquire an intimate understanding their materials, and making colours was a part of every apprentice’s training.

Particles of pure gold in suspension during the washing stage of making shell gold

There is something magical about spending hours and hours with pure gold, coaxing it into the most exquisite pigment for fine painting and illuminating. During the washing stage the fine particles of gold swirl and eddy in suspension, and you feel you are looking into a magical lake.

As I contemplate this lake of gold, I am reminded of  a memorable book I have read and re-read: “Stardust, the cosmic recycling of stars, planets and people” by John Gribbin (Penguin books, 2000)in which he explains how this rarest of elements can only be created in the last stages of a giant supernova explosion, so colossal are the cosmic  forces required to bring it into being.

For anyone who would like to learn and experience more on how to make and use this wonderful pigment, I shall be holding workshops in my studio from time to time – check out my “workshops” pages for more details.