The Gold Standard

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I recently had a wonderful conversation with a fellow Scenic Artist about the enjoyable aspects of what we do. One thing that stuck with me is that he enjoys how ridiculous it can sometimes be; this industry is often times uncompromising and the requests that we receive can leave us with a feeling of bewilderment.

You want me to do WHAT?

We’ve all been there and while it isn’t a great feeling at first, when you’ve found your way and can stand back and see how a mind-boggling problem became a well-crafted solution, that feeling of owning it is worth the blood, sweat, and tears.
I was recently faced with one such a challenge. It began with a request for a stage to be covered in gold with a rich patina. Simple enough. I sampled all the usual metallic gold paints and dirty-down techniques, I even tried out some unusual tools and techniques, however, I wasn’t getting positive feedback, and not given the go ahead. Something seemed to be missing.

The “looks” were interesting, but it lacked the punch that the designer so desired. Many samples later, I found I was painting in circles and losing my hair at an alarming rate. To save my beautiful blond locks we needed another conversation. Meeting time… words were said… ideas were cast onto the table. In the end, the designer wanted gold leaf…. 1700 square feet of it. (Well, that sure escalated quickly.) It was a decision that I wasn’t particularly thrilled about and recognized that was going to be a reoccurring theme of the course of the next week.

Oh. Did I forget to mention that we had one week to gold leaf 1700 square feet? No big deal, right?

Part of what made this request so scary at first was that applying gold leaf was not something my crew at ATOMIC had really done before. Luckily, we had some tricks up our sleeves. I am blessed with quite a few things in my life; a wonderful team at work, a Scenic Forum filled with helpful people (WOOT go Guild!), and an uncanny ability to work under immense pressure. Facing a large, gilded mountain of work, I set off into uncharted territory.

This is how it happened.

STEP 1: Research

This is just one fine example of when the Guild’s Forum really came to my aid. I posted up a thread asking for people’s advice on adhesives, how to handle the foil, types of paint to use on top of the foil, and other basic questions surrounding gold leaf. I found a gold leaf foil through RoseBrand, and after getting some great feedback I set off at once to make more samples.

STEP 2: Choose a Base Color

I wanted a color that would be similar to the foil should it tear away at any spots. This is tricky because anyone that has worked with anything metallic knows that all you do is move slightly to the left or right and the color and look completely changes. Tis the nature of metallic paint, leaf, and refracted light. I tend to stay somewhere in the middle ground when trying to match hues to metallic colors and oddly enough, I settled on a color called…….wait for it…… Gold Leaf by Benjamin Moore. The writing was on the wall, folks. I was off to a good start. With the base color in hand, I set out on my gilded journey.


STEP 3: Sample Adhesives

    1. First I tried painting some sample boards and applying the gold leaf directly to the wet paint. While this would have been a great way to cut out steps, it was very hard to get the timing right and I made a thorough mess of myself and samples. I do not suggest this as an option.
    2. Thanks to the helpful folks on the Forum, I was tipped off to a few adhesives to try. I narrowed down my willingness to try two options based on availability. It was going to be either Spray77 or Elmer’s glue over a dried base coat. I had my reservations about both and had an idea about which would work better but in the end, my preconceived ideas were wrong.
    3. The Spray77 was messy, smelly, and just… not a lot of fun. I followed application directions and was running into issues with the foil pulling up easily even after a day of letting it sit. Because it would have taken a huge amount of it to cover 1700 square feet, I just wasn’t feeling good about this as an option.
    4. What is Elmer’s glue not good for? I applied generously with a roller and let it sit for a hot minute. Once somewhat tacky I applied the foil by laying it down gently and pressing lightly with my hands. The backing came off easily although we noticed inconsistency with this from roll to roll throughout the duration of the project. With the foil applied to the sample, it was easy to see the rolls were just a series of 5.5-inch squares. The shape of the stage was circular and so it was decided that we would apply the foil in a way that was radiating outwards. The Elmer’s glue worked well. It was easy to use, plentiful, and only slightly problematic if applied much too thick without allowing it time to set up. By the time we got rolling on the large pieces of scenery, we were able to apply the glue and set the foil on in a systematic way that went quickly.


STEP 4: Painting the Foil

The designer wanted a rich gold and so I decided to try Zinsser’s Amber Shellac. Applying it with a low-nap roller seemed to be the best approach because I knew that I’d want to seal the entire thing with another coat and didn’t want it to become too orange.

I love shellac. I love the way it shines, the way it brings out textures and colors, and the way it smells. It is my guilty pleasure.

There were no issues with applying it over the foil, and because it dries rather quickly it allowed us the option to continue moving forward in a timely manner. This step was rather painless and the most important part was making sure that everything was coated consistently but not too heavily.

The next step is one of those things that I particularly enjoy doing; adding a dirty patina. There are so many ways to do this but I had to be careful because of the square footage. I always ALWAYS keep that in mind when sampling. I’ve shot myself in the foot more times than I care to admit but sometimes there is simply no quick solution and you’ve got to work through the pain. I chose a mixture of water, polyurethane, and an interior latex black. It was applied liberally, splashed with more water, ragged around, splashed some more, and so on until I felt comfortable. As I said, I really enjoy this type of treatment because you can really start to “feel” it after getting into the groove. It becomes quite poetic. It looked great on the sample, and after one very long Saturday on my hands and knees, it looked great on the stage too. The shellac accepted the water-based paint graciously. One more point for shellac in my book.


I applied a final layer of amber shellac on the sample board to seal it off. After it dried, we set it in a high traffic area of the shop to test it. I was surprised at how well it withstood the comings and going. With the approval of the sample and the finished patina on the stage, I took the moment to stand back and take a final look at everything. Once I felt satisfied with the patina, I set about one last coat of amber shellac and reveled in the glorious smell and luster. That made for a total of two light coats of amber shellac, and it was perfect since I didn’t want it to get too orange. (Note: ventilation is pretty neat… don’t forget to use it.)

The glory of having finished the stage was short-lived because of a colonnade that wrapped around the entire stage. No problem there. We were pros at that point. I have to say that the end look was somewhat forgiving. The entire project would have been much more complicated if the gold leaf needed to appear immaculate. Thanks to the finish, we were able to move along at a reasonable pace without sacrificing the look.

In the end, we went through 14 rolls of foil. There were pieces of it floating around the shop for well over a year. It was simply impossible to collect it all. It was in my car, my house, my son’s backpack, my bed, and so on. The set went out for the Grammys for Sam Smith to perform on with his choir (Check it out here: Sam Smith – Pray). The set came back to shop after the show and I was pleasantly surprised at how well the finish held up.

Sam Smith Grammy Performance; Image provided by ATOMIC

It all started out as a simple, straightforward request. It quickly became a scary project, but thanks to the help of those around, the project was seen through with grace and efficiency. It reinforced the concept in the Scenic Art world that the only “right” way of doing the project is the one that meets the deadline, budget, and is successful under the lights.

Sorry to anyone looking for gold leaf foil. I’ve used it all.

Designer: Jason Sherwood
Art Director: Kristen Merlino
Scenic Artists: Alastair Peters, Mara Rooney, Laura Kiskaddon

Evan Rapp is one of the Guild of Scenic Artists, ‘Creative Content Committee” members, and we encourage you to learn more about him from his previous article “The Corporate Side Rocks!”. He also invites you out for that beer if you are ever in little old Lititz, PA.

Evan Rapp

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