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Betsy Porter
Art and Iconography
PREPARING RED CLAY BOLE (pronounced "bowl") - or buy prepared liquid bole.

  • Prepare liquid bole in advance.  This is a messy job, so wear an apron, and protect your counter top, or else
    work outdoors.

  • Bole is finely ground clay or earth, consisting of tiny pieces of stone mixed with animal skin glue.  It sinks in
    water, and can clog drains.  Select an outdoor location to discard wash water.

  • The binder for liquid bole is animal-skin glue.  Without glue binder, bole will not stick properly to the board.

  • Tools:  You will need a large dedicated porcelain mortar and pestle, 2 or more nesting fine-mesh strainers plus
    optional piece of nylon panty hose, 2 large (soup size) spoons, a piece of slick-surfaced white cardboard such
    as shirt cardboard, a large-mouth container with a secure lid, and a dish pan partially filled with water.

  • To make enough liquid bole for 2 to 4 icons, mix one heaping spoonful of paste bole with one flat spoonful of
    liquid hide glue, using mortar and pestle.  (Some iconographers use dried powdered bole.)  Add a small amount
    of warm water, working the mixture as smooth as possible, to the consistency of heavy cream.  Let it sit a few
    minutes so coarser grains will settle to the bottom.

  • Strain the mixture into its wide-mouth container.  Use a spoon to scrape the liquid bole through two or more
    nested fine-mesh strainers.  For smoother bole, line strainer with a piece of nylon panty hose.

  • Apply a test sample to shirt cardboard, and let it dry completely.  Test by scraping with fingernail.  Clay should
    show a light scratch mark.  If clay can be scraped off easily, there is not enough glue.  If the surface is overly
    glossy and no mark is made, more paste bole is needed.

  • If necessary, return the mixture to the mortar, add glue or paste bole as required, and repeat the process.

  • When you are satisfied, place lid tightly onto container of liquid bole, put mixing tools into dish pan, and clean
    up.  Discard waste water outdoors, not down the sink drain!  Clay bole can clog sink drains.

  • Gilding is highly sensitive to temperature and humidity.  If
    possible, gild early on a cool morning, when condensation forms on car
    windshields.  Gilding can be difficult In warm or dry weather.  Put your
    icon in the refrigerator for 5 to 10 minutes.  A large heavy board may
    require more fridge time.  The cooling should help the moisture in your
    breath condense on the clay bole.  If gold leaf sticks to the white gesso,
    the board may be too cold.

  • Now breathe closely on your icon, on the burnished bole where you want
    to gild, using warm moist breath from the bottom of your lungs.  Light
    condensation should form on the spot where you breathe.

  • Quickly lay the gold leaf on the selected spot of polished bole, gold side
    down and wax paper on top.  Lay a square of rouge paper over it.  Press
    and rub gently but firmly with fingers and/or a soft wide brush.

  • The condensation from your breath should cause the gold leaf to
    adhere to the bole.

  • When the wax paper is removed, some gold leaf may extend past the
    edge of the halo area.  Don't brush it away!  Use your soft brush to move
    it carefully back onto the halo, and press down with the brush.

  • Use "scraps" of gold leaf, still sitting loosely on wax paper, to fill in gaps.  
    If there are small gaps where gold leaf won't stick, mix 2 drops of liquid
    gum Arabic (from watercolor section of art supply store) with 2 drops
    water, and paint lightly on the spot before applying gold leaf.  Vodka can
    be used similarly.  After several attempts at gilding with the same gold
    leaf, it will not come off of the wax paper.

  • Save bits of loose gold leaf in a small lidded container, such as a small
    plastic yogurt container, to be used later for shell gold.

  • Repeat gilding for at least 2 layers of gold leaf.  The second layer may
    be applied immediately after the first.  Using a dry, soft, wide brush,
    brush the freshly applied gold in a radial pattern, center to edge, to
    soften irregularities.  The gold will take on a smooth satin sheen.

  • Gold leaf is soft and "touchy" when first applied.  In an hour or two, after
    the gold leaf has stiffened, you can burnish all or part of it - in which
    case any defects, bumps, bubbles, or low places in the bole under
    burnished gold leaf will be visible.  I prefer to leave it satin gold, or to
    impress a design - often a very simple design such as a row of dots.

  • If the bole under your gold is exquisitely level and smooth (as mine
    usually isn't), you can burnish the entire halo to a high gloss.  Work
    lightly, running the stone burnisher radially, center to edge of halo.

  • Gold leaf comes in books of 25 sheets, separated by orange "rouge paper"
    which does not stick to gold.  Buy 23 or 24 carat "water gilding" or "surface"
    gold leaf - not "patent" gold leaf.  "Double" weight is preferred.

  • When working with gold leaf, close doors and windows to eliminate drafts.  
    Turn off incandescent desk lamps; the heat may warm your icon.

  • Cut ordinary wax paper into squares slightly larger than the gold leaf.  When
    you are ready for gilding, carefully open the book of gold leaf, quickly lay
    down a piece of wax paper centered on the gold, and rub lightly all over.

  • The gold leaf should stick to the wax paper.  Use dedicated sharp scissors
    to cut the assembly into 6 to 8 pieces, each with a "tail" of wax paper for
    handling.  Rectangular or slightly wedged-shaped pieces may be used to fill
    in a halo in a radial pattern.   Or you may prefer to cut the edge of the gold
    leaf to fit the curve of the halo.

  • Immediately return remaining gold leaf to its envelope.  Do not pick up
    another sheet of gold leaf until you have finished applying the first sheet.

  • On your icon, lightly mark the edge of the halo, using a compass with pencil tip.  The halo should be centered
    on the head, around eyebrow level.  (On many icon drawings, the center of the halo is marked with an X.)  
    Leave at least 3/8 inch (10mm) between the top of the halo and the edge of the board.  See layout page.  
    Optional:  Engrave lightly around area to be gilded - around edge of halo, and between the figure and its halo.

  • Draw a light pencil guide line around the perimeter of your icon board, a scant 1/8 inch (2 to 3mm) from the
    edge of the board.

  • (Here's a suggestion I haven't tried yet; prime-paint areas to be gilded, using 15 drops vodka to one drop hide
    glue.  Let it dry before applying bole.  This is supposed to reduce bubbles in the bole.)

  • If using paste bole prepared according to instructions above - In your palette cup, put a few drops of
    water.  Coat a No. 2 round brush with honey, about half-way up the brush, and mix the honey into the water.  
    Now mix in liquid bole, and stir well.  Later, the honey will help the gold leaf adhere to the dried and
    burnished bole, even in dry weather.

  • Stir your bole mix slowly and gently, so as not to form bubbles in it.  Your bole mix should be very smooth, the
    consistency of heavy cream.  If it seems at all gritty, let the grit settle to the bottom, and use the top layer for
    areas to be gilded.  Add another drop or two of water to be bole in the palette if needed.

  • If using prepared liquid bole - Stir well, to mix the liquid at the top with the heavy material at the bottom of
    the jar.  Spoon or pour some bole into your palette cup.  Coat a No. 2 round brush with honey, about half-way
    up the brush, and mix the honey into the liquid bole.  The prepared bole is quite fluid and usually requires no
    additional water.  (Prepared liquid bole makes a nice smooth surface for gilding; but tends to run down vertical
    surfaces like the sides of the board, and diagonal surfaces like the slope at the edge of the recess or kovcheg.  
    I like to have both liquid and paste bole available for these different uses; or better yet to mix them.)

  • Optional for experienced iconographers:  Once you have mastered the ruling pen, you can fill it with liquid
    bole and use it to neatly define the edge of the halo.

  • Starting in one corner and keeping a wet edge, apply liquid bole to the halo area.  Holding your brush at an
    angle to the surface, mop on evenly and carefully with a fairly full brush, using small circular brush
    strokes.  Do not use long straight brush strokes!  Do not dab!  Your brush should barely touch the
    surface of the board, but should not leave the board until the brush needs to be refilled.  Liquid
    bole should form a thick puddle and level off smooth and flat under its own surface tension.  White
    surface should not show through bole.  Immediately add more bole to any thin spots.  You should not need a
    second coat.  One of my students has compared this process to applying icing on top of a cake, without letting
    the spreader touch the cake.  This thick puddle of bole will usually take an hour or longer to dry.

  • Bubbles in bole can be a problem.  If bubbles develop in the bole puddle, gently work them out with your brush,
    or try blowing on them softly through a drinking straw.  

  • Slight irregularities at the edge, where the bole meets the board, are normal.  If you make a big mistake, clean it
    gently with a damp Q-tip.  Do not scrub.  It's OK if a slight stain remains.

  • Now paint the edges of the icon with more liquid bole; honey not required.  You may want to add a little more
    glue to reduce future chipping of the edge.  Raise the icon up on a support slightly smaller than the icon, such
    as a stack of plastic palettes or magazines.  Use your No. 2 brush to paint in from the edge 2-3mm to the pencil
    line.  Now use a large flat brush to paint the vertical edges.  Long strokes are OK here.  Check that no white
    spots remain!  The edges usually require a second coat.  Let bole dry - which may take an hour or so.

  • To receive gold leaf, the dry bole must be sanded and then burnished to a smooth near-mirror finish.

  • Use increasingly fine sandpaper or other sanding media to smooth out the bole; first 320 grit (if needed), then
    400 grit, then 600 and finer grit.  Remove bumps and level out dents, checking occasionally under bright light
    to locate any remaining irregularities or holes in the surface.  Wipe up dust with a tissue - don't blow it around.

  • Be careful not to grind all the way down to the white gesso.  On a sculpted board with a recess, be cautious at
    the edge of the recess!  As long as some bole remains on the surface, gold leaf should adhere to the bole.

  • Now burnish to a sheen, using a smooth metal or hard stone burnishing tool.  A tumbled hard stone, perfectly
    smooth with no cracks or pits, also makes a good burnisher.  Use firm but light pressure, just enough to
    leave a shiny track on the hardened bole.  If you see grooves or dents, lighten the pressure.  Many
    iconographers prefer to polish with a small piece of horsehair cloth interfacing, available at some fabric stores.

  • The burnished bole may have a slight orange peel texture, especially with prepared liquid bole, indicating that
    the clay grains are thicker than the dried liquid.  In most cases this is OK; but if in doubt, make a small gilded
    test patch.  If the orange peel texture keeps gold leaf from adhering, apply a second layer of bole.

  • Burnish systematically, because the burnish marks will show through the gold leaf.  Burnish radially from center
    to edges of halo, so that all burnish lines point toward the center.   Also burnish around the edges, where bole
    meets the white gesso of the board.  Insofar as possible, avoid burnishing the white gesso.

  • Should you sand and burnish the bole on the edge of the board?  You may if you wish, but it's optional.  Like
    almost everything in iconography, there's a symbolic meaning.  The edge represents our everyday life and our
    outer persona, which are inevitably imperfect and subject to rough treatment.  The inner recess (kovcheg or
    "ark") of a sculpted board, where the holy images appear, is like the subconscious, or a dream state, or our
    inner self.  But some of the "heavenly" gold extends beyond this inner recess, into the bordering area.
Gold leaf applied over bole provides a slightly
raised, attractively dimensional halo.

At a class or workshop, liquid bole and gold leaf are usually
available for classroom use.  There may be an additional
charge for gold leaf.  Although gold is always expensive, the
gold leaf so thin you can see the light through it!  It represents
only a small proportion of your expense for art supplies.

This process produces a really beautiful dimensional effect, and it’s great for concealing bubbles and
defects in the bole – but it must be done while the gold leaf is fresh, one to 30 hours after application.  
After that, the gold leaf gradually stiffens.  Allow 3 hours work time.

  • Use a pencil-tipped compass to lightly draw a single or double line around the perimeter of the halo, 1/8 inch
    to 3/16 inch in from the edge.  This border should remain without a design.

  • Select a design.  A cross in the halo indicates Christ, or a symbolic representation of Christ.  An eight-pointed
    star indicates divinity.  Floral, leafy, radiating, or geometrical designs may be used for any saint, prophet, or
    angel.  Use a printed pattern, use a ruler or drafting tools and templates, or work freehand.

  • Personally, I find that printed halo patterns are rarely a good fit for my icon.  I prefer to make leafy or floral
    patterns freehand, directly on the gold leaf.  Lightly draw a curly leaf, then another and another, until the
    space is filled.  If empty spots remain, put in a small flower, or an oval or round shape.  You can find other
    ideas in illustrated books and on china plates.  As always when trying something new, practice on paper first.

  • If using a printed halo pattern, Xerox to slightly smaller than the size of your saint's halo.  Using tracing paper
    and your paper icon pattern, adjust the design to fit your saint's halo.  Tape tracing paper over the gilded
    halo, and trace over design with ball-point pen.  When paper is lifted, light lines will show on gold leaf.

Work with care, because mistakes cannot be undone.

  • Use a round-tipped metal craft tool or a “dead” ball-point pen, first to make closely spaced regular
    indentations around the perimeter line, then to delineate the pattern.

  • For a floral or leafy design, stipple the background with many small indentations, and leave the designs
    without stippling.  Optionally, parts of the design may be burnished.  You have three basic textures from which
    to choose; stippled gold, satin or matte gold, and burnished gold.

  • Some designs repeat at equal intervals, in a radial pattern around the halo.  Divide the halo into equal
    wedges using a protractor.

  • For larger-scale designs, hammer in impressions with small leather-working tools or nail sets.
Picking up gold leaf on
wax paper, and cutting into
smaller wedges for easier
handling.  Always leave a
"tail" of wax paper.
Breathe on the bole with warm
moist breath, and immediately lay
down the wax paper with gold leaf.
Brush or press into place, using
rouge paper over the wax paper.
When gilding is complete, your icon is ready for the red halo circle,
either painted over guide lines, or applied with a
ruling pen
compass.  This will be followed by the first layers of paint, known
roskrish or roskrysh.

Forward to
Studio Tips including use of the ruling pen
Forward to
Shell Gold - applying gold leaf over paint
Back to
Home Page
Back to Main Technical Page
Yoshi Mathias applies gold leaf over bole,
using a soft brush.  She protects the gold
leaf with rouge paper.  Loose scraps of
gold leaf go into the small plastic yogurt
container in the foreground.


After painting, you can make minor
repairs to gold leaf, but patches
will show slightly.
The application of gold leaf over clay bole is full of symbolic meaning!

The clay symbolizes the earth from which Adam (and all humanity) was created.  With
the gold leaf, you "breathe life" into the clay, as God breathed life into Adam.

Just as raw clay is fired into a handsome and durable pot, applying gold leaf "fires"
the clay bole into luminous beauty, reflecting earthly and heavenly light.

The halo images the solar disc, and earthy clay is raised to a likeness of heaven.
NOTE:  Gilding is beautiful but not essential.  Many historic icons have a painted halo - usually
light yellow, but sometimes bright red or emerald green!  If you are starting off, or have difficulty
obtaining bole and gold leaf, paint the halo instead.  Coat the edge of your board with reddish
brown paint instead of liquid bole.  Alternatively, you can use "patent" gold leaf applied with
adhesive, which results in a relatively flat look and cannot be burnished.  Modern adhesives
are antithetical to the Prosopon method, which relies on use of natural materials only.
As you work on your design, pinholes may open up.  At left, a half-completed freehand leafy design has
exposed many spots of bole.  There are 7 five-petaled flowers among the leaves - and I hammered in five closely
spaced impressions at the center of each flower, using a small nail set.  This turned out to be a technical error -
the gold leaf peeled off the heavily textured centers of the flowers.

After the design was completed, I applied another layer of gold leaf, which covered most of the
 Then I "stippled" the entire halo with a soft dry brush held vertically, and the design came right
through the new gold leaf.  But I could not persuade the gold leaf to stick to the centers of the flowers.  So, during
the painting of the red halo line, each flower received a spot of red paint in its center.  Although the spacing is
irregular, the effect pleases me.
Laurence Farhat has laid
out his icon of Christ
Enthroned, and now it is
ready for gilding.
OTHER METHODS OF "WATER GILDING" OVER BOLE - Gold leaf can be adhered to bole by first lightly
brushing the surface of the bole with plain water, or water with a few drops of gum arabic, or vodka.

I have not tried any of these methods, but experimentation on practice board (not on your icon) is
encouraged.  Many of
Loretta Hoffmann's icons have beautiful smooth gilded backgrounds, achieved
by brushing vodka over the bole.  She says she also uses lots of gold leaf.

For more information about gold leaf, and the tools and methods by which it can be applied, go to  Or call Easy Leaf Products 800-569-5323.
Start applying bole in one corner, outlining the edge of the halo
as you go.  Fill in between the edges with a wet brush held at a
slant, to make a puddle of bole, which should level out smooth
under its own surface tension.  If the bole on the board gets
bumpy, add a drop of water to the bole in the palette.  Keep a wet
edge, and work fairly rapidly.  Proceed until halo area is covered.
A GILDED BACKGROUND can be gorgeous!

Many historic icons have gilded backgrounds,
because the intense brilliance of gold recalls
the light of heaven.

A gilded background requires many hours of
work; not recommended for beginners.  Wait
until you are confident of your gilding skills!

For this 13 x 17 inch icon, I used an extra layer
of prepared bole for additional dimensionality in
the halo areas.  Layout, application of bole,
sanding and polishing, and gilding took about
15 hours.  27 sheets of gold leaf were required.
For a neater edge, before applying bole, engrave the lines where gold leaf will meet the white gesso.  
This is especially helpful for the straight lines on the thick border of the board, surrounding the
rectangular recess.