Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) once wrote an aesthetic treatise titled 'In Praise of Shadows'. The essay discusses traditional Japanese aesthetics in contrast with change and Westernization. The West, he argues, is continuously searching for light and clarity, while the subtle and subdued forms of East Asian art and literature are seen by Tanizaki to represent an appreciation of shadow and subtlety. The use of gold and gold leaf is perhaps best explained by Tanizaki and it is worth quoting him at length:
And surely you have seen, in the darkness of the innermost rooms of these huge buildings, to which sunlight never penetrates, how the gold leaf of a sliding door or screen will pick up a distant glimmer from the garden, then suddenly send forth an ethereal glow, a faint golden light cast into the enveloping darkness, like the glow upon the horizon at sunset. In no other setting is gold quite so exquisitely beautiful. You walk past, turning to look again, and yet again; and as you move away the golden surface of the paper glows ever more deeply, changing not in a flash, but growing slowly, steadily brighter, like color rising in the face of a giant. Or again you may find that the gold dust of the background, which until that moment had only a dull, sleepy luster, will, as you move past, suddenly gleam forth as if it had burst into flame.
In other parts of the essay, Tanizaki praises the beauty of traditional outdoor Japanese toilets. Although, he later admitted he found indoor western toilets more comfortable to use, especially in Winter. To some, this discredited him slightly. Nevertheless, I believe he was right when it comes to the beauty of gold and gold leaf. Japanese gold screens and paintings are best appreciated in darkness with a shimmer of candlelight. When this happens, the painting magically appears to glow. Too much light however, and the magic disappears.
There can also of course, be such a thing as too much gold. This was the case when the warlord and unifier of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), had a portable golden tea room constructed. Hideyoshi was not a cultivated man. He spoke little of his past and probably wished to hide his lowly peasant background. Once he achieved the high rank of Regent (Kampaku) however, he wanted to impress guests with his power. To make the point obvious, everything in the room was gold - including the tea-utensils. But the room's opulence was highly against wabi-sabi norms and rustic aesthetics codified by his tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). But, I suppose, what would you say to the most powerful warlord with the power of life and death over you? As it so happens, Hideyoshi in an angry outburst really did order poor Sen no Rikyu to commit suicide.
Gold's rarity, expense and brilliance make its links with the powerful elites obvious. Gold screens were often commissioned by feudal warlords to decorate their castles and mansions; often with added symbols of power or virtue, such as tigers, bamboo, and pine trees. If you were granted an audience and presented before a warlord sitting atop a dais in a hall full of gold and tigers, you quickly understood your position!
The artists who created these gold screens and sliding doors almost exclusively for the nobility and samurai were known collectively as the Kano school. The Kano school was founded by Kano Masanobu (1434-1530) and began innovating with Chinese techniques of ink painting as well as gold and bright colours, but as it turned into the 'official' painting school of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868), run by countless descendants of sometimes greater but often lesser artistic talent, its artistic influence began to decline as it's agenda became more conservative: preserving traditions set down by a founder, rather than allowing for innovation. Nevertheless, the use of gold was firmly established and taken up by the Rinpa school as well as others (Hokusai sometimes took classes from Kano school artists and so did Kyosai for a time too) and has become quintessentially Japanese.
How to Apply Gold Leaf
Make sure you turn off any fans or air-conditioning, as well as windows etc. You don't want a sudden gust of wind to blow the gold leaf in the room like a snow-globe. Also, if you have a cat, try to keep it away (Lily the cat once sniffed the gold leaf and it went all over her whiskers and she sneezed it everywhere).
Apart from the gold lead itself, you will also need wax paper, or baking paper; baby powder; bamboo or wooden tweezers; nikawa glue; paper that has been sized, wide hake brush.
1) Gold leaf sticks to any moist surface, so first put the baby powder on your hands and tweezers.
2) Apply a square area of nikawa onto the sized paper with the brush. It will wrinkle a bit, but when it dries it will become flat again.
3) Open the gold leaf packet and place the wax paper on top of a square of gold, use the tweezers to brush against the wax paper to help fix the gold leaf to the surface. I sometimes also use baking paper rubbed against my face. The natural oils help the gold leaf stick to the baking paper for me to transfer it. This trick is also used by some woodblock printers who rub the baren (the hand press) on their face too.
4) Place the gold leaf attached to the wax paper onto the area with the glue and gently press down. It is quite tricky and it might crack and tear, but don't worry, it can be repaired later.
5) Apply another square area of glue, with a slight overlap over the gold square you have applied already. This creates the lattice pattern later once its dry, known as 'haku ashi' in Japanese.
6) Let the work dry for a day and gently brush off any excess. If there is any tear, just apply some glue and some gold on top; wait to dry, and gently brush off the excess again. Then finally apply a layer of nikawa glue on top to seal it. This also make the surface of the gold paintable.
Where to buy gold leaf?
Buying real gold leaf is expensive and there is just no way around it. One can use gold foil, in which case it will be much cheaper, like £5 for 100 sheets in some cases. But real gold will always be more expensive. There are different varieties though with different percentages of silver and copper mixed in with the gold that might be cheaper. Below are some links that I found. But if you find a site selling gold leaf at a ridiculously low price, it probably is too good to be true and is probably imitation gold leaf, so do read the fine print carefully!
Gold leaf can be purchased online through Hakuichi, but there is no English, so you might need a Japanese speaker to help you:
Also Amazon Japan, which has English and might be a bit more convenient:
Alternatively, there is Amazon UK: