Sharing the work of fine artists and artisans (is there really a difference?) is exciting to me. There’s a certain kind of energy created, that I feel when I can share information about creative people whose work does not always fit into a readily defined category. So, from time to time I’ll feature individuals here, whose work I find particularly compelling.
Bill Gauthier is an artist who specializes in the fine art of using pure gold and silver leaf in his own unique style, adding the final touch of depth and luminosity to public spaces, private collections, his own art work, and the work of other fine artists. His artistic talent, technical skill, and clarity of purpose simply radiates from all his work.
I first met Bill in 1997. I’d heard about a process and materials called “Venetian Plaster,” and my fascination with learning this technique led me to his course at Sepp Leaf, in New York. The class was small, intense, and full of information and hands-on experience with the medium.
Even after so many years, Bill’s approach to his work continues to be meaningful to me personally. His creative artistry, meticulous attention to detail and process to achieve the best possible results— along with his refined sense of color mixing and color use— are just part of the impressions and experiences that have become a large part of my own approach to surface and color.
A conversation with Bill Gauthier
BJ: Bill, you’ve been working with “Leaf” for 32 years, and you still find it fascinating and mysterious. I’d love to call you a “master gilder,” but I know you have a comment about that! What is a ‘master gilder? ”
BILL: I don’t really believe that term. The gilding gods are always keeping us humble. In this work there are always surprises I don’t care how long one has been doing this, there’s always something to know, there’s too much to know if you want a large range. The longer you do something, the more opportunities you have to make mistakes. That’s experience.
BJ: Speaking of experience, you have many years in the business of being an artisan/artist. Can you describe for us your general approach to your work?
BILL: I’m a relentless perfectionist, I will not back down. I have so many “years in” I might as well stay faithful to that commitment so with every mistake comes a mini triumph, I have no other way to look at it. This work is my life.
I come from the point of view of an artist craftsman rather than a successful business man. Being in this particular business means a lot of different things to different people, I’ve always supported myself doing this work, from the age of 18. I feel successful in this business because of that, regardless of the good years or bad.
- The “Maine Monument,” 1995
BJ: The Maine Monument is so dramatic, and it’s just one example of your large-scale work in public places. I know that you also do architectural elements, commercial installations including interiors, ceilings, and walls, and that you collaborate with other artist and artisans.
What’s your background, and how did you get into working with gold leaf as a specialty?
BILL: After graduating from the High School of Art and Design in NYC, I needed a summer job. I started work at the New York Restoration Studio in 1979, and that’s where I started to work with real gold leaf. I stayed with that company for 13 years. I stayed in that job through my college years working part time. I went to Parson’s school of design and majored in fine art painting, I didn’t learn about traditional materials when I was in art school, I did all of that work on the side.
BJ: So, most of your large scale work was after college?
BILL: Yes. After college I worked for the art restoration business full time, they started getting large scale gilding projects. We gilded outdoor statues that would take 25-35 boxes of gold to gild. I was gilding 8 foot sculptures when I was 22 years old.
BJ: I met you in 1997. When did you start working at Sepp leaf?
BILL: After staying at the art restoration business for 13 years I went to work at Sepp leaf Products. I was hired to start the educational wing of Sepp. I also worked the technical help line, and anyone who had a problem between 1991 and 1997 most likely spoke with me. I met a ton of people and taught all over the country, and I had traveled to Europe two times before I crossed the Hudson river west, so working with Sepp really allowed me to see this country. I learned a lot from decorative artists throughout the country, including gilders.
BJ: What can you tell us about your special gilding techniques that you’ve developed?
BILL: In 1999, I began a business partnership with art conservator Deborah Bigelow. Our company was called “American Burnish.” During this period until 2005, we had many exciting collaborative commissions.
One example is this project, in which I worked with the artist Walter De Maria. We completed a large gilded sculpture [shown below] that resides at the Chichu Museum in Naoshima Japan, titled “time , timeless, no time.”
View from the top
The project is red gold, gilded on mahogany, It took four gilders 18 months to complete.
View from the bottom
I developed what I call the “Hybrid Gilding Technology” and used it for “time,timeless,notime,” our first large-scale collaboration with Walter De Maria an artist using gold leaf. This piece—in which we used 39,000 third-sheets of 23-2/4 K gold—is currently in the Chichu museum in Japan.
1 Sun, 34 Moons: Walter deMaria
BJ: Bill, will share some of your thoughts about being in the business of decorative arts?
BILL: The Decorative Arts business is difficult because its creative, but mainly it’s about providing a product and a service at the same time. Not many businesses have both. It’s not “point and click.”
The product is the creation, and the service is doing the work. It’s a complicated role to be in, with a great deal of responsibility. Good communication is so important. The margins are always tight.
Regarding process, you always have to do samples. You need a specific chain-of-approval process, so the client and the artist both know what is planned and what to expect.
Overall view of work for a church.
Details on wood ends
Closeup: structural items in church project
BJ: I first met you as a student in your Venetian plaster class at Sepp Leaf. But, do you have a favorite material or process?
BILL: Gilding is my favorite form of decorative artistry, but I’ll still occasionally work on a crew doing Venetian Stucco , however I’m not actively soliciting that work, at this time. For doing Venetian Stucco, I prefer Kolcaustico. It’s best with lighter colors like light grays, whites, light blue. I still work with the manufacturer as a development consultant, to make improvements in the material.
For Gilding materials I prefer to use 23-2/4 K gold. It’s not too red, not too yellow. I Never use “Dutch metal.” The main ‘down-side’ for a gilding business is that it’s labor-intensive, can be tedious, and has NO “re-do.” It has to be done right the first –and only—time.
Making samples to perfect the process
BJ: Such great information. Now I just want to show more of your work! I know that collaboration with other artists is important in your work. What’s your process in working with other artists?
BILL: The concept: art making is collaborative. My gilding makes helps complete the artist’s vision.
Every artist that I work for is usually open to the possibilities of what I bring to the project; we start from a place of agreement, which is a good start.
When the project starts I just listen, then I make samples, it’s just a matter of translating words into surfaces. I like to collaborate because I know when to get out of the way, the artists I work with always know what they want, even if I second guess them, I’m always wrong.
I only take a hard stand on the technical issues, for instance the best technique for the fullest expression, that kind of conservation. Some artists know about the process others don’t and working with both is fine.
Working with Japanese dyed silver, through a sieve. Bill used this technique among others for the "Skull" project, a series of gilded skull sculptures for artist Max Gimblett.
Skull 1, in progress: art by Max Gimblett
Skull: all leaf, NO paint! Skull by Max Gimblett
Another Skull: art by Max Gimblett
In specialized gilding, it takes the right technique to use gold leaf to help bring the artwork into focus. For example, talking with the artist about his vision for the work is the start to understanding what I’ll do to help achieve that. There is so much to know about working with gold leaf, that most artists would not know the right choices to make or how to go about using the materials.
- Always make samples! This test: Copy at left, Original at right.
Bill is working in his own business with the New York City based painter Maxwell Gimblett. Max uses a variety of Japanese colored silver leaf, as well as precious metals such as gold, silver and palladium.
BJ: What would be your advice to aspiring decorative artists?
BILL: It’s more than a short tips list, it’s complex. To be successful we have to ask ourselves where our strengths lie and where we are lacking. The biggest question I ask myself and to others what kind of person are you?
A few more points are:
- How do you move? Are you high energy or low energy. It’s really basic, but it’s so essential when you bid on projects. Do you generally move slowly?
- Can you maintain focus during the day on one task?
- If you work with others are you a good manager? Do they slow you down or can they speed you up.
- Do you get overwhelmed when something goes wrong or when you feel flustered?
- Can you work under noisy and dirty conditions?
- Can you work without eating for 4-5 hours?
- Are you a morning person or an evening person?
All of these conditions should feature in your personal pricing structure, and how you bill for your time. These are not value judgments. I’ve seen people blast through projects, very efficiently, only to have to re-do them, and I’ve seen people working on the same project for 3 months and were threatened with a lawsuit. One last thought: if you’re a perfectionist and you don’t bill for some aspect of that, you will lose money.
"On location" in Paris
To discuss a project with Bill, you can reach him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org