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Illuminate print with precious metal opulence


February 14, 2022
By Erwin Busselot

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Illuminated manuscripts – the elaborate decoration of a handwritten book with gold or silver to make the pages shimmer with opulence – was an art form practised for centuries.

Described by Herodotus as far back as 420 BC, it was widely used by Islamic and Asian societies and had one of the longest and most cultivated traditions in Europe.

Also called miniature, after the Latin word ‘miniare,’ which means to colour with minium (a red lead), the process grew more elaborate and gold was introduced.

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Its complexity and cost meant illumination was reserved for special books like an altar Bible.

There were three main types of gold and silver application:

  • metallic leaf laid on a wet glue design and polished with a burnishing tool when dry;
  • a sticky gesso (thick, water-based paint, often formed of plaster, chalk or gypsum, bound with glue) built up to create a 3D effect, with the metal then applied and burnished; and
  • metallic powder and gum Arabic mixed into an ink and applied with pen or brush.

This form of decorative print evolved when the invention of the Gutenburg press made widespread book production possible. Mechanization also shaped other areas of book design including the cover.

At the same time gold leaf became too expensive to keep up with the increased production of books.

Today, the addition of gold or silver is typically a commercial print process.

For offset print, gold and silver ink can be used, although this is not always without its challenges. Foil blocking requires a separate post-production step, where a heated die is stamped onto the foil and then onto the surface of the paper leaving the design behind.

For digital print, the metallic colour is reproduced directly from a file on the computer. Fast and simple, there are no set up costs. This makes it ideal for short runs and smaller orders.

Erwin Busselot is business innovations & solutions director, Graphic Communications Group, Ricoh Europe.