Truth and light

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Courtesy photo/Pam Burnley-Schol
"Memory," an oil painting over 23-karat gold leaf, is part of Pam Burnley-Schol’s series using gold leaf to invoke Christian iconography and universal ideas about light.
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Local artist muses on her use of gold leaf

Denton painter Pam Burnley-Schol was recently invited to include her artwork in an international exhibition called “Gold” at the Imperial Belvedere Palace Museum in Vienna, Austria, this month.

Burnley-Schol was invited because the painter uses 24-karat gold leaf paint in her recent still life pieces.

She was one of 140 contemporary artists invited to join the group show.

Curator Thomas Zaunschirm asked for a painting by Burnley-Schol called Transfiguration: Cabbage & Steel, which is a still life of a head of green cabbage and a sliced head of red cabbage next to a grater. The mundane items are painted onto a gold leaf background.

Burnley-Schol fielded questions about her use of gold leaf and paint, her techniques and how the use of real gold expresses the artist’s spiritual questioning.


DENTON RECORD-CHRONICLE Your latest work makes use of gold, which almost frames skyscapes. What inspired you to use gold in this way?

PAM BURNLEY-SCHOL My most recent work falls into one of two formats. In one format the entire panel is covered in gold, including the sides, and the image is painted directly on top of the gold.

I am reminded of early Christian iconography in these images. The flat paint contrasts with the light reflected from the gold and suggests the relationship between the corporeal (through opaque paint) and the ethereal (through the gold and light).

I consider these paintings to be secular icons, of earth and ether. Conversely, and at the same time, I can’t deny a certain sense of deconstruction of the gold’s worth, when I place paint on top of it.

In the other format, the image is bound, or framed only by strips of gold at the edges, and the painted image resides fully within its boundaries. These paintings most often focus on the sky, and cloudscapes.

The sky is certainly a part of our natural, physical world. However, many people look to the sky when deliberating on the spiritual or the eternal.

Several years ago, I experienced several deaths in my family, as well as a devastating personal injury, all within a very short period of time. I had already considered my work to be secular icons, but my questions regarding the relationship between life and death, here and after, became more urgent. My profound sense of loss made it difficult to embrace my own style of realism, since it only emphasized the perishable nature of life. Painting the sky was the natural outcome. The subject of the sky is like the gold, in that it seems to be both intrinsically ethereal and changing, and yet is an integral part of the physical world.

The degree to which I frame the skies with gold varies.


DRC For you as an artist, what connotations does gold have for you?

BURNLEY-SCHOL Most importantly to me, gold in its intrinsic nature is light, ethereal. That’s it in a nutshell. Of course, at the same time the history of gold is all about the corporeal, physical world. I see it as both when used in my paintings. I am also very interested in the natural phenomenon of phi, or the golden mean, which is the ratio of 1:1.618 that occurs throughout the natural world.

I teach figure drawing, and getting students to understand the role of the golden proportion in the human form is an important part of my curriculum.

In that sense, the use of actual gold in my paintings is a personal note as well.


DRC The European tradition associates gold in art with royalty and privilege. Do you consciously turn that idea on its head when placing gold next to things we consider free or of uncertain value, like the sky?

BURNLEY-SCHOL To some extent, yes, I consider the gold to be a counterpoint to the objects which are, in your words, of uncertain value. However, in addition to the historic association with royalty and privilege, I am primarily reminded of the historic use of gold in liturgical art. The history of church altarpieces and icons that utilize gold is extensive, and one of the most compelling reasons for its use in liturgy is its most fundamental physical properties of reflecting light.

Gold never tarnishes. I recently held in my hands a piece of gold bullion and several gold chains that had been recovered from a ship that was lost at sea in the 1400s. It was just as seductive and glowing yellow as the day the ship set sail. Opaque paint absorbs light, and reflects back only that part of the spectrum that is its hue, but gold reflects back light as well.

Gold conveys a quality of light that is sometimes used as a metaphor for the light of God, or of Christ, or of the Holy Spirit.


DRC Gold seems to be an assertive color and tone in art. Is it fussy to paint with? Do you have to use any particular techniques?

BURNLEY-SCHOL Actually, I use 23-karat gold leaf, and paint on it with oil paint.

Yes, the process of applying the gold leaf is very tedious. I prepare the panel with several layers of gesso, then sand, then repeat several times, to create a ‘tooth’ for the leaf to adhere to. I used to prefer an extremely smooth surface, but am currently allowing some of the brush marks of the gesso to remain on the top coat, which allows the gold leaf to appear almost as if it had been painted on.

I then apply glue to a small area at a time, about 4 square inches, and apply the leaf by hand. If the glue is too wet, the gold dissolves, and if it’s too tacky, it fails to adhere. The leaf is unbelievably thin, and the slightest air current can cause it to drift out of my hand, and crumple to the floor.

Once the surface is covered, I seal it with a varnish, then apply the paint. Painting on top of the gold is equally unforgiving.

Once it’s applied, it doesn’t come off. Gotta get it right the first time.


LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is

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