On Tuesday 19 September I eagerly made my way over to The Bridge – Centre for Visual Arts to take part in the Illumination in Watercolour and Gold Leaf course. My route to the centre took me past the bustling Hippodrome site and seeing the words ‘New Hippodrome’ gleaming bright in the low morning sunlight foreshadowed the experience to come.

This one-day course, one of several made possible by support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, was led by celebrated Durham born artist Judy Hurst. Judy uses gold leaf, glorious colour and traditional techniques to create luminescent works that draw on Celtic and Christian influences.

Judy proved to be a patient, generous, and knowledgeable teacher.

It was explained that we would create a small work of art that would touch on these Celtic inspired patterns and themes. Thankfully Judy had done some of the work for us and provided numerous small templates that we could quickly trace elements from to combine into a unique design.

My fellow students and I set about creating our artworks whilst Judy was quizzed on her life and career. I choose a design based on the Green Man motif.  The Green Man is an ancient symbol that has been carved into wood and stone by many cultures. It’s usually depicted as a face suggested by foliage and generally represents rebirth and spring.

After we had our designs down on paper another important creative decision had to be made, where would we place our gold? Judy gave us individual suggestions and using a brush we painted standard PVA glue into the areas we’d like to shimmer. Perhaps counter intuitively we then had to wait for the glue to be dry to the touch.

Once dry we arrived at the exciting part, the GOLD! We were each carefully given a small sheet of beautiful 24ct gold leaf. Its delicate nature was obvious and we all instinctively held our breath in its presence. We were instructed to place the gold leaf over our glued areas and firmly press down with fingers and cotton wool. As we pulled the sheet away a rough approximation of our desired shape was left behind in gold. We then used a stiff dry brush to gently brush away the excess leaf and our designs revealed themselves.

Judy eagerly retrieved all the tiny shards of gold we’d brushed off into a small jar and recounted us with tales of how gold leaf studios in centuries past would periodically burn their floorboards to recover the tiny gold particles that fell to the floor over time. It was cheaper to lay a new floor than lose the precious flakes!

Finally we used paint to decorate the rest of our artworks. Overall an enjoyable and useful experience was had by all. It was fascinating to hear about Judy’s traditional processes and materials. Getting close to the gold leaf made me even more excited to re-enter the theatre and see all the gilding in the restored auditorium.