Elegant rubbings with Renaissance Foil

Foil transfer paper can be used for very elegant and stylish rubbings.

Those foil transfer papers are used for interior decorating, and they’re sold in small amounts as “Renaissance Foil,” sold at Michael’s and other art supply stores.

The following illustrated instructions should help you use it effectively.

Above: Rubbings on black tissue paper, left to right:
religious medal — gravestone casting — MBTA subway token (2x actual size)

Supplies:You will need paper or fabric for your rubbings. If you’re using fabric, it should be very thin such as a lightweight muslin. If you’re using paper, it should not be stiff. Regular printer paper is fine, and–if you handle it carefully–tissue paper works well, too.You’ll need gesso, painting medium (gel or liquid), OR acrylic paint and water. (Gesso and painting medium are better than acrylic paint for this project, but it can vary with the brand of paint.) You’ll need a brush to apply the gesso, medium, or paint.

You’ll also need a textured surface as the subject of your rubbing, and a hard rubbing tool such as the side of a pencil.

Finally, you’ll need a gold foil product sold as Renaissance Foil, that you can find at Michael’s in the same section as their gold leaf products. This foil is sort of like carbon paper, except that the impression/rubbing sticks only to prepared surfaces.

1.Paint your paper or fabric surface with gesso, painting medium, or acrylic paint. A thin coat is enough, as long as the surface–where you’ll be rubbing–is fully and evenly covered.In this example, I’m using regular white printer paper, treated with black gesso.

If you use acrylic paint, thin it with water or painting medium. Paint can thicken the paper and prevent you from being able to highlight as many details.

2. When the prepared surface is fully dry, layer your supplies: Place the subject of the rubbing on the bottom. Then, place your prepared paper or fabric over it. On top, place a piece of Renaissance Foil,shiny side up.(In the illustration, they’re angled to show the layers. During the actual rubbing process, each layer is centered over the one below it.)
3.With the rubbing tool (I’m using the side of a pencil in the photo), rub firmly all over the area where you expect a design to appear. You’ll probably need to rub more than you expect to.If you lift the foil to see how it’s working, be very certain not to move the paper from its position atop the subject/rubbing surface. You can move the foil, but if you move the paper your image can be distorted or blurred.Continue rubbing until the image has transferred to the paper or fabric.

Save the foil. You can use it several times before all of the gold has worn off.

Two different rubbings are illustrated in the photos below. The left image is on regular printer paper, treated with black gesso. The rubbing on the right is black tissue paper treated with gel medium (matte); you can see a streak of gel medium that hadn’t dried when I began working on this sample.

The image on the tissue paper is clearer, but because the paper is so flexible, it’s easy to rub areas (and pick up gold leaf) where there are no lines or designs. The contrast in image on the printer paper isn’t as clear, but the image is sharper.

Casting from Gravestones and Other Sculpted Surfaces

4castings-cemfour castings from gravestones

Many ancient gravestones and other items are either too fragile for repeated rubbings, or they are otherwise unsuited as art resources.

When possible, I cast polymer clay molds from them.

If you’ve worked with polymer clay in the past, you know that there are several release products that you can use to keep the clay from sticking to an object, including talc, cornstarch, and water. When casting from headstones, I use water. This protects both the stone and the clay.

Before casting from any stone or other location, check local laws. And, use common sense. If the stone is very fragile or otherwise falling apart, don’t risk further damage to it.

Also, due to the use of water, do not cast when the temperatures are below freezing, or if they may drop below freezing during the next day or two. (Water can get into hairline cracks in the stone and freeze when the temperatures drop, damaging the stone.)

Supplies: I carry two water bottles (spritzer/spray bottles), one with distilled water and one with distilled water and a small amount of Shaklee’s Basic H in it.

Basic H is a pH neutral surfactant; I add about two or three drops per pint of distilled water. You can use any similar product as long as it is pH balanced and used very sparingly, and it contains no fragrance or added color. It must be a pure surfactant.

Carry plastic wrap and paper towels with you, too.

You will also need polymer clay that you have prepared by kneading it or processing it through a pasta machine. I allow two or three packages of polymer clay for each small casting. The prepared sheets of clay should be at least 1/2″ thick, and 3/4″ is even better.

And you will need a baking tray or other large, flat surface, to transport your cast, unbaked polymer clay.

Optional: Clay molding tools. A basic flat edge with a beveled point is good, plus a gently curved tool.


1. Select a good stone for your casting. A “good” stone has fairly deep carvings and an interesting design, even if you can only capture a small area of it with your casting.

2. Clean the stone by spraying it with distilled water, and then wiping it down gently with paper towels. Or, if it’s a warm day, let the water evaporate. Repeat until the stone is clean enough to work with; generally, you’re only cleaning off residue from birds that sat on the stone.

3. If the stone’s carvings are distinct enough, drape a good sturdy plastic wrap (in the UK: cling wrap or cling film) over the area of the stone where you intend to work. If the stone isn’t suited for this, spray it thoroughly with distilled water, making certain to get plenty of water in the cracks and lines.

4. Immediately press the prepared sheet of polymer clay against the stone. Working from the back, press the clay firmly into the area you’re casting from. Then, smooth the back of the clay as best you can; if it’s too lumpy, it’s harder to use for rubbings later as it will rock slightly on your work surface.

5. Carefully peel the clay off the stone, or–if working with plastic wrap–carefully lift the wrap-plus-clay off the stone. Place the clay, design side up, on the baking tray for transport.

6. Check to make certain that you’ve captured the details that you wanted. In some cases, you may want to use your clay tools to add more details to mimic the stone. Sometimes, you may need to repeat your efforts by kneading the clay and starting over. (Some stones simply don’t cast well. If you don’t get the results that you want within two tries, find another stone.)

7. If you worked directly on the stone, clean the stone by spraying it with distilled water and a very small amount of pH balanced surfactant. Wipe it to remove any residue of the clay. Repeat as necessary until the stone is completely clean. Then rinse by spraying with the pure distilled water. Let air dry if the day is warm. Otherwise, dry the stone thoroughly.

8. Repeat for other stones, if you like. Then, carefully carry your cast designs back to where you can bake them.

Care of castings: If you rub very heavily and/or repeatedly, these castings can crack and break.

You can repair the breaks by gluing with white or wood glue. These castings will break if dropped, and with steady use you will see stress fractures. When the fracture is big enough, fill it with white glue and clean off the residue with a damp towel and/or a moistened cotton swab.

Additional notes: In this process, I discovered something startling: The “negative” that is cast from a gravestone can sometimes produce a superior rubbing to the original, “positive” design. At the very least, it can be startlingly different.

Below, the first image below is the positive image, the way it would look if you did a rubbing from the original gravestone.

Below that image, you can see how different the rubbing is when it’s made by rubbing the mold that was cast from the original stone.