Layering Paint and Polyurethane for Rich Depth

After draping your art shrine or assemblage with plaster and gauze, you can achieve astonishing results by layering paint and polyurethane.

These photos show just a few of my experiments with this technique.

It’s best to read this entire page before shopping for paint, polyurethane, and related supplies. You may get some great, unique ideas as you read…

Start with a surface that you’ve prepared by adding texture with plaster and gauze.The surface should be painted with at least one coat of gesso so that it doesn’t absorb so much paint.

You’ll also need a paintbrush of some kind (foam is okay) and paint.

I’m using mostly Brera acrylic paints, an Italian line from Maimeri (pronounced “my-MERR-y”), in my art.

You’ll also need polyurethane with a glossy finish.

1. If you need to paint a dark background, do that first, avoiding the raised areas that will be covered with gold. You can mask the areas that will remain unpainted, by covering them with easily-removed masking tape, if you like. I rarely use this, and prefer to apply the background paint carefully.Generally, I mix two or three colors on the brush as I paint, to give the surface a greater sense of depth. If I want the shrine to be very dark and mysterious looking, as in the three illustrations above, I’ll paint the raised areas as well as the background.

In this demo, I’m using Brera Violet #443, Brera Phthalo Blue #378, and Winsor & Newton Finity in Permanent Rose. I’m leaving the raised areas white, so the gold will be especially light, too.

2. When the background is fully dry, paint gold onto the raised areas. It’s okay to be a little sloppy. You can use one regular layer or a couple of thin layers of paint, depending upon what works best for you. In humid climates, two thin layers are usually best, allowing them to dry fully between coats.In this demonstration, I’m painting with Brera #142, Luster Gold acrylic paint. You can use any brand of interference-type gold for this, or even gold ink or a gold leaf type of paint.

When wet, the paint will look whitish and opaque. The white vanishes as it dries, leaving the surface translucent gold. If you painted the raised areas with a dark color first, you will definitely need two coats of the gold paint over it, to get a “real” gold look.

3. When the gold has dried, apply a very moist layer of paint in the color of your choice. Generally, you’ll use the same colors as your background. Press the paint into the holes in the gauze and the depressed areas in the texturing.If you’re covering a large area, paint some of it and wipe off the paint (see step 4), then paint another area of the surface, and wipe the paint off, and so on. In the photo, the lower left corner has been painted, the upper right has been painted & wiped, the and rest is still gold, waiting for paint.

If you were sloppy with your gold, also paint over the areas that were highlighted. Let the paint dry for just a minute or two. (I used Cobalt Blue for this layer.)

4. Using a paper towel or soft rag, gently wipe some of the fresh paint off, leaving some of it behind, especially in the depressed areas. Then, let the paint dry fully.In this photo, you can see how the paint remains in the tiny holes of the gauze, and in the depressed areas of the shrine.
5. Paint with a high-gloss polyurethane. Acrylic polyurethane is not as shiny, but it dries faster and without toxic fumes. Regular polyurethane must be used with good ventilation, takes at least four hours to dry, requires turpentine or paint thinner for cleanup, and can yellow slightly with time.I use the paint-on kind of polyurethane, with a foam brush. However, you can use spray polyurethane in a well-ventilated area. Several light layers are better than one thicker layer.

Important: Let each side dry flat before turning the shrine to polyurethane another side of it.

6. When the polyurethane has dried, repeat steps 3 and 4, using another color of paint in the same and/or different areas on the surface.(Don’t cover the whole thing again. I like to paint areas no larger than one inch squares, and sometimes just 1/2 inch streaks.)

Add up to four layers of paint (use polyurethane after adding two colors, for maximum depth). If you add more than four layers of additional colors, it can look gaudy or muddy. (But, if you make a mistake, you can generally scrub down to the last polyurethane layer, and try again.)

If you want a “golder” look–and I usually do–highlight just the peaks of the texturing with gold. Press small pieces of gold or other leafing into the almost-dry paint, if you like.

Add one or two coats of polyurethane after the final layer of paint. Additional layers can add to the ‘dichroic glass’ illusion.

Optional: When you paint the raised areas with gold, you might try painting the entire surface of the piece with a thin coat of Luster Gold or an interference gold. This paint is generally translucent.

In the photo on the left, the light is shining directly on the box. To the right, I’ve tilted the box slightly so that light penetrates the gold paint, and you can see the color beneath it.

Remember that, although these effects look like metal, they’re still based on plaster and gauze. So, the surface can be brittle if dropped or chipped.

The more you coat it with polyurethane, the better your protection.

However, it’s best to treat these objects as fragile.

They’re lovely to look at!

Embellishments for Mystery & Dazzle

Plaster and gauze are ideal materials for embellishing your art shrines and assemblages.

To learn the basics of using plaster and gauze, see:

When using plaster-embedded gauze, you can create fabulous textural effects with common household and art objects.

Among my favorites are soft drink bottlecaps. Place one with the open side up, and drape the wet gauze over it. Press it around the shape, inside the cap, and leave enough gauze around the bottlecap to hold it in place on the shrine.

After it dries and you’ve painted the shrine, a  flat-bottomed glass beads/stones fits perfectly, one in each bottlecap. (My current package of those beads is labelled, “Glass Decorative Gems.”  They’re inexpensive and available at arts & crafts stores as well as budget import shops.)

Here’s how it looks when finished:

bead in a bottlecap embellished shrine

However, you can use other supports for the gauze.

One of my favorites is a Pringle’s potato chip can lid. This creates a circular area with a lip that is perfect for putting the focus on an inset image such as a religious icon, or small embellishments such as a rusty lock, etc.

I used a Pringle’s lid for this shrine:

Pringle's lid as part of assemblage on art shrine

You can also drape the gauze over wooden shapes such as stars, moons, a Celtic cross, numbers, letters, and so on.  Check arts & crafts stores for inexpensive wooden cut-outs that will add interest to your shrine.

You might want an eerie effect, draping it over a doll’s face, similar to the “mummies” that were popular in art a few years ago.

There are an endless number of textured and dimensional objects to try under gauze. Check your toolbox, trash, or even your drawer of kitchen tools for ideas.

Remember two things:

  • This gauze sticks to anything, including Altoid tins.
  • And, be sure to drape enough of it around the applied object, so that it is held in place when the gauze dries.

Applying Plaster Gauze to Your Art Shrine

Plaster and gauze — the same materials used in medical settings for traditional plaster casts — can add excitement and dimension to your art shrines and assemblages.

This is page two of instructions that started at Shrines – Add Texture with Plaster and Gauze

5. Dip gauze all the way into the water, and remove it quickly. The longer it sits in the water, the more plaster washes off the gauze, and the less rigid the final results.Also, it’s not necessary to squeeze water out of the gauze. In fact, if you squeeze the water out, you may also lose some of the plaster.
6. Drape the wet gauze directly onto the surface that you’re embellishing. Once you have it in place, you can flatten it if you want less texture; otherwise, just leave it where it is.In this photo, the cigar box had been gesso’d before embellishing. You can gesso afterwards, if you prefer. It doesn’t make much difference in most cases.This gauze will stick to untreated Altoid tins, without gesso and without removing the paint first. If it starts to lift up after the gauze dries, the paint and sealer usually act as glue to reattach the gauze.
7. To vary the texture of the gauze, you can smooth parts of it with your fingers, gently spreading the plaster so that it fills some of the holes in the gauze.

I like to smooth no more than 50% of the gauze in my art.

The holes will catch the paint later, so that your finished piece will look even more ancient and mysterious.

8. When you have the look that you want, leave it alone and repeat with another piece of gauze, adding more layers or areas of texture to your surface.The gauze sticks to itself best when wet, so it’s good to get all of the embellishment on the item in one sitting.
9. You can speed the drying time by heating the gauze–after it’s in place–with your embossing gun. However, be sure not to scorch it.

In some cases, the painted surface of the object may bubble or melt under the extreme heat of the embossing gun. Use it cautiously, if you use it at all.

Heating is not necessary, and even if with extensive use of the embossing gun, you should still wait at least an hour or two before painting the gauze.

In general, it’s good to let the gauze dry overnight rather than rush it with heat.

It’s not necessary to cover the entire surface with gauze. In fact, I recommend leaving part of it untreated.
Let each surface dry to the touch before moving the box to embellish another side. Wet gauze can slide off the box if it is tilted too soon.

click to see larger

A mix of smooth and rough areas on the gauze will result in a more interesting and varied painted surface when the embellishment is complete.

(Click picture to see a larger area on a finished shrine.)

For best results, cover the gauze with at least one coat of gesso before painting it.

Be sure that the gauze is fully dry before applying the gesso, or the gesso can seal the moisture inside the fabric.

Shrines – Add Texture with Plaster and Gauze

Plaster and gauze can add exciting dimensions to your art shrines. In fact, the effects can look completely unlike a “plaster cast.”

The following instructions are page one of two.

A package of plaster-embedded gauze. This is what doctors used for casts on broken limbs, in the past. Vets still use it sometimes. You can buy it as an art supply (shown left), or from a medical supply house, or through your veterinarian.

At left, you’ll see it as an art supply, “PlasterForm,” from Amaco. I buy mine at Texas Art Supply. A package is about $4.50 and will last for many projects.

You’ll also need the surface that you plan to embellish, a cup or bowl of water, and household scissors. You may also want to include optional surface embellishments. (Also see “Embellishments for mystery and dazzle.”)

1. Open the package and unroll some of the gauze.

Work over newspaper or a surface that is easy to clean up. The gauze is dusty, and your worktable will be covered with a fine plaster powder.

2. Cut the gauze with household scissors. The plaster will tend to dull your scissors.

I usually cut through fine sandpaper to sharpen the blades after working with this gauze.

3. I get the best results when I trim the gauze into irregular shapes. My largest pieces are usually about two inches on the widest edge. My smallest pieces are about 3/4 inch on the narrowest edge. Start with at least six pieces when you are trying this technique.

It helps to cut all of your pieces before getting your hands wet.

4. With your shrine (or surface that you plan to embellish) nearby, dunk one piece of the gauze into a cup or bowl of water. The temperature does not matter, and you only need enough water to cover the gauze completely.

Using Rubbings in Your Art

There are many ways to use rubbings.  Play!  Let your ingenuity run wild!

click to see larger

Rubbings can illustrate your journal — do rubbings of everything as you travel. Try rubbing:

  • Brass plaques and historical markers
  • texturing on benches
  • braille plaques in many public buildings
  • chair backs
  • cobblestones
  • coins and tokens
  • doorknobs and related hardware–remember to rub your hotel room key if it’s not a card
  • floor or sidewalk art – particularly brass art/plaques embedded in some airport walls and floors
  • interesting wall texturing–created to reduce noise–in subways and other public settings
  • numbers on houses/buildings
  • part of a drain cover (manhole cover)
  • raised designs on walls
  • seat number tags, if you go to the theatre, ballet or opera
  • and, textured wallpaper, ceilings, and door & window trim.

Many food packages have an embossed quality, especially tins.

With very thin paper and soft pastels, you can do a rubbing of the texture that remains in the sand after the tide goes out. Using different colors, you can overlap the wavy lines by moving the paper.

(The paper will be fragile when it’s wet, so handle very carefully. If the sand is moist, you can put plastic wrap or a cheap plastic poncho between the sand and your paper.)

You can use them for text. Get a Dymo (raised letters imprinted on tape) label tool (less than $10 at Wal-Mart, in the stationery section) and print words on the tape. Use them for rubbings. (Save them–mounted on dominoes or other small, flat surfaces–to use again later, or to share in a class.)

If a rubbing would be backwards–for example, if you do a rubbing of a rubber stamp–you can rub with a very dark color on tracing vellum, and then display it “upside down” (looking through the vellum) with a white or very light background as contrast for the rubbing.

Small rubbings, particularly of three-dimensional art, can be ideal for use in shrines.

You can scan your rubbings and manipulate them, adding more images with your computer graphics program. On the right in the example above, I placed Edgar Allen Poe’s face over a gravestone ornament rubbing.

Or, you could put a rubbing of an historical marker in the center of a collage with photos from that site.

The ways that you use rubbings are limited only by your ingenuity. Try rubbings today, and see what great ideas you discover!

Gravestone Rubbings – How-To

Halloween, ghosts, and haunted cemeteries. They seem to go together.

Gravestone and monument rubbings were once very popular. In fact, in past centuries, they were a common field trip activity for schoolchildren.

Today, many grave markers have been damaged by overzealous rubbing. They’ve also suffered from natural decay from harsh weather and years of acid rain.

Here are my best tips for successful gravestone rubbings.

gravestone casting
Typical casting from a Colonial American gravestone. It’s an alternative to putting pressure on the actual grave marker.

Before attempting rubbings on actual headstones or monuments, be sure to check the laws in your area.

  • In the U.S., particularly in New England, it may be against the law to make rubbings on gravestones.  That’s because so many gravestones are fragile, and the pressure of rubbing can damage them.
  • In the U.K., centres have been set up specifically for making rubbings, using replicas of the original monuments and plaques.

(In my classes, students capture these eerie and Gothic images by working with castings and polymer clay replicas of the original stones. But that’s another topic for another day.)

If it’s legal to create gravestone rubbings, or if you’re working with replicas, here are some basic steps for success:

Choose your rubbing subject and supplies according to the result that you’d like.

  • Pastels tend to be more murky, and smudge easily so they will need spray fixative before moving the rubbing.
  • Conte crayon and pencil are more crisp and less likely to smudge, but they can abrade the original image, if you’re working with fragile headstones or architectural details.
Supplies: You will need paper – thin is better than thick. Many people prefer newsprint, but some use heavier paper. You will also need something to rub with. Some wax crayons are made for this purpose, but you can also use pencil, crayon, pastels, oil pastels, or conte crayon. If you use pencil, you’ll also want a kneaded rubber eraser. And, a few friends have recommended those big fat kiddie crayons that Crayola and others make. Or, you could use one of those “make your own crayons” kits to design something better suited to your hand. If you are working on a large rubbing, you may want non-marking, easy-to-remove masking tape to keep the paper from moving. If you are working outdoors, water and paper towels, may clean the surface of a soiled headstone. (Do NOT use soap of any kind, and do NOT scrub.) If your art may smudge, use a spray fixative to protect it, but do that spraying away from the gravestones.
1. First, cover the image with paper. If it’s a large piece, you may want to use special, low-stick masking tape to prevent your paper from moving.
2. If you’re using a pencil of any kind, hold it almost horizontal against the paper as you rub. If you’re using a conte crayon or pastel, rest it flat against the paper. Pressing gently, rub over the image until an outline starts to appear.
3.As lines and features become clear, continue rubbing with an emphasis on the areas where lines are already visible.Continue rubbing, covering the entire image. Apply the most color to the areas in which you expect lines or features.
4. When all of the image is visible on your paper, you’ve finished. Usually, the image will not be clear or crisp. If you’re using pencil, you can clean up your rubbing with a kneaded rubber eraser.

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.