Monday, November 30, 2009

When can I varnish?

I was asked recently by a reader when a painting can be varnished? I don't know.

Well OK, I kinda know, but its complicated. The real answer depends on who you ask. Like much of the rest of life.


(that might make a great neck tattoo) When you read the official "how to" texts they suggest waiting about six months or a year. I have no idea at all how I could actually do that. I don't see how any professional artist could. But if you can make a painting, store it for a year and then varnish it, that's what you should do.

I have heard some painters say that if the painting is only days old it is OK to varnish it ,because the varnish gets incorporated into the paint film as a cohesive unit. Maybe, but I think that defeats the idea of varnish in that it wouldn't be removable. Varnish is like the wax on your car, it takes the beating instead of the paint and then you strip it away and put a new coat on now and then.

But the reason we painters use varnish is that it restores the look of fresh paint to the art. As an oil painting drys it goes matt in some areas and the color fades a little bit. Putting a gloss on the surface fixes that. Here is a post on varnish incidentally. We want the painting to look colorful and fresh because we want to SELL it. We cannot afford to wait for six months to a year. Pretty much everyone I know varnishes their new paintings, often with retouch varnish.

I am not a paint chemist, and I am sure some one who reads this blog is, or a restorer, you are free to weigh in.

an interesting bit of historical ephemera. In the 19th century salons, the day before the show opened was called varnishing day. Artists would be allowed to come into the exhibition space and varnish their work so it would show well. There are many stories of artists retouching their paintings etc on theses days. But I bring it up for another reason. I believe that then as well as now artists worked on pieces for an exhibition up to the last minute, if they didn't there would in fact be no need for a varnishing day as the paintings would have been done and varnished a year before. I think many were delivered wet or near wet and that is why they needed to dry and be varnished. I have had the same problem myself and solved it by visiting the showplace and varnishing my painting the day before the show opened. Therefore even 19th century academicians, master of technique, were certainly varnishing not only new paintings, but their masterpieces without waiting the requisite six months.

My conclusion is , if you can wait for six months do, but I don't see how a pro out in the market can. I varnish them because I have to. What you do is up to you and I take no responsibility for your results. Lets forget I even brought it up, OK?


willek said...

I have a couple of thoughts on the subject. I think that one might use their medium as a varnish especially if it were mostly oil, like the old standby: 1/3 Terps, Stand Oil and Damar. because one has been using it as one went along and it, therefore, is the ultimate fat over lean and should not dry before the underlayer and, thusly cause a crack. But then after 6 months you give it a layer of the protective/removable/faster-drying varnish when the base layers are stable. That meeting might be the occasion for a subtle marketing by the painter toward the patron in some manner.

Tim said...

Ahh yes, varnishing. I just taught myself a lesson by adding retouch to an apparently not completely dry painting. I had repainted the sky, and was too eager to smack on the varnish. I used walnut alkyd as a medium. The new paintfilm curled up and lifted. Completely my own fault. Lesson learned.

Is there a big difference in using retouch and Dammar? Ive only ever used retouch, I would imagine that it sort of "disappears" after a while?

Regarding varnishing day, here is an awesome story about Turner.
He was notorious to show up with a vague idea of a painting (sometimes even a blank canvas!) and then just paint the thing on the spot! Varnishing day was actually a few days. He would check out the competition you see, and then "outshine" them. For example, his arch rival at the time, Constable, had entered a painting that he had worked ten years on, very impressive, and Turner had this much smaller painting, a sort of a grayish scene of boats. He came in and saw what constable had done, alive with color, so he painted in a small red buoy in his own. Constable saw it, his heart sank and hes reported to have said, "Turner has come, and he has fired a gun"

I had the luck to see them both side by side in an awesome show called "Turner and the masters" at Tate Britain a few months ago. Very interesting show, about how copying was done back in the day. They were told to study the masters and make copies, but not in the sense that we think they did. They would take compositions from their favorite artists and basically steal them, add little tweaks to improve them.

Here is a link to a review of the show, and the two images. said...

Varnish; This is what I know. Varnish doesn't really protect a painting so much as it will even the dried surface of the paints and refresh them back to the original juicy sheen. Conservators today (I speak with them out of interest)prefer artists to use the new light weight (molecularly speaking) varnishes that can be found under the Gam-var label or Windsor Newton Conserv-Art varnish. In the best of all possible worlds, an artist should wait six months or longer to varnish. However, the new varnishes can be used sooner.They will still allow the painting to dry (or breath as they say). In fact Gam-Var says it can also be used as a retouch varnish (which can be repainted on). I have varnished a painting with Gam-var as soon as I can get away with it and then if it is still around after six moths, I varnish it again if it needs to be freshen up.

You can varnish within two weeks when the paint surface is dry to the touch, as Stape mentioned. The old style varnishes will "cross link" molecularly to the paint. But conservators hate cross-linking, as they have to resort to more toxic and powerful solvents to remove the varnish (and some paint)than if the varnish had been just a surface cohesion (placed over dried paint).

To get the surface sheen you desire you should always start with a gloss. If you want to bring down the reflectiveness, you can apply a matte varnish OVER the gloss. Or you can custom mix (cut your gloss with a matte) to your desired effect. I get a pretty satin sheen to a painting by varnishing with a conserve-gloss and after it dries, buff the painting with a cold wax medium (apply, dry, buff).

Retouch is meant to disappear. It's temporary and allows you to repaint and varnish when ready.

The light varnishes are now preferred because they can be removed with much gentler solvents during restoration. Mediums give conservators the biggest headaches.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

I have always found varnishing a good way to get the client into the studio.
I call them or email them that I need to varnish the painting since it has been the 6 to 12 months. I give them the option of me picking it up, or if they are interested, they can drop it off at the studio. Often they want to see the studio. More than once I have ended up selling them another painting.
It is a good way to get a client back into the studio, to reconnect and remind them that you are alive. And maybe give them a chance to add to their collection.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

Oh, and on varnishing, I usually just oil a painting out, with medium or spray retouch varnish before a show.
I wait the 6 to 12 months then add soluvar.

Deborah Paris said...

Like you, I have to varnish the things and get them out into the world as soon as possible. I use Gamvar (the alkyd based varnish made by Gamblin). Marian has already described most of the advantages- you can use it as soon as the piece is dry to the touch and it oils out beautifully. If you like a less glossy finish you can just brush it out a bit more which knocks the shine back or add cold wax medium directly to it. It was made in conjunction with conservators at the National Gallery and according to them it won't yellow or darken like natural resin based varnishes. And because it breathes and remains a distinct layer, the painting can continue to dry and its easily removed with just a light rub of OMS. It doesn't lift off paint layers (even thin glazes) when you take it off (which I love).

Judy P. said...

I am the one (perhaps not the only one)who asked you the varnishing question,Stapleton; I'm surprised it has led to this lively post, with equally animated responses.
I'm early in my dedication to painting, and this reminds me not to look for 'rules' but to always be thoughtful and open in my approach to this big white whale called Painting. I've read contrary advice from good advisors; it only happens now and then, but then it's like a good swat from the fin- you don't know what to do next!

Philip Koch said...

Boy am I not a paint chemist either, but I do have lots of varnish questions.

I've never completely understood what is meant by the term "retouch" varnish. Most of the materials books advise using "retouch varnish" if the painting hasn't had the 6 months to dry. Isn't it just a form of damar varninsh? Most artists seem to equate it with spray damar varnish. What practical difference is there between spraying a painting that is dry to the touch and brushing on a layer of damar varnish.

I had switched to the synthetic varnish marketed as Winton Varnish as it claimed it doesn't turn darker and yellow over time as damar varnish does. Does anyone have any thoughts on that?

This Gam-var stuff sounds interesting, particularly if it does let the paint below continue to dry.

willek said...

I do not understand the rational of using a low molecular weight varnish as a retouch varnish. They are easily removed and just lay on top of the painting. It would seem that if one were used, the varnish strate would all come aff and bring the overpainting with it. And... it admitedly does not have a good bond with the original painting. Not a good thing when painting on top.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have done that too.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have done that too. Use a spray retouch varnish in THIN coats. If you let varnish pool on a new pianing it will eat it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

But Gamvar doesn't come in a spray can. I guess I can use a mouth atomizer on it though.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Much of my art is sold through galleries. I have no idea who buys it so those arrangements would be hard to make.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Theres another vote for GamVar

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes it did lead to some discussion, I think I will address the same subject. I think the Gamvarists won>

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes I guess I will have to check out Gam Var. I wonder if the synthetic WN is similar.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Willek" I think for a retouch varnish a thinned damar is the thing.

Patrice Erickson said...

I use Gamvar and follow the varnishing advice they give here: .

Daroo said...

Great post.

I'm curios why you prefer a spray application?

I think a lot of the old painters would let framers do the final varnish. I remember a story about Sargent being particularly pleased with the way he painted a piece of jewelry, with a heavy impasto highlight that resembled soft serve ice cream. He left instructions with his client/patron to have it varnished in a year and have the varnisher take great care with the impasto passage... apparently he didn't.

Richard J. -- brilliant marketing plan, but how do you keep track of what's where and needs varnishing when?

I use Soluvar, mixing the matte and gloss to my liking.

I have a Gamvar kit but haven't mixed it up -- Gamvar users: is there a limit to its shelf life once you mix it?

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

I think it was back in the days of Impressionists when artists first decided that varnishing was optional. I seem to recall seeing several pieces by Twachtman (and others) that were not varnished. I know several national artists who also choose not to varnish - they prefer the matte look.

Personally, I like the idea of varnishing. Especially if the non-varnished painting has uneven gloss. Also, the varnish does protect the painting and can be removed for cleaning. However, I rarely use a finish varnish. Instead, I use retouch varnish which I apply as soon as the painting is dry to the touch. Retouch varnish is basically a dilute version of the final varnish, and it allows the painting to continue to "breathe." Oxidation is, of course, how a painting dries.

I dislike spray varnish - it tends to spit. I prefer to brush it on, but one needs a good brush that will not lose hairs in the brushing.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

Stape, I am lucky enough to have a gallery that gives me the info needed.
I have a feeling that will end with other galleries.
Daroo, I have a pocket calendar, when I am done, I move ahead 6 or so months and write in "Varnish -enter title".
I also make tags for the back that list time of completion, with a blank for varnishing. When I varnish, I enter date and varnish used.
I tend to use matte and gloss, or some mixture of the two as well. Usually matte for landscapes, and glossier for still life and portrait.