Thoughts on Varnishing
This is the first article for the new section on materials and technique, “Sounding Technical”. The first thing I need to say is that I’m no expert about the technical aspects of painting. What I hope to offer is a non-partisan centralized source of knowledge and opinion to help in the learning and promotion of sound painting principles.
Naturally there are many resources online to learn about specific technical concerns related to painting, too many resources actually, I’d like to find and share the most useful and informative sites related to the issue focused on. My focus will generally not be to advocate any particular method but rather look at the best arguments from differing opinions about any one subject. Eventually, I’d also like to hold interviews with painters and others about specific technical issues as well as encouraging guest writers to speak on a technical matter when possible.
Practical, sound advice is all well and good but I also relish reading about the controversial, the offbeat, and the contrarian points of view. I’d like to offer topics that incites or inspires discussion. Many times when I’m reading online Op-Ed columns the comments are often more interesting than the article itself. I’m certain that many readers here hold a vast knowledge base as well as strong opinions,if shared, could offer an important resource for painters.
My first article will take a look at some thoughts on varnishing oil paintings both pro and con.
It would be most curious to see the results of a survey showing what percentage of completed contemporary paintings are varnished. My guess is that it would be on the low side. Modernistic oil painting on traditional supports has often sought a less precious, matt, rough or complex surface texture where a shiny varnish could significantly detract from the desired look. Some might even say a glossy varnish makes the painting look too slick or makes the painting difficult to see from the glare. Some painters may fear a varnish might make the painting look too “traditional” or fear the painting won’t been respected enough as a flat surface and the varnish suggests more of a glassy window onto the world rather than the modern notion of a richly textured object covered with colored glue. But all flat object are going to collect dust and face environmental risks that over time will damage the unprotected painting.
On the other hand, many painters prefer the look of the glossy varnish and the way it tends to deepen and saturate the color and appreciate the way it unifies the surface and may not feel the painting looks complete until after varnishing. No doubt there are a wide range of opinion regard the use of varnishing and it is interesting to hear some thoughts both pro and con.
It is commonly written that oil paintings should be varnished anywhere from 6 months to a year after completion, using any number from a wide variety of varnishes in order to protect the paint surface from environmental damage such as smoke, pollution, etc, help even out the surface and eliminating any “sunken-in areas”, restore the “wet” painting look, enhance the vibrancy and unity of the colors and to give “finish” to the painting. (actually varnishing doesn’t really eliminate sunken-in areas or the uneven sheen that results from oil being leeched out of the paint – it will make the sunken-in matt areas more glossy but will also make the glossy areas even more glossy – defeating your purpose. I’ve heard it is better to “oil-out” the sunken in areas long before applying the varnish or better yet to prevent sinking-in by better preparation of the ground. Here is a link to a Winsor-Newton video that discusses dealing with “oiling-out” the “sinking-in” of colors in a painting.
I would venture to guess that most painters today prefer to use the modern synthetic varnishes as they are less apt to yellow or darken, are easier to apply successfully and will allow for relative easy removal with less risk to underlying paint layers. Modern varnishes offer a wide variety of solutions to protect the painting from dust, scratches and other such harm. They also offer a range of finishes from glossy to matt.
Some painters still prefer older varnishes made of organic resins for a number of reasons such as a preference for the look of the aging painting’s patina of an “old master” look such as a fine crackling or they simply prefer materials that have been in use for centuries rather than decades. There are so many sites offering extensive expert information about varnishing so I won’t go into detail with a discussion of specific types, brands and purposes here. I will show a Winsor & Newton and Gamblin you tube video on varnishing that discusses the basics, you may want to avert you gaze from the actual painting he’s varnishing but it does offer some helpful basic information. At the end of the article I’ll also provide a several links to site with specific information related to brands, types of varnishes as well as recipes, etc.
Right now I’m more interested to examine the less discussed case for not varnishing at all and how some important painters since the mid 19th century became adamantly opposed to varnishing, artists such as Cezanne, Monet, Cassatt, Pissarro among many others. Picasso and Braque were oppose to varnishing their paintings for a number of important reasons, primarily aesthetic. Monet and Pissarro abandoned the use of varnish on their work after 1880, but for different reasons: “Pissarro because of his desire for a matte finish; Monet lest it discolor his effects”
The painter and art historian Anthea Callen discusses the politics of varnish at length in a section in her The Art of Impressionism: Painting Technique and the Making of Modernity Sadly this amazing book is out of print but there are still used copies available for a price. Note: If you do buy this book please use this link to Amazon, by doing so will help support this site.
This book is perhaps the most comprehensive study of Impressionist techniques written. Her exhaustive research studies all aspects of Impressionist painting that are of great interest to painters who want to know more about the historical context of painting directly from nature. She also has a smaller but popular and still published book, Techniques of the Impressionists
from the publisher:
“Drawing on scientific studies of pigments and materials, artists’ treatises, colormens’ archives, and contemporary and modern accounts, Anthea Callen demonstrates how raw materials and paintings are profoundly interdependent. She analyzes the material constituents of oil painting and the complex processes of “making” entailed in all aspects of artistic production, discussing in particular oil painting methods for landscapists and the impact of plein air light on figure painting, studio practice, and display. Insisting that the meanings of paintings are constituted by and within the cultural matrices that produced them, Callen argues that the real “modernity” of the Impressionist enterprise lies in the painters’ material practices. Bold brushwork, unpolished, sketchy surfaces, and bright, “primitive” colors were combined with their subject matter—the effects of light, the individual sensation made visible—to establish the modern as visual.”
Here is an embedded version of the free google ebooks version of it, that has significant portions available for reading. Of particular note is the table of contents which is clickable and goes to a partial view of the chapter topic.
From Anthea Callen, The Art of Impressionism: Painting Technique and the Making of Modernity
“For the Impressionists, varnish was not applied automatically or arbitrarily to a painting. The physical and optical effects of varnish on the oil paint layer are immediate and irreversible. Not only is mattness replaced by an even, glossy skin but colours are enriched, appearing more saturated, and the paint layer is made more transparent. It also produces a darkening in tone, exaggerating light-dark contrasts, which is exacerbated with age as the varnish yellows, darkens and further distorts the paint layer colours. Varnish was intimately associated with the Academy, with academic practice and fini, and with the false ‘chic’ of the Paris Salons. Rejecting varnish was not just technically sensible, it actively subverted the reactionary ethos of the Academy. In addition to changing a painting’s physical appearance, varnish, and therefore the lack of it, carried an ideological message: the decision not to varnish signaled not only the work’s modernity, but that of the artist, too. A history of the debates around picture varnishing forms the context in which a more detailed analysis of Impressionist paintings can be located. Examining contemporary art criticism, treatises on technique, the opinions of dealers and artists, and the paintings themselves, a pattern of views emerges that gives new significance to the problem of varnish.” …
“The art of Italian painters before Raphael provided an exemplar at once practical and aesthetic to modern painters: newly discovered, the luminosity, chalky bright colour and shallow pictorial space of early Italian painting offered an alternative to the rich, patinated surfaces characteristic of official clair-obscur oil painting. There was, therefore, a politics of varnishing, of gloss versus matt effects – art practice, aesthetics and ideology are intimately linked.”
Interesting Wiki link on Vernissage
In marking the completion of paintings for display in the official Salon, vernissage was the rite of passage from private to public, from studio to gallery. The glazing of paintings was forbidden at the Salon; varnish, like the regulation gilt frames, was compulsory until the I880s, when the impact of avant-garde methods provoked a change in official practices. In the Academy’s view, varnishing imposed uniformity on the exhibition while simultaneously linking it to a tradition of ‘great art’ of the past – varnished paintings embodied the notion of dignity and nobility in grand art; the picture was set in aspic, embalmed. Varnish on painting, then, carries layers of meaning beyond the pragmatically physical. On both the literal and metaphoric levels, varnish imbues painting with a heightened clarity, unity and coherence. The varnish film seals in the matière of painting, unifies the surface, slicks over its rough edges, its visual inconsistencies, even intentional contradictions; glossing it over, varnish subdues the coarseness of matter and the animated, scattering luminosity characteristic of a rugged, matt surface. Varnish had a normative function: it made vanguard art look more like academic art. Sameness and uniformity were reassuring.
E. H. Gombrich, Dark Varnishes: Variations on a Theme from Pliny, The
Burlington Magazine, Feb., Vol. 104, No. 707, 1962, pp.51-55 [Trapp
From E. H. Gombrich’s essay:
In 1638, Junius made the story available to English readers in his book on The Painting of the
Apelles … who was wont to be very moderate in all things that concerned the Art, because he would not offend the eyes of the spectators with too much cheerefulnesse of gay and flourishing colours, did by an inimitable invention anoint his finished workes with such a thinne kinde of inke or vernish, that it did not onely breake and darken the clearnesse of the glaring colours, but it did likewise preserve them from dust and filth … [p.285]
In 1691, Filippo Baldinucci gave a lecture in the Accademia della Crusca on the subject of ancient and modern painting within the context of the quarrel between the Ancients and Moderns. One of the points in favour of the moderns was, for him, the invention of oil painting, and one of his arguments to
prove that the ancients lacked this technique was precisely Pliny’s story. His point is that this technique of toning down excessively luxuriant colours was precisely the one used by Italian Trecento painters who worked in tempera:
… they spread a varnish over their panels which was a certain mixture that gave their pallid paintings a certain effect of greater depth and greater strength and, toning down the bright surface a little, brought it closer to natural appearance.. .
It might be argued that modern painters also use such varnish on their oil paintings, but I would reply that this usage, which only few adopt, does not serve to counteract any shortcomings of oil paintings as such, that is, to give depth to the darks and to tone down the lights more delicately, for oil painting does not stand in need of such aids. It is used rather to remedy some accidental mishap that sometimes occurs because of the priming, mastic or other, which is applied to the canvas, or that originates in the panel or canvas itself, that is, when it attracts the liquid of the oil so strongly that it almost draws it out of the colours and dries them up in some places to such an extent that this accident alters their appearance on the surface. It is then that by use of another fatty substance, that is, by means of the varnish applied where there is too little oil on the surface, one is able to bring out (and this is the salient point) what is already in the oil painting rather than something that is not there at all—which was precisely the effect that the varnish of Apelles achieved to some very small extent. There is nothing in this description of the oil painters’ practice of bringing out a passage that had `sunk in’, which would refute Mr Ruhemann’s contentions. It merely shows how difficult it is to make a hard and fast division between paint and varnish
From a MOMA conservation article about varnishing and Pablo Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)
“Paintings that have been varnished are also cleaned, or more accurately, devarnished, when the varnish discolors over time and thus distorts the original colors of the painting. Finally, some paintings should not have been varnished at all, and a varnish can compromise the essential aesthetic.” In this case, a painting that may be de-varnished, not to be re-varnished once the cleaning is finished, what steps do you take to help conserve the painting without using varnish?
The presence of the varnish on a painting, which the artist did not intend to be varnished, does not preserve the painting. Indeed it can do much to diminish the essential quality of the painting. To protect the surface of an unvarnished painting from dirt and grime there are, if necessary, a number of things we do. In some cases the paintings are framed with glass or Plexiglas to protect the surface. This not only provides a physical barrier from airborne grime but also provides a buffer against any climactic changes and (in the case of Plexiglas) protection from damaging UV light. In the case of a painting the size of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon we might decide to place a barrier in front of the work to prevent visitors from approaching too closely. Under these circumstances the only treatment necessary would be a routine dusting with a soft brush once a month or so.
Of course 19th and early 20th Century artist who avoided varnishing to preserve the matt appearance didn’t have the variety of modern synthetic varnishes that we have today. Unless the paintings is protected with a varnish layer or some other means it will collect dirt in the interstices, which can rarely if ever be removed without damaging the paint layer. Dusty, dirty paintings are likely to be particularly problematic in direct painting where impastoed brush marks makes for an uneven, irregular surface where cleaning would be more difficult.
Some painters in order to avoid using a varnish to preserve the matt surface and other reasons have opted for framing their oil paintings behind glass. I’ve read this practice has been particularly prevalent in Great Britain. With new picture glasses on the market such as Museum Glass and it’s anti-glare properties perhaps make this solution even more appealing if not for the high-cost. Especially for larger paintings where the weight of the glass also becomes a major factor.
In our post post-modern era, for better or worse, there no longer seem to be any hard and fast rules about techniques such as varnishing. Both abstract and representational painters may have many valid reasons for varnishing or not varnishing. My suggestion in this regard is to make sure your decision is based on the best solution for preserving the look of your work, not varnishing shouldn’t just be a rationalization to avoid the hassle or conversely you varnish just because you heard that is a rule you’re “supposed” to follow.
If you feel strongly about not having a varnish applied for aesthetic reasons then it’s suggested to write on the back of the painting – Do not varnish. Or if you do varnish you can also write when you last varnished and with what type – which will be helpful to anyone in the future wishing to remove and reapply varnish.
Ultimately it is imperative to remember the obvious, but often overlooked, concern that will protect the painting and enhance longevity more than any varnish might offer, is that you make your painting strong enough visually so that people will want to care for it long after you’re gone and to avoid the painting’s death by dumpster.
Comprehensive resource on all things related to varnishing oil paintings from Amien (The Art Materials Information and Education Network) Varnish Forum topics from Amien
Basic info on varnishing from Winsor & Newton
fairly good video from Dick Blick about varnishing but the soundtrack is a little grating!
Video from Gamblin discussing the application of Gamvar and cold-wax medium. (I prefer to use Gamvar when varnishing and I also like the use of the cold-wax medium for a more matt sheen.)
Conservation Wiki article on varnishing
Good article at Spaces Between the Gaps article on Varnishing