Yesterday, David Harper of South Carolina wrote, “I’ve been working with acrylics and have recently switched to oils. I must say the depth of color and blendability make oils a winner. My problem is with the varnishing. The length of time needed before varnishing is so long (unlike acrylic when only a few weeks are necessary). Must oils cure for 6 to 12 months before varnishing? It is important to me to protect them. Any advice?”
Thanks, David. Unlike you, I started in oils and switched to acrylics. I loved oils, still do, but begrudged the inconvenience and the drying time. Also, (please keep this quiet) I was paranoid about what I was inhaling. I did have a ploy, however, and your letter reminded me.
I was in the habit of sending my oils out into the world in as little as three or four days. They shipped in wet-boxes where the panels or canvases were separated. In those days, dealers often varnished for you.
One day I had an interesting letter from a dealer. He told me that some months before he had sold one “in minutes” and it went to the collector “still wet.” The dealer had offered to come by the collector’s home in six months and properly varnish the work. Impressed by the dealer’s integrity and free follow-up, the collector insisted on buying two more paintings that the dealer just happened to have in the trunk of his car.
After that letter, in the name of quality, I put a note in with each delivery: “Please varnish this painting, sold or not, sometime this coming June.” Dealers actually thanked me for this note. Like the ten-thousand-mile-free-checkup on a new Mercedes, customers often brought in their paintings and bought another “for the kids.”
My paintings are guaranteed for life. My life. I welcome people into my studio for a free cleaning and re-varnishing. I’m the best guy to do it. Often I’m able to do it while we chat. When I’m finished I note on the back that I did the cleaning, any repairs made, what varnish I used, and the date. Apart from what some people say, the art business is a people business. Apart from that, people are curious to meet artists, particularly when they’re funny looking. People will drive right across a country to see how funny.
PS: “Quality is never an accident, it is always the result of intelligent effort.” (John Ruskin)
Esoterica: A drop or two of cobalt driers in the medium is the time-honoured method of speeding up drying in oils. Used sparingly, your paintings won’t crack or crumble. Don’t use Japan driers — they’re too violent. While a lot of great artists don’t agree with me, a good shine can be the final touch of quality. An uneven shine interferes with this illusion. Poor priming can be the culprit. Further, earth pigments (the siennas, ochres and umbers) tend to “sink in” more than other pigments and leave dull areas. This can often be corrected with a light spray of retouch varnish (comes in an aerosol can) right after painting. This helps in the drying too.
Varnish sooner with ‘Gamvar’
by Stan Moeller, York, ME, USA
I have been using Robert Gamblin’s “Gamvar” for many years. According to the Gamblin website, you can varnish as soon as the painting is dry, or as soon as it doesn’t “lift.” I have been using it for many years and have never had a problem. It can also be removed with mineral spirits for reworking. You can mix a little cold wax and mineral spirits in the Gamvar to make the varnish more matte, if desired (instructions in box). It comes in two parts, a bottle of crystals and a bottle of liquid. The process of mixing takes some time: according to the box, shake once an hour for 8 hours. I used to have a timer set in my studio, shook the bottle, and then got back to the brushes. A few years back I found an old rock tumbler and modified it to hold the Gamvar mixture and it mixes it in a few hours. Once in a while I need to send a wet painting to a collector or a gallery and I do include a note that the painting should be varnished. I have also instructed a few gallery owners on the art of varnishing.
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by Michael Chesley Johnson, AZ, USA / NB, Canada
It was the French Impressionists who made varnishing optional; many of them liked the matte look of dried oil paint and didn’t varnish. Today, I know several oil painters who don’t varnish for the same reason. But I believe in varnishing – it creates a wall between the painting and the real world of grime. Plus, it makes it a lot easier for a conservator to clean a painting; there is less risk of damaging the paint film. But I rarely apply a finish varnish. Instead, once the painting is dry to the touch, I apply retouch varnish. Even though it’s not as protective as finish varnish, it is enough to even out the shine and to protect the painting – and it lets it “breathe” so it can cure properly. I rarely get a chance to apply a finish varnish.
(RG note) Thanks, Michael. Not varnishing has made a lot of Impressionist paintings miserable to clean. The ultra-dark Cezanne’s you see around are because wise conservators dare not go there. Darkened and dulled, they do not do the master justice.
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Handling of Alkyd oils
by Kenneth Flitton, Picton, ON, Canada
I had the same problem with varnish, Olive Green being one culprit which smeared after about 5 weeks of supposed drying! I have switched to Alkyd oils and walnut oil. The alkyds dry overnight but can be kept workable the next day with the walnut as medium. This makes them a bit more like acrylics as there is a tendency for paintings to become “layered” as opposed to “melded.” This can be overcome with a bit of experimenting with “zonal” or “area” subdivisions of the composition.
Advantages of Gamblin products
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
Gamblin makes a product called GAMVAR that they claim can be used right away when the painting is dry to touch. “While waiting 3 – 6 months is best, painters using Gamvar can safely varnish sooner because Gamvar’s mild solvent will not dissolve the glaze layers of paintings and paintings today dry quicker.” I love it. I can vary the sheen by adding a little cold wax to the mixture.
(RG note) Thanks, Mary. Going by the mail on this one, Robert Gamblin has a lot of friends out there. A great deal of information can be found on his website.
Final varnish on Acrylics
by Anna Wade, Halifax, NS, Canada
I paint in acrylics and am stubbornly devoted to them. However, varnishing is always a question mark. Some teachers in the past have assured me varnishing is not needed with acrylics. Others insist you must always varnish. I do believe extra protection can’t be wrong and I do think varnish adds a nice finish to the work. What do you recommend and specifically what varnish do you use?
(RG note) Thanks, Anna. Acrylic paint left unvarnished leaves a sticky surface loved by dust and smoke. When I’m finished an acrylic and it is sufficiently dry, I rub on one or two coats of watered down acrylic medium with a rag. After this has dried — often in a day or so — I rub on a coat of “Golden Acrylic Final Varnish Gloss with UVLS (Ultra Violet Light Stabilizers). The latter helps preserve the intensity of some of the more fugitive colours that may just creep into your palette. I am not on the Golden payroll, it’s just that I use their products often and have got used to them.
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Old master techniques
by Jack Liberman, Akron, OH, USA
The old masters (Flemish-Baroque) did not varnish their paintings. They painted with cooked essential varnishes and cooked oil polymerized oils along with adding amber varnishes to the darks, earths, etc; thus their paintings dried evenly with an even sheen. Oh, their mediums allowed for the finest and controlled drawing, allowing them to avoid the thick over thin theory as they could glaze or paint thick back and forth without a problem and everything dried homogeneously. Of course, they never used any solvent when painting, as even the scent of a solvent would affect the ability to achieve their results and always cooked and polymerized their mixtures. Most important, they were able to keep painting wet into wet. It was their intent to start with essential varnish for their dead coloring, and when it got tacky, like varnishing a table, it was ideal to catch and grab the oil or amber mediums and they could paint without effort and with the greatest fluidity and optical effects. Modern paints we use are not at all like what worked best in the past.
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Writing on the back of paintings
by Anne Sete, Petaluma, CA, USA
You say that (after you re-varnish or clean a painting) “When I’m finished I note on the back that I did the cleaning, any repairs made, what varnish I used, and the date.” Do you write on the back of the canvas? If so, what kind of pen do you use (pencil, charcoal, permanent marker, etc.)?
(RG note) Thanks, Anne. I use a black Sharpie fine point permanent marker. I have had observers jump out of their skins when they see me do this, but I have never had any reports of the lettering creeping through.
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Baby oil solution
by Lynne Bryant, Hartville, WY, USA
You spoke of being afraid of what you were inhaling with oils. Oil paint is not that high on the odor scale, by itself. Back in my day, we used cobalt drier which is very toxic. Liquin is a superior product for speeding up dry time and thinning paint. It doesn’t smell too bad. Turpentine is nasty, caustic stuff that’ll make you dizzy and your eyes water. There are some pigments that are carcinogenic, but bound into commercial vehicle in a tube doesn’t present a huge problem if you are reasonably neat about not letting it soak into your skin. I think turps is the problem. I don’t use turps, not at all, not for anything. It is too hard on brushes, lungs, etc.
So… what do I clean with? Baby oil. Yup, cheap old baby oil with a blotter that is an old phonebook. Dip the dirty brush in a little jar of oil and blot several times until clean, more or less. Then I use Trekell brush soap and conditioner. Save for the fact that viridian and alizarin stain my University brushes, they are like new: Very soft, pliable and clean, as are my bristle brushes (I have a lot of brushes).
I keep small jars for the baby oil on the taboret. The pigment will settle to the bottom and when the jar is kinda gross, I carefully pour off the clean oil at the top into a new jar. You can clean out the first jar with paper towel, or toss it, up to you. The oily rags, paper towels, whatever, go into water in an old coffee can because they are combustible. We have twice-a-year pickups for toxic materials and I save my full cans for the semi-annual chemical collection. Since I went to baby oil, it doesn’t matter if I paint in the house. The worst smell is some linseed oil and a bit of “baby.”
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Alkyd driers, etc.
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands
As to the drying time of oils, there are alkyd-based driers (Winsor & Newton) that quicken drying. You could switch to alkyds, which are very similar to oils, a bit chalkier perhaps, and perhaps with less tinting power and glory and adhesive qualities, but the good thing is that these dry within 24 hours — and can be over-painted the following day. I use alkyds in the studio only (in the field they dry too quickly for easy handling) for underpainting, and prefer to finish the work in oils. When applying glazes I use W&N Liquin (glazing) medium, a quick drier that leaves a sheen after drying.
Varnishing is indeed a bit of a drag, but important for various reasons: it protects the painting from fly specks, and it picks up sunk-in colours so that the painting acquires that fresh sparkly look it had when you sat back and admired your work after laying down your brushes.
Oil on canvas takes the varnish better because the texture of the canvas breaks the sheen. When applied on masonite panels a shiny varnish might put off clients: people don’t want shiny things in frames nowadays. As I use gold leaf in some of my animal portraits, I have to varnish or the gold leaf is sure to lose its luster. There are ready-made matt varnishes (more difficult to apply), and there’s artificial beeswax. The ancients used beeswax which they then buffed to a soft sheen. The drawback of wax is that cat hairs, chicken feathers and fly specks tend to stick if you store your pictures in the coop, especially in hot weather.
Retouching varnish is only a temporary solution. It loses its sheen after about six months. Always apply it locally and thinly (with a rag is better than with a brush) when retouching on a dry surface.
I’d say that if you make the choice for oils, you make the choice for an age-old process that involves time from the very start, like careful gesso priming (and sanding in between layers), using quality oils, not mucking about with technique, and remembering that over the horizon comes the day you will have to add a layer of varnish.
On the other hand, you could dispense with varnishing, just like the Impressionists did. But they keyed-up their paintings, and dispensed with dark colours like umbers and black so that the sinking-in of colours wasn’t a big problem like it was for oils painted with the academic method (think of Eakins, John Singer Sargent). I have handed people paintings (with a little note about varnishing) and never heard from them again, perhaps because they live or moved abroad. Consequently I have no idea what condition the painting is in now.
Alkyds to the rescue
by Steve Clement, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
There are much better ways for speeding the drying time of oils today than using some kind of drier, cobalt or otherwise. I would suggest from almost 28 years of experience that oil painters use alkyds as additions to their line in one of several ways.
1. The easiest but not necessarily the most reliable (because you don’t use white in every mixture) is simply to mix some alkyd white in with your basic choice in white paint, since that gets mixed in with many colors. Also, adding alkyd buff titanium is equally beneficial, since many colors can be mixed with this instead of white and keep cleaner colors that don’t get milky.
2. Use the alkyd white mixed in your white as above and add some Liquin or other alkyd fast dry medium to your colors if you wish to use a medium at all.
3. Do like I do and do all the above besides having a range of alkyd colors, especially the ones that tend to dry the slowest (cadmiums, cobalts, etc.). You can vary the percentages of regular oil and alkyd and get drying times ranging from an hour or two to days, whatever you prefer.
The best alkyd colors now available are C.A.S., available through Jerry’s Artarama. W&N colors do not even come close in tinting strength or behavior, though I have both lines. Any of the alkyd mediums (thick, fluid, etc.) will do wonders to increase drying rates with either line of colors.
The main benefit of using some alkyds instead of a drier, in addition to having total control of drying speed, is that the alkyds actually make a much stronger paint film than plain oil paints, whether linseed oil or any other oil is used to grind the colors. They remain more flexible and have a much tougher paint film. Just let a blob of plain oil paint and an alkyd one of the same color dry on a glass palette, and then try to scrape them off with a razor blade; see which one comes off easier. I can tell you the alkyd will be much tougher to remove.
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by Jacqueline Satterlee, Elmira, NY, USA
A few years ago I bought several paintings from an artist CZA in Paris, hoping to promote him in the States. They are acrylics. I have had several incidents with these: the paint crackled (especially the white) during the trip back to the US, as I didn’t realize extreme cold in the cargo hold would do this. The other: the restaurant where I was displaying them caught fire, and they are smoked damaged. I had no success promoting his paintings, but I still love them around my house. Should I try to repaint certain areas that have cracked and if so how should I fill these cracks before painting over them, or would this devalue them even more? (He never varnished them, and I don’t think he gessoed his canvases very much) Thank you for any suggestions.
(RG note) Thanks, Jacqueline. Poor priming — or no priming at all is probably the reason for the aircraft cold-cracking. Unprimed canvas sucks the medium (in this case acrylic medium) out of the paint, leaving the paint unbound and unstable. Your Parisian friend doesn’t know what he’s doing. To fix his sins, I suggest a coat of well-thinned acrylic medium over the front of the painting. Fill the cracks with acrylic gel and then touch up gingerly. If you can make it look reasonable, put on two more thin coats of acrylic medium, wait a week and put on a coat of Final Varnish (Acrylic). I’d have to see the smoke damage to assess, but mild soap and water with a rag or cotton balls takes off fireplace and long-standing cigarette smoke.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Protecting your paintings…
Field and Stream
oil painting, 18 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Rebekah Sisk of Pacific Grove, CA, USA, who asked, “Why are Japan driers considered too violent?”
(RG note) Japan driers are an outdated dryer long used in enamel sign-writing and still in use by some oil painters. The various brands vary in strength, are unpredictable and can cause cracking in modern paints. Japan driers are like soy sauce — you don’t quite know how much to add to your sushi.