Protecting your paintings

Dear Artist, 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. Best regards, Robert 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  

original painting
by Stan Moeller

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. There is 1 comment for Varnish sooner with ‘Gamvar’ by Stan Moeller
From: Laurie — Mar 22, 2012

Gamblin also sells pre-mixed GamVar, so no mixing necessary.

  Optional varnishing by Michael Chesley Johnson, AZ, USA / NB, Canada  

“Sugarloaf Rock, High Tide”
oil painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Michael Chesley Johnson

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. There is 1 comment for Optional varnishing by Michael Chesley Johnson
From: Angela Treat Lyon — Mar 19, 2012

love your painting! such light – makes me feel like I’m right there –

  Handling of Alkyd oils by Kenneth Flitton, Picton, ON, Canada  

“Beaver Pond Muskoka”
oil painting, 22 x 28 inches
by Kenneth Flitton

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  

original painting, 36 x 44 inches
by Mary Moquin

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  

“Lullaby of Birdland”
acrylic painting, 24 x 24 inches
by Anna Wade

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. There is 1 comment for Final varnish on Acrylics by Anna Wade
From: Anonymous — Mar 20, 2012

Robert, you mentioned that in your application method “I rub on”. I thought that rubbing would increase foaming / decrease transparency many acrylic mediums? I would appreciate more details – Thanks, Duane Dorshimer

  Old master techniques by Jack Liberman, Akron, OH, USA  

“Baba Kodish”
oil painting
by Jack Liberman

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. There are 2 comments for Old master techniques by Jack Liberman
From: Betty Newcomer — Mar 20, 2012

Fantastic painting! Such life like skin tones, and facial expression. Love it!

From: Anonymous — Mar 20, 2012

Could you please note a reference for your statements?

  Writing on the back of paintings by Anne Sete, Petaluma, CA, USA  

“Heather near my house”
oil painting, 8 x 10 inches
by Anne Sete

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.   There is 1 comment for Writing on the back of paintings by Anne Sete
From: don — Mar 20, 2012

I try to avoid using any permanent marker considering that they do fade and sometimes work into surfaces where they’re not intended. If at all possible, I use pencil as a more permanent solution.

  Baby oil solution by Lynne Bryant, Hartville, WY, USA  

watercolour, 15 x 11 inches
by Lynne Bryant

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.” There are 3 comments for Baby oil solution by Lynne Bryant
From: Carol Morrison — Mar 20, 2012

I am very interested in your use of baby oil rather than turps to clean brushes , since one of my NSCAD teachers also does this. However, my major use of turps is to dilute the paint – how do you do this?

From: MaryAnn Nusbaum — Mar 20, 2012

Thanks for these stimulating conversations. Re cleaning brushes, I have been taught to use any vegetable oil, like canola, to begin the brush cleaning process, followed by a dab of dish soap like Dawn. Some prefer Murphy’s soap. The oil lifts the paint and the soap washes out the oil. My brushes are stained but continue to perform well.

From: Peggy — Mar 20, 2012

I have always used baby oil for my hands, but not brush cleaning! Thanks.

  Alkyd driers, etc. by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands  

“Water buffalo”
oil painting
by Robin Shillcock

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  

oil painting
by Steve Clement

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. There are 3 comments for Alkyds to the rescue by Steve Clement
From: Angela Treat Lyon — Mar 19, 2012

What is C.A.S.? How big is that gorgeous painting? Your treatment of the water is wonderful – when can we dive in?

From: Brian E Warner — Mar 20, 2012

What water?

From: Robin d’Arcy Shillcock — Mar 23, 2012

Hello Steve, I wonder about your statement that alkyds provide better adhesion than ‘old’ oils. My experience is that if a layer of either paint is left to dry on a glass palette, the alkyds are easy to remove with the application of some white spirits. The oilpaint on the other hand, needs some serious grinding and pernicious scratching to let go. What happens 30 years from now? That’s the question. I couldn’t say if alkyds are better in the long run than oils, and would like elucidation from you with 28 years’ experience with alkyds. Best wishes, Robin

  Problematic canvases by Jacqueline Satterlee, Elmira, NY, USA  

acrylic painting
by CZA

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. There is 1 comment for Problematic canvases by Jacqueline Satterlee
From: Anonymous — Mar 20, 2012

Thank you so much Mr. Genn for your help and suggestions!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Protecting your paintings

From: Gary Irish — Mar 15, 2012

Great Article! I just switched to Gamar Varnish which can be applied within four days of finish. Used directly it is high gloss.The gloss can be controlled by adding 1 part Turpenoid to two parts Gamar–which makes for a sparkly finish. It is noted to date the date of the varnish so future conservators will know how easy it is to remove this preserver.

From: Judie Gill — Mar 16, 2012

Hi Robert, I just read your comments about varnishing oil paintings. I have a question if you could possibly answer, What type/name of varnish could I use that is not gloss? I prefer to have a final varnish that would protect the painting and one that is not a high gloss. I have used Windsor Newton Retouching Varnish when painting was dry, and now a year later would like to do the final varnish. I have been unable to find a varnish that isn’t high gloss, can you help me?? Thank you, Judie Gill

From: dorothy — Mar 16, 2012

This is exactly the information I was looking for! I started a discussion on Linked In about varnishing just yesterday. It seems most do and some don’t. What are the disadvantages of not varnishing? Is it mostly about even shine? or actual protection? from light? or what? thanks so much for your insights.

From: joan — Mar 16, 2012

What bad thing happens if i varnish too soon? Right now using soluvar and I varnished too soon(a month for oil) but I don’t see a problem yet – will I?

From: Fannie Griffin — Mar 16, 2012

I have been using Liquin both as a medium and a final varnish. It does speed drying and is not useful for glazing. It can be applied as soon as the painting feels dry–just a few days. It is quite shiny and I would rather have more of a gloss. I often ship my portraits great distances and people do not want to wait six months, nor can they easily return for later varnishing. What is your opinion of Liquin?

From: Dwight — Mar 16, 2012

Get away from all of this. Switch to watercolors (or watercolours if you prefer). Of course, there is the matting and glass. But the work is fast and fun!!

From: Gail Harper,NY — Mar 16, 2012

hoping to hear your reply re LIQUIN…as an additive…Ive never used it as a protective measure…only an additive. Winsor and Newton advised not to use it in waterbased oils. I do my underpaintings with acrylics and finish with oils. (not water based) looking forward to your response re additive

From: Nancy Davis Johnson Durham, NH — Mar 16, 2012

“Protecting Your Paintings” struck a chord with me. I am a watercolor painter and have discovered Yupo (synthetic paper) as a ground for my watercolors. After about 3-4 years of a learning curve on this challenging surface, I’m hooked. My problem? I need to spray varnish the finished work to protect it from any moisture – even after it’s framed (condensation, etc.). And as a result, cannot enter some of my art associations’ shows because their eligibility clauses contain the phrase…’water-soluble media on paper, UNVARNISHED…’. but in the same paragraph, they do allow acrylics on paper, which are not water-soluble after they dry! And we all know that acrylic media are routinely used as a final varnish in many cases – no mention of that being prohibited. Why the discrimination? I email-argued back and forth on that point with one major w/c society, to no avail – ‘rule are rules’, etc. So I no longer enter their juried shows, though my paintings used to be included in many of them. If anyone’s listening out there, I would like to suggest that they review their rules to include (or exclude) many of the new materials and media that have become mainstream in the 21th century. I have no quarrel with the associations/societies which maintain strict rules for transparent watercolor only, but when they include media like acrylics also, they’re muddying the waters, so to speak.

From: Rick Rotante — Mar 16, 2012

Oil paint made today isn’t manufactured the same as when the tube was invented and the 6 to 12 month rule applied. My experience has taught me that varnishing time depends on how thickly you paint. If you are applying paint with a trowel or pallet knife, the paint will take longer to dry but still not necessarily 6 to 12 months. If you apply paint in a semi-transparent or in a semi-opaque manner your paint may dry more quickly. I advise testing it by pressing the surface of a particularly thick area of paint. If it’s soft to the touch, wait a little longer. If it doesn’t give or feels hard, I’d say varnish no matter the time period. I’ve sold work being varnished after a month. Paint today has more flexibility than paint of old. Drying time also varies with manufacturer as well as application. This, of course, depends on the binder they use. Some colors, particularly dark colors also dry faster than lighter colors or white. Don’t use a “retarder” –this too will prolong drying time. A product called “Japan Dryer” (though toxic by today’s standards) speeds drying in a pinch, but I don’t use it. The thickness with which you apply varnish also affects drying time along with temperature of your space. I varnish work in groups and leave the studio right after with windows open. They dry to the touch over night

From: Laura Priebe — Mar 16, 2012

I opened this letter up thinking it was about how to insure your paintings while they are being exhibited. Do you have any info about doing that? Thank you.

From: Lynne Schulte — Mar 16, 2012

OK, now I need to rethink all this. I have never varnished my paintings at all, liking the way they are as is and not thinking it was necessary unless you were an old master. May of my pieces are quick ones, most take no longer than 10-20 hours, some are on gessoed arches watercolor paper and framed under glass. I’ve been painting for all my life and have never seen anything happen to pieces I need to deal with. Why do I need to do this and what is the recommended way?

From: Chris Page — Mar 16, 2012

Hi Robert; just my two pennies about the drying time of oils; Mixing a bit of Maroger medium from Old Masters will speed drying time enormously; also mixing bit of it with all colors evens them out, so the sinking in of the earth tones is not as severe. Liquin from Windsor Newton will do the same thing, but I’ve been told Liquin is made from a polymer material, so is like a plastic. Also, M. Graham make Walnut oil with Alkyd added; I use a bit of this as a medium and the painting is dry the next session, usually overnight….

From: Sandra Scheetz-Wise — Mar 16, 2012

Would love to know how you remove varnish when you clean the paintings? as beginning to varnish some of the paintings have a yellow tone now..

From: Margaret Stott — Mar 16, 2012

Good topic, Robert…..protecting your paintings. For all the courses I’ve taken in acrylic painting, there hasn’t been much attention paid to appropriate mixes of paint with water and/or mediums. Yet I’ve heard that paint can lift from the canvas if used straight from the tube. And few teachers have mentioned protecting acrylic paintings with varnish. Any advice would be appreciated!

From: Ann Davis — Mar 16, 2012

Funny??? Does that mean I have to dye my hair green and wear artsy clothes???

From: Nancy Ness — Mar 16, 2012

Have you tried water based oils? I find them to have the best qualities of both medium.

From: Colleen Underwood, Halifax, Nova Scotia — Mar 16, 2012

Oils are my medium of choice as I love their brilliance in color. As a painter for over 30 years I combine Oils and Alkyds which solves the drying time as well as the varnishing time. Alkyds are genuine oil color but they are made with an alkyd resin binder. They have excellent durability and dry to the touch in 4-24 hours. They clean up and can be used with liquin and all other traditional oil painting mediums. You can mix your traditional oils with the alkyds and in doing so the traditional oils dries quicker as well. Windsor Newton is the brand I use and if you Google them you will get more info. Great for plein air and travel. Also if you are into glazing they are dry the next day. They also can be used for impasto, palette knife painting etc, all the uses you have with your traditional oils.( these are not the water soluble oils) I avoid solvents and clean up with Murphy’s oil soap and water. I use artist paint thinner and not turps. Alkyds can be varnished in 30 days but must confess I have often rushed that time as well and have never had any problems. I prefer spray dammar varnish to avoid drips but traditional varnished can be used with alkyds. Enjoy your list Robert and thanks for all the time you put into it.

From: Alcina Nolley — Mar 16, 2012

I started out painting with oils and found out I was allergic to turpentine. I switched to acrylics and used them for years. A few years ago I discovered M. Graham walnut oil based paints. They have their own quick drying medium and use non-toxic walnut oil as a solvent. I even use common, cheap cooking oil to clean my brushes. These paints are really a perfect compromise. I still use acrylics as a canvas toners and under painting with the Graham oils over that. I love them.

From: Marvin Humphrey — Mar 16, 2012

Yes. An uneven finish has the same appeal as a smeared TV or computer screen.

From: Nyla Witmore — Mar 17, 2012

Regarding varnishing oil paintings:It has come to my attention from some nationally recognized and respected artists that IF THE PAINTING IS DRY TO THE TOUCH, AND THE PAINT APPLICATION IS NOT EXCESSIVELY THICK…that it can be varnished within a few days using GAMVAR (A product by Gamblin). THE REASON: In this case, the paint and the varnish dry at the same rate and there is therefore no conflict. Perhaps more cautiously, it would be even more advantageous to apply a “retouch varnish” solution made from mixing 3 parts “GAMSOL” to 1 part GAMVAR.

From: Chris Everest — Mar 19, 2012

Please excuse my ignorance/stupid question – but – Can you/Do you varnish Watercolours ?

From: Sherfey Ellen — Mar 19, 2012

Hi Robert, I’d like to add a recommendation against using “blair Matte Spray Var: matte damar varnish for oil paintings, 100% pure”, bar code # 0 81569 30116 6. My paintings had dried thoroughly, in one case, 3 years (with relatively thin paint). Even though I used a new can, thoroughly shook it, am practiced in applying sprays, (continually moving, applying in 1/2-overlapped passes with starts & stops off to the side of the canvas), the finish was immediately irregularly blotched and the surface even seemed pitted. I had to repair the results before it dried by careful brushing on of liquid varnish. Fairly needless to say, I achieved results below my standard. Just to say, I did pre-use test spraying on a small area of a better-luck-next-time painting but clearly needed more tests (and more time before a deadline to evaluate results) before mixing my old reliable with less audible muttering.

From: Ron Whitmore — Mar 19, 2012

A retouch varnish is a damar varnish that is thinned 50% with solvents. This allows the oil paint to still oxidize and form a solid paint film without cracking. An artist can apply a retouch varnish to an oil as soon as it is mostly dry to the touch and provides protection from dust, brings out the dead areas and is the form many prolific artists deliver their oil painting to the gallery or to the customer. Grumbacher makes a real good spray retouch varnish. A final varnish can then be applied in six months after the painting has oxidized and formed a solid paint film. You should come to our Art Material Expo in Santa Fe this September and meet all the manufacturers of artist materials, would love to meet you!

From: Sylvia Lacey — Mar 19, 2012

I minored in Art in College and have painted for many years, mostly with acrylics and watercolor. However, as a young teacher, I went to Europe to teach for the Army Dependent Schools in the mid 60’s..Germany..and a friend and I toured many museums over there and decided to do some paintings in oil. I still have my “Sunflowers” displayed in my home, but I don’t think I ever varnished it. I just dust it off with a damp cloth occasionally. After reading this article, I wondered if it is “too late” to varnish it, and if so, how do I clean it and what varnish should I use?. I enjoy your letters very much..

From: Melanie Peter — Mar 19, 2012

Dear Robert, I have sent large oil paintings (dry but pre-varnish) out into the world, announcing that they will need varnish in one year. In every case, the owners resolutely refuse to give me the chance to varnish them. Some owners are public, some are private. In one case I pursued the paintings and physically removed the art to varnish them. The major university simply refuses to return my phone calls and emails. Sad but true. If it gets out of your hands, it’s someone else’s to neglect.

From: Deborah Weinstein — Mar 19, 2012

Gamblin makes a varnish called Gamvar which they say can be applied as soon as your oil painting is dry to the touch and is also easily removed with Turpenoid or Gamsol. Just last week I was at a presentation given by a Gamblin representative. He repeated the information that is also on the Gamblin site, i.e., if your thumbnail does not dent the surface of the paint, it’s dry and can be varnished. Gamvar is sold in a solid state in the form of beads or small balls, and it comes with a second jar of the solvent that dissolves the varnish when you are ready to use it. They sell it this way to ensure that the product you are using is fresh. I have not been painting long enough to tell you how Gamvar ages. Gamblin claims that it will not yellow.

From: Nancy Teague — Mar 19, 2012

I enjoyed your post on “Protecting your paintings”. Since you now paint with acrylics I’m curious to know if you put a finishing coat of some kind of polymer medium on your paintings? If so do you brush it on? Have you tried a spray, e.g. Krylon spray? Do you like a gloss or satin finish on your acrylics? If you do use a finish coat is there a particular brand you have come to prefer? Lots of questions! Hope you don’t mind answering.

From: Tom H. Murphy — Mar 19, 2012

RE: DRYING TIME I’ve been painting professionally for a little over 25 years. Gregg Kreutz and one of his most respected teachers, David Leffel, encourage varnishing a work as soon as it’s dry enough to eliminate smearing. That allows the varnish and the paint to dry at the same rate. Through the years I’ve seen other favorable references to early drying in various how-to articles. Patricia Moran says in her first book that retouch varnish is perfectly good as a final coat, and I’ve used that even earlier than one can with “regular” varnish.

From: Dianne Mize — Mar 19, 2012

Liquin is my choice for both a drying agent and for the first protective coat of varnish. I’ve been using it for many, many years and during that time have experimented with other available products, but always return to Liquin. It is low odor, a small amount will speed up drying, it’s an excellent glazing medium and it can be used as a temporary varnish as soon as the painting is dry to touch. The surface quality it leaves has a sheen, but not a high gloss. It resists yellowing and the surface quality remains consistent unlike retouching varnish. And the brushes clean thoroughly with Murphy’s Oil Soap. Liquin is the synthetic resin medium used in alkyds. It is made by Winsor and Newton. One note: Liquin is not meant to be a final varnish, so the final varnish should be applied a few months down the road. Another note: oil paint does not dry, rather it oxidizes (or cures), a process that continues for a long, long time. An oil painting, even though not thickly painted, needs time to cure before the final varnish.

From: Jackie Knott — Mar 19, 2012

I use Damar varnish to protect my paintings and rarely varnish before six months. I don’t like to wait much longer than that due to dust. Varnishing leaves the painting with a nice even finish. I instruct the owner and they are usually happy to do it after being assured they won’t wreck it forever. I always had more problems keeping my oil paints moist with my tortoise pace … I solved that with a drop or two of oil of cloves (found at any health food store). I’ve kept my palette workable for a month with it. Clove oil also solves the issue of some paints being thick and others runny. I want the same buttery consistency with all of them. I use a half and half mixture of stand oil and turpinoid as a painting medium which helps dry the paints in reasonable time but not too quickly (1-2 wks). I’m suspicious of chemically speeding up drying time. Regardless, if you retouch please, please don’t use conventional retouch varnish … it will separate the layers of paint instead of melding them together. If I want to retouch a painting I simply “paint” my stand oil medium over the area and the newly applied oil paint will adhere to the previous layer. I’ve used this same technique for decades and have yet to have any of my older paintings crack.

From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Mar 20, 2012
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Mar 20, 2012

This conversation has been so useful. Are there any workshops offering instruction on painting in oil without noxious turpentine or mineral spirits?

From: Pat McCullough, Winnipeg, MB — Mar 20, 2012

I have recently started painting in oils after several years of working in acrylics. I have discovered Gamblin’s Gamvar Varnish as mentioned by several artists above. I have also started to use M. Graham’s Walnut Alkyd Medium. You add 3-9 drops to each inch of oil paint. It is completely non-toxic, helps speed drying, plus gives a small amount of gloss which I like. So my plan is to continue to add this medium to oil and then also varnish with Gamvar when a painting is finished.

From: Gavin Logan — Mar 20, 2012
From: Kay McKelvey — Mar 20, 2012

I have recently completed a 40 x 40 inch painting for an exhibition in April and have searched various sites for information on varnishing it. I am undecided both on type of varnish and method of application. Some sites advocate gloss followed by matte varnish, others an acrylic medium coat first, followed by a coat/s of varnish. Can you advise from your own experience? I realise you are a very busy artist but I would be really grateful for any help.

From: Robin d’Arcy Shillcock — Mar 23, 2012

Hi Robert, As to applying a coat of varnish over a dry-to-the-touch layer of oils, I advise against. Oils take about 20 – 30 years to dry out completely, even the modern ones. The varnish takes what, 24 hours to dry. The problem lies not in what happens now, or next year, but what happens in 30 years. Excessive cracking, or the varnish pulling the oil layer away from the panel or canvas. If you don’t care whyat happens to your paintings after the bomb falls, well, go on, varnish all you like!

From: Shirley Williams — Apr 05, 2012

This is my first comment, I finished a water color and decided i would apply a varnish so used it in a small area I had previously used it to finish an acrylic painting. Well it almost finished my watercolor- it streaked and smeared the painting. I saw what I had done immediatly and was able to lift the damaged area removing the varnish and and original paint and clean up the mess down to the paper. I allowed the space to dry and proceeded to repaint that area the damage was repaired and I was able to save my picture. Word of warning if your tempted to have a shiny surface on watercolor use glass. Acrylic takes a nice varnish if it is added in thin layers after it has dried. A watercolor will smear. We all have those days I was just lucky I was able to fix it.

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Field and Stream

oil painting, 18 x 24 inches by Bonnie Holmes, CA, USA

  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.