Varnish and OMS, and why I dislike dammar

I recently posted a video of pouring varnish out onto a painting on IG and I used the hash tags #gamvar and #varnishporn. Varnish day is the best! You get to watch the dried and often dulled colors refresh and pop back to life, as pigmented as the day you applied the color. Umbers especially dull out, as it absorbs the oil faster then some other pigments. Varnishing for me, holds a similar kind of magic that working in a dark room produces – the same joy of experience of watching a latent image appear on the paper. This naturally lead me down the rabbit hole of watching varnish application after varnish application from painters all around the world. I watched an entire slew of videos and what I saw inspired me to write this post.

I’m not trying to be a commercial for Gamvar but after trying multiple products, it’s the one I like the most. It doesn’t reek, so it doesn’t get me high, it doesn’t have dammar in it, and it’s therefore removable with OMS (odorless mineral spirits, a petroleum distillate*) instead of actual turpentine (a product of pine trees, like it’s dammar counterpart, from Asian Dipterocarpaceae trees). Dammar replaced mastic as the the favored varnish in the 19th century, or perhaps in the 20th century thanks to an artist suppliers marketing. I don’t feel it is the most appropriate varnish now that newer ones have been synthesized. I was informed to use damar back in college, and to mix mediums from it as well, only in 2006, but now I refuse to touch the stuff.

Dammar is a pale yellow resin, obtained from trees. As a genuine resin, in accordance with its properties, it will yellow with age, and real turpentine is the stuff strong enough to dissolve it. It’s functioned fine for a very long time as a varnish for artists paintings, but is why after a long period of time, paintings need to be stripped of the blackened varnish, then cleaned and the varnish replaced. My problem with this, despite not having 50 years of information about products like Gamvar, is that we know factually that dammar gum yellows and that the harsher solvent of turpentine is needed to remove it at all.

I use OMS in my studio and am sensitive to turpentine. Recalling my experiences working in darkrooms with photography chemicals, I knew the day in the darkroom was over after about 6 hours, because my gums would start to go numb from exposure. Turpentine produces the same effect, a tingling in my gums, after about 5 minutes of exposure. I’m not overly concerned with studio safety, to be honest. I think most people do not understand the materials, and think they are much more dangerous then they really are. ** Although I paint without gloves and use paints that contain heavy metals and lead, I put my foot down when it comes to turpentine. I don’t want to use it or be around it.

I support varnishing any oil painting. It evens out the sheen, and protects it from say, an exploding can of spray paint nearby. It’s how I learned to always varnish, occurring in the home of the first painting I ever sold. The painting was ruined, and they were too horrified to tell me about it for a really long time. Here’s some thoughts on why to varnish, straight from a treasure trove of technical information, Gamblin.

I don’t work for them. I just like what they do enough to use a brand name, it’s possibly the only time I will ever do so on this blog, and specifically for varnish. Dammar based varnishes tend to bubble and I can’t stand being forced to brush bubbles out, my face right in those nasty fumes! So, what about those videos I watched inspired this lengthy post of technically inclined ranting, you may wonder? People using synthetic brushes, people pouring waaayyy too much varnish, and people using a product against the manufacturer’s instruction. I’ve also had several painters question my love for the product because they had, or heard of someone else, have an experience with “beading up”. Everything you need to know is out there! Varnish should not be a thick layer, and natural bristles will brush it down to a thinner layer then a synthetic brush. Really, the goal is to scrub a thin layer down. The longer you brush it, the less shiny it will be, and you have a whole 15 minute window before it starts to tack! What’s not to love??

I use the gloss varnish because I want my colors to remain. I don’t wish to matte them down with wax in the varnish. At first I fell for the intrigue of less shine, sure, I think most of us do when we start out. Wax is the substance that brings down the shine, it cuts down on light reflected from the surface. Why would I want to matte down my colors, put wax between the eye and the paint? What’s not to love about the slick allure of wet seeming oil paint?

Finally, also, allow me to please beg you to not varnish your paintings with alkyd resin, an alarming trend that’s happening right now. By definition, a varnish is a removable layer. Products like liquin and galkyd (okay, this is the second and last time I drop names) are not appropriate final coats. Both manufactures state the products are not for such use. They are fine to oil out with if you are putting more paint down, but a final coat needs to be removable in case, you know, spray paint happens. Or fire/smoke damage, or any number of things.

*OMS is a safer option then turpentine, but not it is not SAFE it is SAFER. Just because you can’t smell the fumes as strongly does not mean they are not there – you should expose yourself to as little as possible, meaning use a smaller container, close it when you don’t need it, (say during breaks) and work in a ventilated space, or at least a space with air flow. The fumes from OMS might not be as damaging as turpentine, which shrinks your internal organs over years, but don’t think it’s “good” for you either. And for goodness sake, please NEVER EVER dump OMS down the drain. That goes into our drinking water and environment. To properly dispose of it, you let it evaporate slowly while using it. When using OMS, you have two jars. Once the jar you use while working is really dirty, you pour it into a second jar and let it sit until the paint sediment settles into the bottom. You’ll be left with clean OMS on top. Pour that back into the jar you use while working. Repeat, and you’ll never have to technically dispose of it. Should you ever need to dispose of it, take it to your municipals hazardous household materials disposal site.

** I hear a lot of other painters worry about their paints being “toxic”. Oils are not toxic, it’s a really overused word! When working with OMS, cadmium, lead or cobalt, cover any open cuts on your hands or wear gloves if you have open wounds. If your skin is fine and unbroken, it’s not a big deal if the paint or some OMS sits on your skin for a bit. Be sure to wash your hands at regular intervals, don’t ingest the paint while smoking or eating, and you’ll be just fine. If you have small children or pets in your studio, then perhaps it’s best to not use them, but it’s also not needed to stare at me like I have two heads just because I love lead based white paint. It makes for the most lovely, not chalky, skin tones, and dries faster then titanium white when working in layers. I’m not eating it, it’s all fine!

Please, feel free to reach out if you have any questions or stories to share, or if you want to chat about any of these topics!

Master Copies with Crayola Crayon

Master Copies with Crayola Crayon

It’s been 4 years since I’ve completed one, but the Crayola bug has bit me once again! I recently was fortunate enough to be able to make it over to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston to see the van Gogh exhibit there – it was wonderful, and really, really packed for a Tuesday. I shudder to think what it was like to visit it on a weekend. There were several pieces I’d never seen before and some sketches as well. Seeing these paintings in person is sort of like hitting a ‘reset’ button for me. The daily monotony of working and then painting is pretty tiring sometimes, and seeing others’ art refreshes the well! It’s ecstasy to drink in these pieces in person! The MFAH has an incredible permanent collection as well, and it’s always a treat to visit with some of my favorite paintings in that collection. Last time I was there I was taken in by Georges Daniel de Monfreid’s self portrait, and it was so lovely to be able to visit it again. Another piece that captured me on this visit was FrantiĆĄek Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale”.

The first is my photo at the museum. In the second, sadly, much of the pinks are washed out.

Sometimes you see a piece of art that simply floors you, that sucks the air right out of your lungs and everything else in the room ceases to exist. You make a beeline for it, as if magnetized. This painting did that to me. Kupka eventually went on to make abstracts, and this self portrait makes me a little sad about that, even though it makes sense as he was primarily interested in color theory. This study of yellow is a commanding portrait. An artist friend of mine said “The sheer arrogance of it almost knocks you over.” It’s well said. You can’t help but to wonder as to what this artist was like in person and what he was thinking as he posed for himself for this piece. It strikes at the heart of what is so compelling about self portraiture – how intimate the self portrait is. While I believe that in its way, every piece of art made is a self portrait of the artist, literal self portraits are brazen and boldly open, honest and revealing. They are exciting and fearless, as personal and daring as an artist can get. To make one and then to share it, to remain in the world past your years as a picture on a wall for countless strangers to connect with you is a compelling act. This painting in particular, with Kupka presenting himself in his robe, holding out his cigarette, staring at you as if to dare you to look at him – this is pure gold, pure connection, an intimate stare into the human condition. He challenges you to accept or deny him, to really see him if you are willing to look. This is why when I copy master paintings, an invaluable tool for learning from those before you, I prefer them to be self portraits. I prefer to spend time with the artist, this allows me to converse with them in a more personal manner, going deeper then their composition, color choices and brushstrokes.

Georges Daniel de Monfreid “Self Portrait” 1905 and Henri Mattise “Self Portrait in a Striped T-Shirt” 1906 (See my earlier post “Painting at the start of the 20th Century” for more on that topic.)

My choice to do the majority of my master copies with crayon is also a deeply personal choice. It’s a challenging medium, an unforgiving medium. It’s hard on my hands, too. Every single one I have done harbors mistakes that can not be covered or hidden from view. They do not aim to create a copy that is indistinguishable – they celebrate their mistakes and differences. I enjoy the challenge of translating the medium, even when thick impasto brushwork must be sacrificed. Color correctness must also be sacrificed, the range of crayola colors is limited and requires extra thought into layering to achieve something that’s sort of similar. I could buy a wide range of fancy, adult artist crayons, ones with more pigment and colors with familiar names, but there is something soothing and reminiscent of the pureness of drawing as a child that I enjoy, the olfaction is a large part of it. The act of drawing with crayons keeps alive that sheer joy of just sitting and exploring with waxy color. Applying the drawing skills I have as an adult to the medium of early childhood is something deeply satisfying, it feels like coming full circle as a celebration.

My aim, over time, is to complete a series of 20 self portrait master copy drawings. On my list for the next drawings are Ludwig Meidner (second attempt), Gwen John, van Gogh (of course), and if I’m feeling extra fancy, Kahlo and Lucien Freud.