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 František 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.

“Visual Reality” – A nod to Magritte

“Visual Reality” – A nod to Magritte

I just finished a piece that I’m very excited about, and as a fellow (and much admired) painter put it – Making an Art Joke. It is an art joke, and also dropping a big heavy anvil clue as to one of the artists I’ve drawn a great deal of inspiration from over the years. So much so, it crept into my psyche to the point where I wasn’t even thinking about it consciously as this piece progressed, up until it was a chuckle over how obvious it was. That is why I decided to just chuckle to myself, have fun painting, and stick a floating rock in the background. The rock is from Rene Magritte’s “La Bataille de l’Argonne” (The Battle of Argonne), and I relished in getting to have something of a conversation with him during this “master copy” inserted into my own work.

This idea for this piece was born in a PetSmart. I was browsing languidly to buy a food bowl, and stopped to look at the beautiful tiny birds for sale, and was struck by their gorgeous coloring and stripes. I took a bunch of photos deciding to paint one of them. I’d been thinking about making a painting exploring and weighing the concepts of Free Will vs The Law of Causality. This is a topic that has haunted me since college philosophy classes, which spun me around and pulled me in two directions at once while I struggled to blend the two ideas into something I could live with. As I age, I keep leaning more and more into Causality being the responsible party for our lunch choices and more, tugging at the strings of our hearts with a cold firm grip. But let’s keep it light, shall we?

Originally, I decided the live bird would represent Free Will and a stone bird to represent The Law. I thought about this for a long time before even sitting down to sculpt the stone bird (which turned out a little derpy to be honest, so the painted stone bird does not resemble the prop I made) for my model to hold during the photo shoot. The model is my friend Katrina, someone who works tirelessly to help those around her, supporting and building up her community of artists and volunteers.

kat hand detail wip_web
WIP Detail of looser paint application attempt!

I think my favorite part of the entire painting, to be honest, was solving the puzzle of painting lots of little braids. I still think they look a bit like dreads (which I’ve painted before and adored every moment), but I’m happy enough with the results. I had to figure out both the color and the application technique – darks down first, then mid tone, then highlights. Solving this was vexing at first, but as it started to click things flowed smoothly, and the experience was joyful. A lot of my painting time is trying to solve problems and failing! I go through a long list of what doesn’t work before finding something that does. The most vexing part of the whole piece was the clouds – I painted them several times, and now have a photo file of cloud reference photos, because making them up didn’t work out quite how I wanted. My clouds will evolve to be certain, needing a lot more practice! But those are fluffy and floaty and do fine for this piece. There will be more clouds in the future. Finally, I really enjoyed the flesh tones recipes I used here, but think next time I paint these wonderful tones I will use the limited pallet to develop more broken up color. The colors here are off a base of yellow ochre, cad orange, b. sienna plus titanium white, with the reminder that lead whites make for less chaulky mix.

Exploring Color

Exploring Color

I just posted a new color chart on my Instagram @linda.wandt.art and it got some comments from people saying they wanted to do the same! That makes me so happy, so here’s a new technical post.

I paint with oil because I adore what can be achieved with them, and I’m sort of addicted to the tactile sensations of working with oil paint. Beyond that, the colors are vibrant and luscious – if you are working with professional grade paints. Color is such a crucial part of painting, and I’d like to go into that a bit by talking about some of my favorite color charts and explorations into color theory – the caveat of this is understanding that I still have A LOT to learn about color theory, but I do want to share some of what I’ve explored so far.

The charts I’ve found to be most informative as a starting point are from the book “Portrait Painting Atelier” by Suzanne Brooker. I can not recommend it highly enough. For more detail, check the book out!

Taking a good look at your colors and understanding them by Hue (color family), Value (light or dark) and Chroma (intensity) will help you a ton and facilitate the choices you make. If you have never made your own color wheel (as an adult), I recommend doing that before this. For value, you can buy a grey-scale chart, but I recommend creating your own for the experience and deepening your understanding.

grey scale-web
My grey scale and blacks chart. Mine has a mistake! I recommend your scale goes to 11, so your mid-value is actually, you know, mid.

For this exercise you need a 16 x 20 sheet of canvas paper or canvas, which you grid out with pencil and ruler into 1 1/2 inch squares, seven across and about 9 blocks down. I like to add a block at the end (making 8) for notes – the pigment number, it’s opacity rating, and what I used to neutralize it. I also label the hue and brand. This chart takes time – be prepared for that, this is a labor of love! I also recommend you date your chart on the back, for more information about the colors you are using over time. I use a 3/4” flat synthetic brush. The first square is the color straight from the tube, the second is the tint (mixed with white). Next is tone (mixed with mid-value grey), then Shade (mixed with black.) Next you Warm the color, and in the next square you want to cool it. Finally, create a neutral by mixing the color with its compliment. This chart can now serve as a reference and builds your memory of altering your colors. If the colors being mixed are too dark, I sometimes add a teeny tiny bit of white to the mix to show its properties better.

New Blue Chart-web
New Blue Chart I just made. Compare it to the old one below, and you can see the advancement of my understanding about creating neutrals – here, the color in hue remains, it’s still blue in the first neutral column. The second neutral column is a sometimes a chromatic black, since I used orange, the compliment of blue to neutralize my mixes.
Old Blue Chart-web
This is my blue chart from years ago. I wanted to revisit my charts for the experience and with the paints I am currently using. Notice how green some of those “neutrals” are!

Here is a chart I just made from Al Gury’s “Alla Prima” – (another book I can’t recommend highly enough.) tint chart_webIt’s basically a tint chart with some color interactions to show how one color can affect another by being next to it. It also starts to show the properties of earth reds that can be selected as flesh recipe bases, but I’m working on a more thorough chart of that and it’s not done yet. Want even more? Make charts like the value scale, but with the colors’ compliments ranging from (for example) alizarin crimson to viridian green with the chromatic black in the center. Play with other color interactions! It’s fun and hands-on learning!

Check out this link for Munsell color information.

Let’s talk real quick about creating form and the two ways to do so – through value, or temperature. We are all familiar I think with value change, but a really important aspect is temperature change. Remembering that warm colors pop forward in space and cool colors recede is invaluable for creating the illusion of forms in space, in addition to neutralizing colors to look farther away.

What are your favorite color theory books? I’m waiting for a classic Joseph Albers (this link is great!) to arrive by mail, and would love to hear what other people have found most informative! Thanks for reading, and don’t be shy, keep in touch!

Sandra as Chronos – “Get to it!”

Sandra as Chronos

Something I think about constantly – and you likely do as well, is time. It doesn’t feel like there is ever enough of it to accomplish what I’d like. This is definitely because I went back to working a day job and paint around that now, which is why my production slowed so much the past 6 months. One the one hand, working a day job is great, obviously for the financial security that being an artist doesn’t always provide, but also because it makes me appreciate the time I do have to paint more, and forces me to be more productive with that time. I had started back full time, and now getting ready for a bunch of shows, I’ve gone to four days a week, so I can focus more on painting again. It’s also great because it takes so much pressure off of what I do make. I don’t need the sale to pay the utilities, I’m free to make what I want, for myself, and then just put it out there and see what happens. If it stays with me for a time, that’s okay. I made it for me anyway.

This painting is definitely for me, I made it while ruminating over time, what I’m doing with mine, how I spend my nights after work, and it’s really just a little kick in the butt – a painting about getting back to the work of painting. I don’t have forever.  None of us do. The urge to paint for me is a compulsion, but if I don’t have the energy, I can’t always force it. If I go too long without painting however, I start to feel… itchy. Unsatisfied, lazy even. I feel unfulfilled. Once I get back to work, all feels right again, I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing with my time. The precious little I may have, and there are so many paintings I want to make! I struggle a great deal with maintaining balance in my life – work, painting, family and friends, and simple alone downtime, those things all need to happen, and they need to be balanced. Too much of any one thing, and everything begins to feel a little claustrophobic.

So this is my good friend Sandra, personified as time. It’s okay for her to tell me to get off my ass, because we support each other a lot. She’s never actually said anything like that, but it felt right for her to be the subject in this one. I had envisioned it as a female Chronos, the keeper of the ticking moments, though definitely sans the whole child eating thing. She’s staring hard at me, goading me, saying  “Hey, quit wasting time. Get to it.” The original reference photo has black lace draped over the chair, but I decided to leave it out because it didn’t need the extra reminder of death, it keeps it a little lighter,  more positive and I can’t bring myself to cover the peacock chair. Man, I love that chair.

Sandra in progressThe experience of painting this feels like a bridge in a strange way – I’m happy with the painting, I’m proud of it, but there are a few things about it that vexed me throughout and still do – it’s best to be seen as a learning experience for sure. Proportional issues and edge work, brushstrokes and all. I love painting large hands, because I love hands, but it really bugged me here once I got there. If slightly larger hands are a mark of my work, I’m for it, usually. I was working on it last night and listening to an artist interview podcast, and the artist said something that really struck me as being exactly how I felt at that very moment – the reason I’ve been so frustrated is because I’m learning and growing. All the things I see that are wrong with this painting are because I can now see what could be better about it. All my successes with it are points to be proud of, for sure, but the problems are glaring at me like a neon sign. The hand placements was different at first. I got over a week behind schedule dealing with it. Here’s a peak at what it was like, I felt it was unnatural looking and the entire arm was moved!

Wood vs Muscle

Wood vs Muscle

I posted before about one of my favorite pieces suffering an impact crack and how it broke my heart. I decided to paint the same image again, on a sturdy Ampersand panel, with a lovey 2 inch cradle that I stained cherry red. I’ll go ahead and say this was a really good choice on my part. The second piece turned out so much better then the first. I was able to apply all the new things I’ve learned in the 4 year span since making the original, and on a rigid substrate. Phew!

wood v muscle '16_web
Wood vs Muscle, 24 x 24”, 2016

I had mixed feelings about repainting a piece, it felt kind of strange, but the experience really was so different from the first time because I was so much more proficient in craft this time. The first painting was a plodding struggle spanning months. The second version was still a struggle, sure, but I had so many more tools at my disposal – a better eye and more experience. I also got to fix a couple of issues that really bugged me about the first painting.

 

I’m still working this formula – first layer verdaccio, second layer to refine. Then glazing flesh tones, but I admit some areas get too opaque, I’m still struggling with adding too much color over the shadows, where the paint is supposed to remain the thinnest to show the underpainting. My understanding is that the midtones are where the shadows blend into upper layers.

If you’ve been following along on this journey of self taught glazing, you might see that each time I attempt a piece like this they get closer and closer to what I’m aiming for. I’m not there yet, and I waffle between thinking this knowledge is finite or limitless. I’m slowing down though, a recent break of painting a landscape during sunset was a refreshing change of pace that I wish to repeat! It was so freeing and loose after these years of tightly controlled detail painting. As to whether or not I’m changing my subject matter, well, that’s what series are for, right?

 

Process and creative flow

Many people ask me questions about my artistic process, and sometimes I find myself a little stumped. They want a peek into how and why artists make what they make, and if the person asking doesn’t make art, it turns out that usually what they want to hear is less technical and more abstract. I started this blog because I wanted a forum for discussing the more technical aspects of oil painting. That’s why it’s called what it’s called. As I go through the process of teaching myself how to glaze flesh tones over verdaccio and grisaille, as I go back and forth between indirect and wet on wet pieces, and as I explore the possibilities of the medium that I love so dearly, it would be great to have a public place to share all these things with other people who are also learning or interested.  But I’m realizing that actually, I also want to use the blog as a forum to tell my story and to explain to a degree why I make what I make. Talking to people directly about my work is absolutely something I must learn to do with ease and grace, but like many artists, I am heavily introverted, and am more comfortable alone in the studio.

I get asked often where my ideas come from. The honest truth is, they come from everywhere. They come from articles I read, people I know, from conversations I have, and they come from my personal writing practice as well. When I become very stumped for ideas, I take strange photos of myself. That is how quite a few of my paintings have been born. I greatly admire those artists who start with what they want to say, and build a piece around it. I have only successfully managed that a few times. Very often, I start with a basic idea or image, and I allow it to grow organically. I may allow a piece to sit in my head for a year or more before I decide it’s ready to be developed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Dream before Sleep, 2009

Sometimes the images finalize themselves in that space just before sleep, when the conscious and subconscious are brushing up against each other. That’s where this old painting comes from. The butterflies are ideas being born. The figure is illustratively cartoonish, because I jumped out of bed and made it.

I will admit something personal – sometimes I make a painting and I don’t understand it until I’ve stared at it for a really long time – days, weeks, even months. Sometimes I paint what I admire, things I want to do, but don’t because learning the skill seems intimidating, and I’d rather paint. I’ve been playing guitar on and off for about two decades, and will likely never get that good at it, but the desire to play guitar has never left me, so I continue to play it maybe once a week or once a month, but that’s not enough to steadily improve. Instead, I made paintings about women with guitar necks, and then spines.

I imagined vertebra morphing into tuning keys, and these two paintings are the outcome of this imagining. And yes, of course I am fully aware of Man Ray’s’ Le Violon D’Angres. There was a procession of images that lead to the guitar spines however. It started with the Guitar Neck Woman, a painting from around 2010 that I wish were more technically proficient, but hey, we all start out somewhere. I strive to always grow and improve, hopefully for the rest of my days. If you think that’s strange, you should know the Guitar Neck Women I used to doodle evolved into Guitar Neck Peacock Women. Then the necks became like vacuum hoses. That got really weird.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We all start somewhere. Gosh, this is strange.

 

It’s fun to see the progress though, and I hope that by showing older works it might inspire one of the many people I meet who tell me they tried to make art, but it wasn’t any good so they gave up. Don’t give up. That’s what it takes if you feel discouraged about making art. The saying for poems is the same for making art. Write one hundred poems. Throw them out. Write one hundred more. Some of those will be good poems. So maybe don’t actually throw out your paintings – maybe just paint over them. I’ve made scores of paintings that don’t exist anymore, because they were bad. I’ve even burned a few, and out of all of those destroyed pieces, I only regret destroying three of them. So be careful about what you destroy, but if you need the canvas to make another painting, just do it. You need to make a lot of bad paintings to figure out how to make a good painting, and man, those bad paintings take up so much space.

(Note – I wrote a post today for the first time in forever, and then found this half finished draft saved and forgotten, so I went ahead and finished it.)