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!