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!

Impact Crack in Painting! No!!!

*This post has been edited because I included information about mounting canvas to panel and I have learned a great deal about conservation techniques since writing it.  3/19/18

Hello again, so soon! I’m really sad to have discovered a circular impact crack in one of my most favorite paintings – Wood vs Muscle from 2012. This painting is the sister companion of a painting from 2007, Infrastructure.While not as technically proficient as earlier pieces, they both hold a special place in my heart for the concepts they broach. I have already talked about this piece, but now I have to discuss options for fixing it. It’s not looking good. Consider this instead, a cautionary tale.

Linda Wandt, Surreal Self Portrait, Self Portrait, Female Oil Painters
Wood vs Muscle, 2012 by Linda Wandt

Once you have a cracked painting, there isn’t much you can do for it. That’s why it’s best to be mindful of the Fat over Lean principle, and to work on high quality substrates, and to be so very careful during transport. This painting is from a short period where I was trying out linen instead of cotton duck canvas. I bought a few prestretched linen canvases, and I have had nothing but bad luck with this particular brand, which had been sworn off before I just recently discovered the damaged to this favored painting. I still stand by (more so then ever) stretching my own and not buying premade. I have read about stretching linen, and tried it once and it was much more difficult then stretching cotton duck. My understanding is that many professionals buy super expensive linen, stretch a large amount onto a chassis and then prime it. They then cut out the amount they need for a smaller chassis, and stretch the preprimed linen. I haven’t gotten this far yet, because I can’t afford the fancy expensive linen yet. (A hopeful “yet” indeed.) So I settled for trying the cheap kind, and I have regretted it due to cracking, now in both of those paintings. Not cracking from badly constructed paint films – a more painful kind, impact cracks. These cracks are certainly my fault, clearly the painting was not handled well at some point, and I have no one to blame but myself (I think). I don’t recall *when* this damage was done, but I do transport the pieces often, and surely that’s how this happened. But to be sure, never again will I paint on cheap thin linen. Linen is supposed to be superior to cotton duck – the fibers are stronger (it’s made from flax, the same as linseed oil!) and it will last years and years beyond the point when cotton duck will eventually begin to rot with age. Sure, the canvas will rot well after my lifetime. I don’t mean this will happen anytime soon. But longevity is what I am after, and linen is fancy and pro, and supposedly stronger. The elasticity is what gives it this strength, however what this means is it’s more elastic. Linen will loosen up while you work on it. It’s very different feeling then canvas.  So while being technically a stronger weave, linen damages and dents easily. I know, it’s a tough pill to swallow. All of this is prefaced however with the disclaimer that I have never painted on fancy heavy expensive linen. I would like to try it, but this experience has perhaps ruined me on the idea, and for medium to small images I might stick to panel from now on.

Let’s look at the damage and discuss what to do – life isn’t perfect, and shit happens. It can’t actually be fixed, but I tried to minimize the damage. When either cotton duck or linen start to sag or get loose, or you find a dent, the first thing to do is try brushing the back with water. That’s the most simple solution usually. You don’t want to soak it, just brush a small amount evenly and this will tighten the fibers back up. My best option for “fixing” it is a long hard road – removing the linen from the stretcher, mounting it to a panel with PVA* or high quality acrylic gel medium (I have found gel medium to work better then PVA, but you must work quickly and it’s tricky to do) and then I’d have to remove all of the varnish to paint over the crack. It’s not possible to remove just the varnish in one area, and replace it and have it look like that isn’t exactly what I did.  Looong Sigh. Removing varnish is a serious, slow, laborious task and I never want to have to do it ever. I am not a conservator, that is not a degree that I carry, and I have no desire to spend hours meticulously performing this act huffing harsh solvents trying to get it all off evenly and perfectly. I am now refraining from going off on a tangent about varnishes. Not the point of this post, not the point of this post… but real fast, if you haven’t tried Gamvar yet, I highly recommend it. I discovered its wonders a mere year ago, and I’m never going back.

Once I have theoretically removed all of the varnish without horribly damaging my painting, then I could use some Cold Wax Medium or Acrylic Gel Medium in the deepest part of the crack, to sorta fill it in. Then I could attempted to paint over the crack. Would this work? I have no idea. Oil paint layers thin and become more transparent over time. Back to the plate of spaghetti analogy. I highly suspect the crack would still be visible in the end, after all that work, but at least the crack would not be at risk for getting larger.

In the end, as seen in the photo above, I “fixed” it the lazy way. I used wax, referred to my amazing studio notes from 2012, found the recipe for the colors I used (at least the crack isn’t on the figure!) and painted – YUP! – over the varnish. I so totally admit I did this. Is is sooo bad? (The answer is yes.)  This painting will forever hang in my home now, it is absolutely not fit for gallery presentation now, so there ya go. I might make it again, on panel, for gallery presentation. I was never actually happy with the hair anyway, or how you could see the hard lines of the shoulders under the layer above. Many lessons to be learned, including this one – keep impeccable studio notes. You will thank yourself one day. Comments, suggestions and pointers are all very welcome.

*Edit – I say to use PVA or gel medium to mount canvas or linen to panel, and I really want to stress that this is NOT how conservators work. It might be done for a small piece that is going on archival panel, but in real painting restoration there are materials used to preserve the piece without permanently altering it. Using PVA is permanent. Cracks can be fixed to a larger degree then I thought, but it requires relining the piece on new linen and using wax as the adhesive. It also requires ironing the piece, and it’s a huge, tedious process. Spot touch inpainting could be done over a layer of varnish, the key is that it’s not on the original paint. Things are different when a conservator is working to preserve the piece, versus the artist them self.

Edit * I decided to go ahead and try the fancy linen after all. I don’t feel one brand is sufficient to make my mind up about the nature of linen et all. I special ordered a 39.5 x 42.5 sheet of Artfix preprimed Belgium Linen and I will definitely describe my experience with it once I try it out!