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!

“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 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!

Writing Bios makes me question everything. Which is great.

I’ve written a million bios at this point. Well, maybe 50 to be really honest, but it seems like it’s taken me ten years and 48 different versions of it to finally start chipping away the extra stuff and get down to the heart of describing proficiently who I am, and what I am doing with painting. I wrote my 50th or so Bio today for a show and it finally seems to be a cohesive message with clear meaning. I hope. I’m still wish-washing between the third person and first person battle though. We all agree, I think – writing about yourself in the third person is weird, uncomfortable and feels stifled. Let’s face it as well, most people hate writing their bios. It’s so crucial to defining your practice though, that if I was teaching painting to third year college students I would make them write a new one every other week. They would despise me for this, unquestionably, but the ones who continued on to a daily art practice after graduating would thank me for it. I think.

After years of the same over poetic, long-winded bio, I started getting critical of it finally. The procrastination of this process is pretty amazing. I’m impressed it’s taken me so long to realize how valuable it actually is. Not just for describing who I am to others so they can place me in whatever box is needed as per human categorization and processing goes, but really more so for myself and gaining a deeper understanding of what my mission statement is a painter. Naturally as the years pass, your statement should be changing and growing with you. Here’s the new one I wrote today, which is not perfect whatsoever, but a heck of a lot better then previous attempts.

“Linda Wandt is an Austin based oil painter who primarily creates surreal portraiture and figurative works. Originally from Long Island, NY, she moved to Texas in 2000 and attended UT Austin from 2003-2006 where she obtained a BA in Studio Art while also focusing on literature and philosophy. Through painting, Linda is trying to explore the topics of forging identity, what it means to be female in the present as well as in the past, and examining the subconscious and how it interacts with the conscious mind. The narratives and characters in her pieces which often involve flora and fauna as well, invite the viewer to question these topics in their own way.”

Writing this bio today made me excited. My work has jumped all over the place over the years in both style and direction. I don’t view that as bad, I’ve just been painting whatever the heck I’ve wanted, which is what anyone should be doing. I paint a lot of models from life, but I’ve also been painting bees, owls, venus fly traps and llamas and my favorite musicians or authors or other painters and I’ve been painting the conceptual pieces that represent what I’m *actually* trying to convey. The thing is, these things are all connected in some way. It’s just not possible to see that sometimes, not until years later. I’m starting to connect the dots now, and my paintings don’t feel as random anymore. A teacher once said “You don’t reinvent the wheel with each painting. Each piece should lead you to the next”. I’d make a painting in 2007 and then have the idea for the next in that “series” 7 years later. In present time, I can start making the pieces I want with a closer technical skill to what I desire from what I produce, but those older pieces still hold space with me, and contribute to what I make now.

Today’s bio is succinct for the purpose of the show, it’s cohesive enough to get the basic point across, but I found myself still wanting to write when it was done. Those three topics I described in the bio break it down into easily digestible snippets. It’s more complex then that though, and again comes the questions I’ve been dodging for years – Am I a feminist painter? Yes if you count how I ultimately want to depict my female subjects, as minds in clothed bodies with thoughts and dreams and daring to brush up against the edges of reality in their quests for greater understanding of themselves and their places in the universe. What I just wrote leads me to understand that the pieces are surreal, sure, but also existential. Some of the pieces are not strictly about a female experience though, and within that context could be interpreted far from what was intended. Smokescreen and Instinct vs Intellect especially, those pieces portray women representing humanity, outside of the gender bias. Microcosm as well, the figure in that piece represents all of us. I feel so strongly about that, and have found no other place to express it then here. I used female figures for them merely because that is the filter though which I understand everything around me. These paintings are societal commentaries. The first two reflect American problems, to be even more specific, the first is political protest, the latter a comment on our relationship with nature. Microcosm reflects on possibility, that we are but one consciousness amid the multiple possibilities, the universes at the ends of the forks in the horns and the keys and locks representing what we do along our paths, and that is not to speak of one gender. We are a micro in a macro. I couldn’t find the room to express this in the bio,  while there was a strong sense of satisfaction from it, it prompted the need to keep typing.

The pieces are not random, not at all. I need the bio and statement writing to keep myself on track sometimes though. A family member once looked at one of my earlier paintings (The Queen of Bones to be specific, a nearly disturbing painting, true) and they just shook their head, and said “I could never look so deeply within myself. I’d be afraid too.” We as painters get to do this, if we choose to. It’s important that we do this. It’s important that we go to the scary places, that we search the depths of our psyches. It’s important that we perform this function for society as well, and reflect back to it what we see in it.

So before I digress more here’s the idea – if you make paintings and haven’t really been focusing on bios/statements, write one. Then write it again. Then again. It’s like burning your first 100 poems before you write a good poem. I’ve burned several of my paintings at this point, and I’m really glad I have. I’ve painted over many more then I’ve burned. My catalogue at this point is just over 100 (I realize that is not a lot), and I’ve destroyed or sanded off and covered the same amount or more I’d wager. This applies to the entire process of refining what you do, to growing over time. Don’t change the bio or statement you’ve already written, a mistake I’ve made so many times. Start it over again from scratch. Over and over again.

p.s. I’m sorry there were no images in this post. I’ll do better next time! I haven’t gotten around the Zorn palette like I said I would in the last post, which was a long time ago, but more about color to come!