Varnishing Your Paintings

Part of this article is a repeat from an earlier newsletter but still seems to be a subject confusing to many so here I try to take the mystery out of the somewhat confusing science of picture varnishing.

Varnishing a painting serves two main purposes, the first, and probably most important is that it protects the paint surface from unwanted airborne particles like pollen, smoke (though not so much these days), general air pollution and steam which can carry grease. The second is that it is a way to even out the shine or dullness of a painting, there are other ways to do this which I’ll discuss later in this article. So varnishing is quite an important step to aid the long-term protection of your masterpieces.

Having decided to varnish your painting you next need to decide whether to use the more traditional gloss varnish which has the effect of intensifying the colours but can cause viewing problems when seen in such circumstances as a raking light. Alternatively, you can use a satin varnish which intensifies the colours to a slightly lesser degree but is slightly better for viewing in strong light, or your third option is to use a Matt varnish which alleviates the problems associated with viewing in strong light but tends to make the colours look a little dead.

When should you varnish your painting?

You should leave a painting for at least six to nine months before varnishing with whichever picture varnish you have chosen, or longer, at least a year to eighteen months if you have used ‘impasto’ painting methods. The reason for this is the same as painting using the ‘fat on lean’ principle of application, in short, if your painting is touch dry but is still going through the drying process and you put a layer of varnish on top of that, the varnish will dry and harden very much faster than your oil paint, your paint continues to dry shrinking slightly in the process causing the hard layer of varnish to crack. However, you can varnish a painting as soon as it is touch dry all over with a special varnish called ‘Re-touch Varnish’ this varnish is specially formulated to remain flexible whilst giving your painting the protection from all of the things mentioned above and then at the right time you can varnish with your chosen, normal picture varnish, however, at present there isn’t a water soluble re-touch varnish available so clean up would entail the use of standard thinners or mineral spirits.

Are there any suitable water-mixable varnishes?

Winsor & Newton produce a range of ‘Artisan’ varnishes which are designed for use on water-mixable oil paintings maintaining the advantage of being able to clean up with soap and water and avoid the noxious fumes associated with the traditional varnishes and thinners. These are available in the traditional finishes of gloss, satin and matt.

For further details follow this link…

Cautionary Note

Water-mixable ‘Artisan’ and ordinary varnishes should not be used as mediums to be mixed with oil paint!

Oiling Out and Other Techniques

The Causes of ‘Sinking’

When you have areas of ‘sinking’ on an oil painting these show as dull patches, many things can cause these sunken, dull patches and it is all due to varying levels of oil in the paint used. This can be due to the use of too much water, not enough oil in the latter layers of paint (fat on lean), too absorbent a ‘ground’, the underlying surface. Not enough painting medium in the latter mixes especially in mixes containing a high proportion of the earth colours are most likely to appear dull, the reason for this is that the pigments actually in the paint are more absorbing than the pigments in other colours, i.e., many ‘chemical’ or ‘metallic’ pigmented colours will dry shinier as they absorb less of the oil or painting medium, Titanium White for instance.

How do I Combat ‘Sinking’?

It would be virtually impossible to paint and get the levels of oil uniform across all your colour mixes so the easiest way to deal with the resulting ‘sinking’ is to use a technique known as ‘oiling out’ and this can be done using a variety of products. The most used is probably linseed oil; it is a relatively simple technique requiring just a piece of lint free, soft cloth, which you wrap around the end of your chosen digit (finger), dip into a small quantity of the oil, and using small circular movements gently rub into the sunken area of your painting until it takes on the same degree of sheen as the surrounding areas. Obviously, the paint must be dry before attempting this so I would suggest allowing at least seven days after your final brushstroke was applied, this will ensure you don’t loosen and smudge any paint. Personally, I use Safflower oil for ‘oiling out’ as it is less yellow than Linseed oil and therefore has less of an effect on pale colours.

There are other products that can be used to ‘oil out’ and I will only mention a few here so as not to over complicate the issue. You could use ‘Painting Medium’, poppy oil, walnut oil among others , Linseed, Safflower or your preparatory painting medium as I’ve already mentioned.

Varnishing with Wax

There is also the option of using a ‘Wax Varnish’ which has a few advantages over traditional picture varnishes. It can be applied using the same technique as for ‘oiling out’, rubbed on with a soft, lint free cloth once the painting is thoroughly touch dry for instance, seven days after finishing. Wax Varnish is a soft paste of Beeswax mixed with a mild spirit which evaporates leaving just the wax on the surface which can be left as a fairly matt finish or can be gently buffed to a satin finish or somewhere subtly in between according to preference. So, the advantages are, not having to wait 6 to 9 months before application, you can get a lovely, even, subtle finish and it can easily be removed should the need ever arise. I like and use the Winsor and Newton Oil Colour Wax Varnish which is purely a beeswax dissolved in white spirit and as I mentioned the spirit evaporates leaving only the beeswax on the painting surface and contains no resins so will never crack. MI