To varnish or not to varnish…

So, you have finished your paintings and they have cured and you are now faced with the question of whether or not to varnish them. For some artists, this is not even a question. Of course you varnish oil paintings. Everyone varnishes oil paintings…but do they?

There are a multitude of reasons behind why you should varnish your paintings-protection against fading and UV rays, easier to protect and clean etcetc…and with modern compounds, there is not quite the same risk of yellowing or fogging as in past years. But there are also many artists who are choosing not to varnish (heretics though they may be called) and I am leaning towards that faction.

On the one hand, I would love to regain that wet gloss look of freshly applied paint with some of my paintings, and I understand the long-term benefits. On the other hand, there is a certain sense of purity to the unvarnished painting where the tones and colours have not been evened out by adding a layer to it that really wasn’t originally intended. There are some paintings where I do not WANT it evened out, preferring that patchy, scratchy unevenness that gave the painting its original feel. And with some of my more highly textured pieces, the risk of having pools of varnish, no matter how carefully applied, stuck in the crevices really does not appeal to me. How many of the now considered masterpieces were NOT varnished, and how many artists over the years have deliberately chosen not to varnish? And why is it today, that if you choose not to varnish, it suddenly becomes a question of professional acumen?

So, to varnish or not, the debate continues…


8 comments on “To varnish or not to varnish…

  1. PictureS says:

    With regard to traditional oil paintings, before varnishing is the issue of ‘oiling out’. Different pigments react differently with the medium in which they are carried, hence the dull and glossy patches. The ‘oiling out’ returns the painting to the original condition as envisaged by the artist. As such its a more important issue than varnishing. Traditional mediums are OK, modern alkyd additives (eg. Liquin) will bond permanently with varnish, even so called temporary varnishes. I think this is where the fear of varnishing comes from.

    • Thanks so much for more details and info! Truth be told, I am learning much as I go along, most of it is gut instinct as far as technique, but the technical hints and tips (even though I am sure they are “basics” for many) are truly helpful as they force me to look up, learn and grow. I understand now what you mean about “oiling out” (having read up on it some more). My earliest works where I used too much Liquin and mostly a fan brush suffer from a need of this (and now that I know what it is, I can recognize it :o)). In general though, would you suggest Liquin for oiling out, or a mixture of other sorts? For most of my later stuff which is much heavier layering and impasto, do you think “oiling out” is a necessary process? And if you use Liquin, what on earth do people do who want to varnish? The last thing I would want to do is varnish something, mess it up and then be stuck! Love learning learning learning…thanks! annie

      • PictureS says:

        I go into this in more detail on my blog. Basically, Liquin is liquid only because its molecules are surrounded by solvent. When the solvent evaporates the Liquin becomes solid. Reintroduce the solvent (as in varnish) and the Liquin molecules in contact, become liquid again. In other words, the skin of the painting will mix with the varnish and when the solvent evaporates the two are bound together. Removing the varnish (for cleaning) with solvent will also remove the paint skin. Revarnishing starts the whole process again. Linseed Oil oxidises in an irreversible reaction and will be unaffected by solvents. So ‘oiling out’ should be done only with a vegetable oil like Linseed Oil. Windsor & Newton mention this (obliquely) on their web site.

      • Techncial question for you regarding two different paintings. I may have messed up one painting (boht in the process as is was early and I was still learning/experimenting/and with the oiling out). This particular painting seems to be seeping oil droplets. It was a very heavy impasto, wet on wet technique (which I know I screwed up since the liquin ran down while it was curing). It seemed to be cured. I brought it up from my work area (which is cool and have dehumidifier on) to take it out and do the side edges. By the time I got to it, it was pooling droplets of oil. Suggestions as to the reason? And on another one, stupid me used the liquin to oil on, and it seems to have formed little bits in places similar to what you might find after using a glue gun (for lack of better description). This one was done with a brush and very little paint. Finally, have you ever used walnut oil to oil out? Walnut oil seems to be the current new fave around here for various artists.

      • PictureS says:

        In reply to your ‘Technical Question, July 3rd’. In traditional oil painting the brush is dipped into the medium and gets mixed with the paint both on the palette and canvas. Also the paint layer is usually a thin film on the canvas. I don’t dip the brush, I use a pipette to drop the medium onto the paint on the palette where I mix it thoroughly with a knife. The seeping oil is probably caused by the paint and medium not being a homogenous paste (ie pockets of medium within the paint). As the paint hardens or dries it shrinks. This shrinkage will occur before the paint fully dries if there was solvent used in the medium, as the solvent evaporates first. So its the paint layer shrinking which squeezes out the medium in droplets. If its possible you should remove the droplets with a bristle brush before they harden. Excess oil is then removed from the brush with an absorbent tissue. Distributing some of the oil thinly over the paint will effectively be ‘oiling out’ the paint and might disguise any hardened oil.
        In future, remember there is a special medium for painting thick impasto.
        Regarding the excess Liquin. Windsor & Newton recommend the absolute minimum of medium be used, using solvent to thin the paint if you want to paint in very thin layers.
        Walnut Oil, I’ve never used it and don’t have any info on its use.
        Please let me know how you get on with the ‘seeping oil’ problem.

      • Thank you! This makes quite a bit of sense when I think of what I was doing with this painting. Chances are that it was a combination of poorly mixed medium/paint and application, because it is almost exactly as you described. I’ve tried to oil out with the excess, but I think I will end up just tossing the painting and chalking it up to experience and lesson learned. The walnut oil was suggested by a number of people here as both medium and for oiling out. The problem I found was that since I use Liquin while painting, when I tried to oil out with the Walnut oil, it was almost as if there was a reaction between the surface and the walnut oil with the oil evenutally forming droplets (almost as if you had water on an oil surface) which had to be continually worked back in after period of time. Interesting. Perhaps I should just stick with Linseed? thanks so much for sharing your knowledge!

      • PictureS says:

        You’re welcome.

  2. I should have gone through and read the “varnishing for dummies” section before replying lol…which, I did… afterwards. I still am not sure if varnishing is what I want to do, because from the sounds of this (if i am understanding everything correctly) since I have used Liquin in some form or another for most of my work (with the exception of some of the really heavier parts which I used nothing) then I would need to “oil out” afterwards the whole painting to counter the effect of the Liquin and form a base before applying the varnish to stop the varnish which is supposed to protect the painting from adhering to the painting. Sheesh, and another 7 months later…but from what I understand I can oil out after the work is done and then if needed glass frame…not sure how that would look on some of the heavier impasto…but thanks so much for all the writing you do and all the videos! I promise to go through them bit by bit and absorb as much as I can. And I truly hope some of those hauntily beautiful landscapes are where those spirits who can apperciate them can view them as often as possible, for they are truly lovely.

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