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To Varnish or Not to Varnish?

(Sharon Leah) #1

I like the way paintings look after a coat of varnish is added, but I have some concern about varnishing my small paintings too soon. I’m curious about what other artists are doing. Do you varnish paintings before sending them to buyers? Why or why not? How long do you wait before you varnish a painting? Feel free to post any thoughts about or experiences you’ve had about varnishing your daily paintings.

(Sharon Yarbrough) #2

I like the varnished look as well. I use Gamblin Gamvar. Here is what they say about when to varnish:

When to varnish
For most paintings, there is no need to wait 6 to 12 months before varnishing with Gamvar. Gamvar can be applied when the thickest areas of your painting are thoroughly dry and firm to the touch. Gently press your fingernail into the thickest area of paint. If it is firm underneath the surface, then it is ready for varnishing.

(Kathy Guenkel) #3

I also use Gamblin Gamvar. It may be a bit too shiny for my taste, depending on the surface I’m using, so I’ve started mixing in the cold wax medium. They have a video tutorial on the gamblin site to demo this. I also could cut down the varnish with gamsol to control the shine as well. Even if the result is matte,it gives me the assurance that an extra layer is protecting the surface.

(Sharon Leah) #4

Thank you Sharon and Kathy for sharing information your tips, process, and the products you use. Lots of online information suggested that varnishing before 6 months or a year was too soon, but I didn’t want to send paintings without varnish. So I have applied Grumbacher picture varnish to some of my paintings, even though I felt concerned about it.

Next time I’m in an art supply store, I’m going to look at the Gamvar products.

(Donna Walker) #5

I have debated this issue too. There really is no perfect answer. I have worked with several art conservators over the last 20 years and have asked for their thoughts on varnish—they absolutely do not recommend varnishing paintings before 6 mos to a year, if at all. The problem is that the varnish will adhere to the paint if the oil paint is not completely dry, and in the future this will make varnish removal impossible. Once a varnish has aged and is dirty or has turned yellow or there is an underlying issue with the painting, a collector will want a conservator to be able to remove it without removing any of the original color.

Gamvar does look like a great product, but it is relatively new and no one knows how it will last or the ease of removal or what solvent is used for removal. I paint in very thick layers, and they are not perfectly dry until a year (even though they feel dry after 10 days, and can be safely shipped and hung at this time.) I do not varnish my paintings based on the talks I have had with art conservators. For me this is the safest thing to do, as I sell my paintings and do not have them sitting in my studio for a year. There is enough sheen for me, and if the painting gets dirty in the future, the dust and grime is far easier to remove than an unknown varnish. It can always be varnished with a safe varnish in the future too. The varnishes museums use are archival and safe for older paintings, not for oil paint that is only a few weeks old.

If you are set on varnishing, contact an art conservator in your area, and ask questions. You can find them via Google or AIC website (American Institute of Conservators).

(Connie McLennan) #6

Appreciate your thoughtful and informed answer. I’m sure it’s right, though I don’t much like it. I’m thinking that unless it happens a lot faster than I’ve noticed, by the time “a varnish has aged and is dirty or has turned yellow,” I’ll probably be dead. :smile:

(Donna Walker) #7


First of all, my answer was directed at artists who do care what happens to their paintings in the future. Whether the artist is alive or not is irrelevent. If I have sold a painting to a client, I want it to be of the best materials, and of the best quality. (And yes, some varnishes yellow within 20 years…I hope to be alive in 20 years.) :slight_smile:

Secondly, it is entirely up to the artist whether to varnish or not. Both options have been used throughout history, there is no right answer. All I am saying, is if you choose to varnish, do some research, talk to conservators, they are very very knowledgeable and have experience in the effects of various materials. Gamvar seems to be the best product out there, but I would still hesitate to use it on a painting that is only days or weeks old.

No offense intended, but I think all artists should care what happens to their work: what we may think of as an unimportant painting, may mean the world to someone who now owns it. They may want to pass it down to their family. The “Value” of something is different to each individual.

This is just my opion of course. I know that artists are notorious for not caring about the longevity of their work, (esp in the last 100 years) but I have worked as an assistant to conservators, so I see it from a different viewpoint.

My best to you, happy painting, – your work is beautiful.

(Connie McLennan) #8

Donna, I do care enough to appreciate your expertise and discussion and keep an open mind. I am pretty conscientious about using archival materials and methods, but the varnish question is a real dilemma for me. I like to deliver a product that looks really polished and “finished” in every way, and a light varnish makes such a difference.

I typically use a mixture of Gamvar and cold wax, brushed out as thin as possible. I have removed Gamvar with turpentine, for one reason or another, without damaging a painting–though obviously not after it has been on for 20 years. I guess it remains to be seen how much it might adhere and/or yellow after that long. I think that is one way the company has tried to make it an improvement over Damar. Cold wax also can be used as a medium, so I wonder how much yellowing is a concern with that. Aside from whatever yellowing occurs, can’t paintings be cleaned with picture cleaner formulated for removing surface dirt without removing the varnish?

Thanks for the compliment. I guess I am just doubtful that anyone 25 or 50 years from now would go to the expense of having a conservator fully strip and re-varnish one of my little (super reasonably priced) “daily paintings”–and hopeful the final step products I use won’t require that.

(Donna Walker) #9

Thanks for your reply Connie! I am no expert, it is just a topic I have worried about and debated, and is a dilemma for me too.
I didn’t imply Gamvar would yellow over time, there are numerous reasons a conservator would remove a varnish (an underlying problem in the paint, darkening of the painting, damage to the canvas, etc…) and Gamvar would seem to be one that is easily removed, but I don’t know if that would be the case if it had been applied immediately after painting, rather than waiting 6 mos.
And to answer your question, yes a painting can be cleaned without removing a varnish, this is the best possible situation. Surface dirt can be cleaned – sometimes with just water or spit— however there is no “picture cleaner”. There are hundreds of solvent mixtures and gels used to clean dirt, varnish, synthetic or natural, etc… A conservator is needed as they know how to test solvents, and what steps to take, what is safe to use… I have seen a lot of paintings that were damaged by old and or bad conservation. I have also seen many paintings that have no retail or market value --but that are very important to an owner-- that cannot be cleaned or repaired because there is a problem with removing a varnish.
Just a thought—Van Gogh did several of his paintings in one day, and many people thought they did not have much value…(ditto for many Impressionists, any alla prima painting, etc). So who knows what the future value will be.

And I am absolutely not saying you are wrong to varnish when you do. I do not know — it may turn out it is perfectly fine to use Gamvar in the first month of painting, but for me I would rather not risk it. A painting can always be varnished in the future. I am also curious about the addition of wax to the surface, and how that affects the painting.

I have also seen new paintings ( a year old or less) that have been completely destroyed by plastic wrap or bubble wrap, which was used for shipping, either melting onto the surface or leaving imprints. New paintings that appear dry are still delicate until completely cured.

I don’t mean to be so long in my answers, it is just a complicated issue.

(Connie McLennan) #10

I guess we have hashed this over to the extent of our respective knowledge, with no clear answer. My only other comment is that even having all the information, people might reach different conclusions. In saying they absolutely do not recommend varnishing before 6 mo. to a year if at all, art conservators might have slightly different priorities from painters or owners. Where conservators’ experiences in restoring historical and/or valuable works might make them abhor having to deal with varnish at all, a painter or owner might choose to give more priority to how a painting looks now, as opposed to any concerns (major or minor) about possible restoration decades down the road. I wish I knew the best direction to err.

As noted in many places, online discussion can be touchy. I hope participants here can always learn, debate and even disagree without anyone being offended. I wouldn’t worry about long answers–isn’t discussion the point of a discussion board? Anyone bored or annoyed can always stop reading.

(Sharon Leah) #11

Donna and Connie, thank you for contributing to this discussion. I really appreciate your points of view and knowledge about varnishing pictures.There is a lot of conflicting information out there. Probably the safest thing to do is to do nothing, when considering longevity for the work. But I also don’t worry about whether or not my picture will still be around in 50 or 100 years, and if it is, I doubt that it will be in a museum. If it is, the conservator will just have to be upset with me. : )

I don’t tend to mix much stand oil into my paint, so my paintings don’t have a natural “shine” when they dry.So I do like the little extra shine that varnish gives a painting. I’m not sure what I’ll do in the future, but I do feel better informed now.

Donna, you brought up a good point about paintings being destroyed by plastic wrap, etc. when shipped. I have come up with a different solution for shipping. I use illustration board scraps (scraps of matting material would work, too) to make a “nest” to protect my paintings during shipping. If I’m shipping a 6x6 inch painting, I cut two 6x7-inch pieces of illustration board. Then I cut six 1/2 inch x 6" pieces. I stack 3 pieces on each side of the large “bottom” piece and tape them in place. They keep the painting from sliding around and the stack is a little higher than my painting (I paint on panels). I put the “top” over the painting and tape it on all four sides. I put the protected painting in a padded envelop and ship it. The process is a little putsy, but I’m charging for shipping/handling, so I’m compensated and the paintings are safe (at least during shipping).

How to send 6x6 oil varnished paintings; dry time?
(Donna Walker) #12

I am always glad to participate in a discussion, that’s what this forum is for. I’d love to hear a lot more artists’ points of view.

I did not imply that conservators ‘abhor’ dealing with varnish! They don’t! There is a very real use for varnish- protecting a painting from the elements and dirt. And the aesthetic look. Conservators use several different varnishes for different effects, uses, supports. They debate the merits and problems with each of them. There are many papers written and forums discussed and ongoing research. They go through a long educational process, graduate school, fellowships, interns and ongoing classes to study the chemistry and merits of materials. So I think if anyone would like more information, a local conservator is a great place to start.

BUT there are plenty of artists (now and throughout history) who do not varnish their paintings, and that is why I used the term “if at all”. It is up to the individual artist. Conservators and artists are not on opposite sides of the discussion.

I am only responding to why someone should care about what they use or how a varnish is used. And again, I do not say I have the answer. I also said who knows how “historical or valuable” a painting will be in the future? They are not neccessarily “museum quality” paintings either. Privately owned paintings hold a lot of meaning and value for their owners whether they have any market value or not. Just as you want archival paints and supports, archivally using a varnish is of equal importance.

Sharon- thanks for bringing up this topic! And it sounds like you have found the perfect solution to shipping your paintings.

(Connie McLennan) #13

Thanks, again. Notice I used a lot of “might’s” and “may’s”. I am not a conservator and certainly don’t want to lead anyone astray or persuade anyone to make a wrong decision. Maybe I should include a disclaimer: “Warning: this painting may self-destruct in an unknown number of years.” :smile:

For shipping: might waxed paper be a good buffer between a painting’s surface and anything that might contact it?

(J. Dunster) #14

I just use simple retouch varnish (Damar). It gives the painting a gloss, evens out the parts that have “sunk” or turned matte, but it’s easy to remove and can be applied to paintings that are dry to the touch. At least that’s what I’ve been led to believe.

I have used the regular varnishes on paintings that are older than 6 months old, since I paint relatively thinly I’m pretty sure they’re “dry enough.” However, if there is some debate over whether regular varnish is good, then I can just stick with Damar.

(Gary Westlake) #15

Here is a varnishing video that might be of interest

(Sharon Leah) #16

Thanks, Gary, for posting the video. After I watched How to Varnish a Painting, I also watched Skye Talyor’s video on pricing artwork. More good information!

(Donna Walker) #17

Hi J.–
Just to give you a bit of information— Damar is a “regular” varnish. It has been around for at least 200 years so its properties and effects have been studied a lot. While it is a traditional varnish, the downsides are that it will yellow and/or darken over time (in as little as 15 or 20 years), and it does bind (crosslink) to the paint layer, making it difficult to remove in the future without damaging the painting.

I found an interesting thread on this painting forum, if you would like to read more about it:

I am going to do a bit more research myself but I believe Gamvar is the best varnish out there, I have just been leary of using any varnish prior to 6 mos. drying time. (as is Sharon-who started this topic thread).

(Gary Westlake) #18

I was reading my copy of Ray Smith’s The Artist’s Handbook (This one goes way back but has been revised and updated). On varnishing it says:

"The chapter on oil painting has pointed out the dangers of using excessive amounts of resin varnish in the painting medium. An artist who has done so may find, for instance, that detailed work on the surface of the painting is dissolved and dispersed by brushing resin varnish on top. This is because the resin in the paint layer is redissolved by the solvent in the varnish. Such an effect may also occur many years later when the old yellow varnish comes to be removed and the solvents used to do so can disturb the original paint.

The answer is to rely on drying oils and diluents alone when manipulating the oil paint. This makes for a wide (and therefore safe) solubility gap between the dried paint film and the varnish. Any of the resin varnishes discussed above are suitable for oil painting. Damar is the traditional choice, giving high gloss. Ketone is a modern and probabloy less yellowing alternative. The excellent and slightly less glossy B67 is beginning to be available to artists."


even if you don’t varnish but use damar in your medium, you run the risk if an owner down the line decides to varnish your painting?

what is B67? anyone know?

(Gary Westlake) #19

Here is a perhaps naive question. If I care more now about evening out the depth of colour on my painting, is there not something that I could apply to the surface of the paint that would bind to the paint, even out the gloss and depth of colour, as well as make it less prone to dust and grime, and would stay separate from any varnish applied in future? Would the process of oiling out after the painting is finished and dry to the touch using a quality linseed oil work?

(Donna Walker) #20

Hi Gary-

I agree, personally I would not use damar mixed with my oil paints for the reasons above.

I am not an expert, but I believe B67 is a synthetic resin varnish. It is used by art conservators, not as stable as B72. These resins are purchased raw by conservators and require highly toxic solvents (xylene or acetone) to dissolve them into a varnish. They are not typically used on new paintings or available commercially for artists. A lot of considerations go into when and why these would be used by a conservator.