Process: Varnishing an Oil Painting!

January 11, 2013 § 27 Comments

Well, we seemed to have survived the Mayan Apocalypse.  <<<>>>  So, this week I’d like to share process images from varnishing a finished oil painting. Once the oil painting has dried and has had a chance to cure (initially) it is ready for a varnish– which gives it a final protective coat.

Detail of varnished piece.  2013

Detail of Baumgartner (Tree Gardener), Oil on Panel, 2011-2012

Who is this handsome devil applying varnish all willy nilly?

Thank you Sarah Wilmer for helping with these photos!  <<<>>>

Recently, I finished a commissioned oil painting where I used old master glazing techniques. Glazing is done with a series of thin layers of paint and oil medium on top of one another, gradually increasing the amount of oil as you build up each consecutive layer.

Traditionally one way that oil paint is meant to perform is by light passing through each glazed layer and then bouncing off the primed white canvas beneath the paint and then passing back through the layers of glaze.  Historically this action of the light is what gives oil painting a certain luminescence when viewed in person. (I love painting.)

It is important to spread an even coat of varnish.

It is important to spread an even coat of varnish while listening to Moondog.

My preferred tools of destruction. I mean, varnishing.

The Four Horsemen of the Varnipocalypse, 2013.  Aka my preferred tools for varnishing.

My patron who commissioned this work has been very gracious while we have waited for the oil medium to cure enough to be varnished.  If one varnishes too quickly, the varnish itself can crack terribly as the oil glazes below it dry and slowly expand.

Dammar varnish is made from a gum which comes from trees tapped in Southeast Asia and India. I like the quality of Winsor & Newton’s dammar, and I prefer a softer varnish opposed to a high gloss finish. So, I cut the dammar varnish by adding Gamblin’s cold wax medium to it– giving it a velvet like surface. Varnish brings out all of the dark darks which had chalked over in the initial drying stage of the painting process.  It can really revive a piece of art!

Varnish cut with wax.

Varnish: good.  Chalky: bad.

My friend Sarah Wilmer helped me to take some photographs of this artwork when it was finished. I’ll be sure to show those images of the painting as a whole when those pictures ready.  Thanks, Sarah!

If any of you have any insight or opinions about varnishing or oil painting please don’t hesitate to comment as I enjoy hearing from you. 2013 is going to be a good year!

Thanks for reading!  <<<>>>


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§ 27 Responses to Process: Varnishing an Oil Painting!

  • that does look luminous. amazing. it looks terribly fiddly but very interesting. are these techniques easy to learn?

    • Mike Schultz Paintings says:

      Thanks, Janine! I had to google the definition of fiddly. :) Yes! It’s a bit fiddly, but I think you might like it. From an outside perspective you seem to work with a lot of layers and patience. The latter being the only real requirement to learn to glaze in oil. However, once you start and you achieve a certain strength of color that you like it can be very difficult to go back to another medium. Are you still in a situation where you cannot use solvents in your workspace?

      • :( yes unfortunately. (You are right I do enjoy fiddly work) I’m in a tiny flat so dry mediums mostly but it would still be good to look it up for perhaps in the future when I’m not in a small space. I like the sound of it.

      • I just did a quick google and man it looks scarily complicated. I might need to mature a bit before i invest in oils.
        I did take an oil painting class but I’ve forgotten most of it, also the teacher explained most things like this so she put me off quite a bit.

        Me: “Why do we need to use canvasses and not paper?”

        Her: “You just have to.”

      • Mike Schultz Paintings says:

        Worry not! You could totally pick it up. You really just need oil paint, linseed oil, and orderless gamsol to clean it up with. Something tells me your ex might make a fuss, but I actually LOVE the smell of a studio with oil paint.

        Also, your teacher is misinformed. She seems to have forgotten that this is art and we are free to do whatever the hell we’d like to. While living in Brooklyn I painted on paper for years in order to save space, and I know many other painters I respect who do as well. Just buy a thick sheet of printmaking paper (like Rives BKF) or thick watercolor paper.

        I like to prime the paper first with PVA sizing glue (like a fake rabbit skin glue) front and back, and then prime it with gesso 2-3 times and you are good to go!

        From my experience if you do not size it with glue and gesso you run the risk of the paper sucking up the oil and leaving the surface of the painting chalky and oil-less. Also, if the paper you use is not sufficiently thick it will get all wonky and warped.

        You seem to be attracted to these deep, brilliant hues and I think you would be happy with the potency of color you can achieve with oil. Especially the greens and fuchsias that you are using like in your drawing The Christmas Feast.

  • jmro98 says:

    Interesting post, how long do you wait for applying the final varnish coat? I often read you must wait a year or six months. What about yours?

    • Mike Schultz Paintings says:

      I’ve also read that it is best to wait that amount of time. However, older and much more experienced painters than myself have told me that it is entirely dependent on how you paint.

      If you are painting in thin layers and allowing them to adequately dry in between each layer than initially applying a final coat of varnish after a few weeks should be fine.

      I have tried this several times with previous works and after a few years time they have had no problems. Obviously, if you paint thick like Anselm Kiefer you may want to wait until it cures. Thanks for the comment!

      • jmro98 says:

        Thanks! I do work with thin layers, and besides I do use a retouch varnish in between coats, and I did also heard what you’re mentionning, so I guess it would be all right to do it a few weeks…If I wait too long, I tend to forget….old age or laziness…:))), so thanks for the info!

      • Mike Schultz Paintings says:

        If you use retouch varnish in between layers you are much more patient than I am!

        Also, a painter friend told me that adding the wax medium to the varnish makes it more malleable and less likely to have a problem. I am confirming this with him. Thanks for the dialog. I appreciate the comments.

  • Dorte says:

    Mike, the colors do change after varnishing indeed, the texture of the Olly paint is strengthened by the varnish and all the layers add a dimension in time to the painting, it seems. Interesting process!

    • Mike Schultz Paintings says:

      Thank you for the comment, Dorte!

      Yes, the the varnish does bring out the texture, which I really like. It adds a whole other dimension to it as you said. The colors and depth of the darkest parts of the work were really brought back to life. Be well and we’ll talk soon!

  • jackbaumgartner says:

    Good stuff, my friend. I am looking forward to spending some time with this picture in the shop. And I like that picture of you so precisely at your easel.

    • Mike Schultz Paintings says:

      Thanks for the comment, buddy. I can’t wait for this to be in your hands for the framing. I’ll get you the details as soon as I can. Your wooden printmaking press that you just built is astounding. How did you keep that a secret?

      Is it true that wax medium added to dammar varnish makes the varnish more malleable? I believe you had once told me that, and it seems to be the case. Anyway, whenever I write about this technical stuff online I always hope that what I say is accurate.

      • jackbaumgartner says:

        It is true that adding beeswax and oil in small amounts as a medium to oil paint will soften the paint film. Similarly with damar, mixing wax will make it more maleable/ flexible. It may compromise the integrity of the varnish to some extent. I was just seeing what Tad Spurgeon says in his book. Although he doesn’t condemn the practice of mixing beeswax with the varnish, he recommends final varnishing first, then brushing diluted/thinned wax over that. This can then be buffed more or less to achieve a suitable sheen. Spurgeon also recommends the wax ratio within a given oil painting medium to no more than 5% in order for the damar to cure to a suitable hardness. Working on a panel helps because it is a much more stable working surface- less prone to issues with the paint film for various reasons.

      • Mike Schultz Paintings says:

        Thanks, Jack. I’m looking forward to learning more with you as you go through Sturgeon’s book. His research seems incredibly thorough.

        The ratio of beeswax to varnish that I use is fairly small– just enough to soften the gloss of the varnish. However, something about what you said rings true and I think next time I will first apply a coat of straight damar varnish followed by a beeswax varnish mixture. I love the alchemy of painting! Also, it is an interesting idea to buff the wax finish… I may try that out on this one. Thanks again for the thoughtful response, my friend.

  • Lovely painting. I enjoy glazing as well. I use Gamblin Neo Megilp.

    • Mike Schultz Paintings says:

      Thank you! I appreciate the comment. I don’t know much about neo megilp other than it is a gel medium that softens the paint. Can you describe how you use it? Also, does it have a tacky feeling when it dries or does it cure completely?

      Gamblin and his factory are based here in Portland, and from what I hear he is a very nice fellow. It’s a great company to support.

  • Nanook says:

    Can’t wait to see the finished product! I LOVE!!!!!!!

  • hey Mike – can you use acrylics for glazing? That dries very quickly so in a small flat that can work (I already use acrylics)

    • Mike Schultz Paintings says:

      Yes, you can do glazing type work with acrylics as well, but in my experience it is simply not the same caliber of color. You need to buy acrylics mediums to do so, but the more of it that you use the surface looks more and more like plastic. Also, in order to get a color quality close to oil you must buy expensive acrylics, so you might as well just get oil. However, Janine, these are all just my opinions. Thanks for the dialog– it’s fun!

  • The detail from the painting “Baumgartner” is wonderful. It’s thrilling to also get some technical insight. Will we be able to view the full piece, or not because it’s a commission?

    • Mike Schultz Paintings says:

      Hi Gabriel- Thanks for the comment. I had the commission professionally photographed as the intensity of the color refraction from the glazing kept throwing off the colors in my digital cameras. When I get the finished images back I’ll be sure to post them. Thanks for asking, and happy art making to you!

  • Maddi says:

    Beautiful! My father always said that a good painting will make you think. Not just this painting, but a lot of the other artwork on your site really made me curious.

    They’re always so unique and interesting. I love the unusual color scheme on this one, as well as the peaceful nature of the scene. The painting makes me happy, actually. The fact that the lion isn’t eating them, for once, is refreshing :)

  • Fascinating, Mike, and beautifully explained. Totally outside my realm– I learned a lot. Your dedication to your craft is inspiring, and tells me you’re going to go far. Beautiful painting, and very cool to see you in action! Very sharp photos– kudos to your friend Sarah. : )

    • Mike Schultz Paintings says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Mark. I feel like there is always so much more to learn– and often feel like I am just scratching the surface of every technique I come by. Thank you for the comment. <<>>

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