Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Varnishing Act

Yes, that's varnishing, not vanishing, act!!

Varnishing a painting is the last thing I do to the artwork itself (framing is a separate issue). It's not a particularly fun or glamorous activity, yet it's so necessary. Varnish darkens the dark areas, so I don't really see what a painting looks like until it's varnished. It also unifies the surface, which often appears as a checkerboard of shiny and matt areas.

As you may have picked up elsewhere, I do lots of transparent glazes when I paint. This gives a stained-glass quality to the piece; however, the effect isn't immediately obvious. Varnishing is an important aspect of bringing out the glazes, much as polishing stones brings out their patterns and characteristics.

After the final brushload of paint goes on the work, I allow the painting to dry thoroughly for five days or more. Then I spend a day applying permanent acrylic varnish -- at least five-six coats of it, two hours apart to give each coat time to dry. The varnish is glossy, and with each coat, the depth and transparency of the glazes gradually come to life.

Unfortunately, water-soluble acrylic varnish remains somewhat tacky forever, so anything that remains in contact with it for a long time begins to bond to the varnish. If I (or a customer) decide to switch out a frame, the edges of the painting will be damaged when the frame is (literally) pulled off.

So after a few more days, I apply a final coat of a removable varnish called Soluvar. It's still acrylic, but it's suspended in turpentine instead of water. Soluvar is not tacky, so the painting isn't as likely to stick to other things, including frames. Also, if the painting ever gets too dirty for cleaning, the Soluvar can be stripped with turpentine, which will strip the dirt along with the varnish. Then more Soluvar can be re-applied.

Soluvar comes in glossy and matt finishes. I mix glossy plus matt in about an 80:20 ratio. This cuts the gloss a little so it doesn't look so danged wet and shiny; yet, the finish is glossy enough to allow those glazes to glow with an inner light.

Serious artists know varnishing is an essential part of the process of painting. It's a varnishing act!

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