Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Lost Art of Varnishing

Painting before cleaning.
Painting after cleaning.
I spent a lot of time in art classes during my younger days, and most of these were during the late seventies and early eighties.   Most of my professors, and hence most of my classes, had a focus on abstract art.  We would discuss the visual language of painting when we weren't busy wondering whether painting was dead altogether.  One thing that never came up in any class was the importance of varnishing the paintings we were creating.  This seems a bit odd to me now, considering many of us thought we were the last generation of painters.  You'd think we'd have made an effort to save these last artifacts.  (In case you were wondering, the expectation was that painting would be supplanted by site specific sculpture, photography and mixed media inquiries into the inadequacies of painting.  I would imagine that now there are people that imagine digital art will finally vanquish painting).

As a result, there are now several generations of artists who have never varnished a single one of their paintings.  This omission could have dire consequences for their work.  I'd like to direct your attention to the before and after images at the top of this post.  This painting had been hung for decades in a room with a fireplace and has suffered substantial darkening as a result.  Fortunately, the darkening occurred on the top layer--the varnish layer.  It was a matter, then, of removing the varnish without disturbing the paint underneath and then revarnishing the work.  In other respects the painting was stable; there was no peeling away of the paint layer.  Had there been no varnish, there would have been very little that I could have done to clean the painting.  

Varnishing is generally done six months after the completion of a work.  If you are not certain whether a work is varnished try looking at it in a raking lightYou ought to see a uniform layer of gloss.   Even a matte varnish will have a certain uniformity of surface.  If  a painting displays some areas that are flat and some glossy, that is a clue that the painting may lack varnish.  The shiny and matte areas would be the consequence of different amount of oil in the painting medium.

One artist that I know had an epiphany about the importance of varnish, but she could not bear to sit down and actually treat all of her paintings, so she came to me.  I went through fifty or so of her paintings, of various sizes and various dates, and varnished them all.  Being a conscientious person, she was also contacting buyers of her work and offering to varnish the paintings that she had sold to them.

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