Saturday, July 12, 2014

To varnish or not to varnish

Floral Suit
40 x 30
This is one of 4 paintings going to Tutt Art Gallery in Kelowna, BC next week and it caused me no end of doubts and concerns; not in the painting, but in the finishing.

I varnished the pieces, as I always do, in preparation for shipping and then realized that they no longer appealed to me.  The colours had darkened and the background had flattened to the same plane as the figure, losing all sense of atmosphere.  It looked dull and dim.  But, hey, at least it was shiny.

I took the paintings to the framer who wraps and ships my work, but ended up picking them all up again before she could pack them up.  I just couldn't live with the change and no longer felt good about the paintings.

Luckily, the varnish that I use, Gamvar, is removable, so I could strip them all back to their original, luminous state with some odourless mineral spirits and clean rags.  I can't tell you how much better I felt, though a bit transgressive as well.  Who doesn't varnish?  It felt like I was committing a sin of omission.

Actually, according to the excellent book "Painting Methods of the Impressionists" by Bernard Dunstan, I was following in the footsteps of the Impressionists; they didn't always varnish either. Some went so far as to write notes on the backs of their paintings asking that the buyers of the work not varnish them.  They knew that the atmosphere and glow that their high key colours achieved would be instantly lost under that glassy layer.  While many Impressionist paintings were eventually varnished by their buyers, the few that remain in their intended bare state are, apparently, far more beautiful, and have a sense of depth and airiness.

So, I think I'll be more selective about varnishing from now on.  If a painting is high key, I probably won't do it, but if there are lots of darker areas, I will.   For these new, high-key beach pieces, I've decided to skip the varnish and be as daring as the artists of the 19th Century.

Happy painting!


Anonymous said...

Pissaro never varnished any of his paintings neither did Lucien Freud or Andrew Wyeth.

Ingrid Christensen said...

Well that's pretty good company! Thanks for the information.