Varnishing a finished painting is a vanishing art.
Many if not most contemporary artists don’t bother, preferring to sell their paintings with a matte finish. Some don’t like to wait for the paint to dry before the application of varnish, especially since the historical recommendation is to wait six months to a year beforehand. I varnish my paintings 3 to 4 weeks after they are dry to touch. At that time the paint surface has oxidized and polymerization of the paint has stabilized (there are many studies on this, which I’ve read). Molecular cross-linking, a form of drying will continue internally, under the paint film and then under varnish, for decades. I don’t paint with ridiculously thick and deep impasto layers and I also use a medium, mixed with my paints to accelerate the drying oxidation/polymerization process, so I’m not concerned with areas of my paintings cracking or needing a prolonged drying period before varnishing.
I use a traditional dammar varnish–using the same recipe artists have used for centuries–which I make myself with easily obtained ingredients–dammar crystals and turpentine. Dammar crystals are the hardened sap which is gathered from dammar trees in the tropical forests of India and the South-East Asian peninsula and archipelagos. Here’s a Wikipedia link:
It’s gathered in much the same way Maple syrup farmers tap the trunks of Maple trees to gather the sap, only dammar crystals harden on their own and do not need to be cooked down after harvest.
Dammar crystals, when burned also make a heavenly incense and if you’ve ever been in a Roman Catholic church on a Holiday or Feast day, you’ve probably smelled the scent of burning dammar crystals (it’s often a blend of dammar with frankincense and myrrh, or a host of other aromatics). If you get your nose close to the surface of one of my paintings, you can actually get a sense of this fragrance.
To make the varnish, the dammar crystals must be dissolved in a solution of pure gum turpentine (about 2 to 1 turp to crystals), which is in essence the sap of pine trees which has been distilled down to the volatile aromatics and terpenes. I usually make a batch of varnish in an empty, glass pint-sized jar with a tight, screw-on lid. It takes a few days of occasionally shaking the jar vigorously until all of the crystals are dissolved in suspension. Then, the solution can sit for a day or two until any unwanted particles of bark, dirt or dust settle to the bottom of the jar. Decanting of the pure varnish is then done to another clean, glass jar, leaving the residue behind.
That’s it! These two ingredients, both derived from tree sap, together make an excellent, clear varnish which will not only protect the surface of the paint from damage and pollutants such as dust and smoke but is easy to clean and even remove if necessary.
Dammar varnish will yellow slightly, over time (decades) but this can actually give a painting a warm and subtle tone that can in some instances (especially landscapes) enhance the atomosperic aura of the painting. If ever the painting needs re-varnishing, the old varnish is removed with turpentine alone and another fresh coat of dammar varnish is applied. This should be done by a professional conservator or at least with great care not to remove the paint layer below the coat of varnish, because turpentine will dissolve the paint, even if it has been dry for centuries! Cleaning the surface of a varnished painting can be done with a mild solution of Castile soap and distilled water, using a soft cloth and a gentle touch.
Protecting the paint surface and making it easier to clean aren’t the only benefits of dammar varnish–It also enhances the depth of colors and accentuates the contrast between the light and dark tones in the painting. It provides a translucence, a luster and depth that is the completing step that really makes a painting come to life.
I think finishing a painting with dammar varnish is the right thing to do and shows the artist cares enough about his work that he wants to enhance, protect and preserve it for future generations.