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Old 03-04-2002, 03:50 PM   #1
Jeff Morrow
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Final varnish - matte or gloss




I'm looking for advice. I don't care for a glossy sheen on a painting. Are there any disadvantages to using a matte final varnish instead of the traditional gloss damar?
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Old 03-05-2002, 03:22 AM   #2
Steven Sweeney Steven Sweeney is offline
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I've seen the occasional anecdotal remarks about a "bad experience" with matte varnish -- though it often seems that the situations described implicated other possible culprits as well. I haven't heard or seen or been able to locate any authoritative or definitive discussion that would counsel one to avoid matte-finish varnish.

Matte varnish is, unscientifically, just varnish with wax or some microsized particulate suspension that serves to influence the angle of light refraction, so that, in simple terms, light gets diverted "sideways" as it enters and exits the painting surface, rather than going straight into and reflecting straight back out of a painting. Though it is a characteristic of the different types of varnish that they dry with varying degrees of hardness, any varnish receiving additives to create the optical "matte" effect is going to be slightly weaker in structure and, according to one source, softer and more susceptible to scratching. Again, I've not encountered any advisories that this difference in curing is one that should cause significant worry.

You might wish to use a matte varnish if, say, you want to minimize the incidence of glare (though you can't eliminate glare completely with matte varnish, just as you can't entirely overcome the effects of strong light by framing with non-glare glass.) It may also seem appropriate if the subject matter of the work is such that a smooth shiny surface would not be in keeping with the mood of the piece. I have two still-lifes drying right now (though in Taipei humidity, not very fast), each of which is a very low-lit setting with flat, very dark backgrounds. I'm definitely thinking "matte" for those, because I "see" a glossy finish as spoiling the effect -- and if anyone knows of a good reason to reconsider, please! sound the alarm.

Many painters do like the glossy look of straight varnish, as it presents a "freshly painted" appearance, but I think it's absolutely fine if your preferences lie elsewhere. I would note, however, that if you begin to paint in a manner in which you're deliberately using hues in underlayers that you want to "shine through" the layers of paint on top of them (a technique said to give "luminosity" to paintings, as if they were self-lighted from within), the light disturbance that is the very reason for choosing matte varnish will now work against the light's getting cleanly and directly to those lower layers and reflecting back out to the viewer.

Just some considerations. Harold Speed writes that "the subject of varnishing paintings is a very vexed one," noting that some painters simply choose not to varnish at all. No doubt some of the pros on this site can better describe how they've learned to unvex the subject.

Good luck
Steven
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Old 03-05-2002, 01:52 PM   #3
Pam Phillips Pam Phillips is offline
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I talked recently with an artist/framer/restorer who prefers to varnish with a 50-50 combination of matte and gloss. I believe she uses Liquitex Soluvar. She taught me how to apply varnish to 2 of my paintings. A thin coat is brushed on while moving the brush in all directions and feathering out to the edges, doing a smallish area at a time. She recommended varnishing the face as one whole area. Keep looking at the painting from the sides to make sure the varnish is covering evenly and uniformly. Once you start to varnish, keep going until you're done (don't stop to answer the phone!). Lint and bristles can be picked out of the varnish with tweezers, the brush, or your fingers.

According to her, unless the paint is very thick, you don't have to wait 6 months to varnish--a month is usually sufficient. She says that environmental pollutants start to adhere to the surface rather quickly and it is best to protect the surface ASAP.

I liked the combination matte and glossy look, but I'm not sure yet if I prefer it over 100% glossy.

I would love to hear some experienced opinions.
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Old 03-05-2002, 03:04 PM   #4
David Dowbyhuz David Dowbyhuz is offline
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Without intending to start a new thread, I recall a passage attributed to Norman Rockwell. Being an illustrator (gasp) under deadline he could not wait for layers of paint to dry. What he apparently did was spray varnish multiple stages of his work; paint, varnish, paint, varnish, etc. He was told by his contemporaries that his paintings will likely explode. Well, I don't know how archival ol' Norm's works will be, but they show no signs of detonating to date (that I'm aware of).
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Old 01-28-2003, 09:10 AM   #5
Tom Edgerton Tom Edgerton is offline
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Pam, I also like the 50-50 mix with Soluvar.

Straight matte varnish was the preference in the mid 20th Century because it emphasized "flatness" of surface, and seemed more "contemporary." For portraits though, I think it kills depth and transparency in shadows. Also, if not carefully applied, matte varnish can impart a streaky look to darks. The half-and-half mixture to me avoids some of these problems, without giving the work such a high gloss that it's hard to view through the glare. It still evens out the dull and shiny areas of the surface, and pops up the color, just like straight gloss varnish.

I don't know that matte varnish is any less archival than gloss--it probably is somewhat softer as Steven notes--but one needs to exercise some care in applying either--the most important consideration is to avoid an excessively humid environment when applying. Also, once it's applied, leave it alone and don't brush it once it starts to set up, especially if there is matte varnish in the mixture.
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Old 01-28-2003, 11:15 AM   #6
Mike McCarty Mike McCarty is offline
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I have recently read strong recommendations for Gamvar. One from Marvin M. and one from Chris S. I think Sharon N. mentioned it also.

I am on the verge of varnishing several paintings. My last experience with Damar has put me completely off varnishing. Can anyone advise as to whether Gamvar gives a shiny or matte finish?

Also, I understand that Gamvar comes in a crystal form, can any all thumbed scientist make this work?
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Old 01-29-2003, 01:34 PM   #7
Stanka Kordic Stanka Kordic is offline
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Hi Mike,

I use GamVar, and really like it. It comes in a cystalline form that you mix with some sort of solvent (don't have the box in front of me) and shake periodically until they dissolve. Once you prepare the solution, it must be used within 30 days. I usually wait until I have a few canvases ready to go in order to make best use of the batch.

The best way I can describe the finish is "sparkly". It's very similar (to my eyes) as Liquin, not too shiny, not too matte. Its really very nice.

Hope this helps.
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Old 01-29-2003, 01:46 PM   #8
Mike McCarty Mike McCarty is offline
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Quote:
The best way I can describe the finish is "sparkly". It's very similar (to my eyes) as Liquin, not too shiny, not too matte. Its really very nice.
Thanks Stanka,

I know what you mean about "Liquin", it has a certain look.
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Old 09-09-2003, 09:45 PM   #9
Tom Edgerton Tom Edgerton is offline
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Hello all...

Since my last post on this topic, I've experimented some more with a matte/gloss mix.

I tried a 50/50 mix of Winton (Winsor & Newton) final varnishes, and like the sheen it imparts. It's also a little less thick than the Soluvar, and spreads a little thinner and more fluidly.

I've also done some math in regard to how much I have to cut the subsequent mix with odorless mineral spirit to turn the mix into a retouch varnish, rather than a final varnish--after all, the only difference between a retouch and final varnish is the ratio of varnish to solvent: a final mix is 30% varnish, a retouch mix is 15% varnish (according to published tech letters from Old Holland).

If I'm mixing approximately 4 ounces of retouch mix, I cut the 50/50 Winton final varnish mix (straight from the bottle) with about 20% more odorless.

I've usually gone to an application of retouch varnish as soon as the paint was well dry to the touch (about a week or two) as I'm doing commissioned portraits mostly and I've got to get them out the door. I don't want to send them out with no protection, but some paintings go to live too far away for me to loop back and varnish them six months to a year later. So this is my compromise. I never liked straight retouch varnish from the bottle, as the gloss was always too high for my taste.

From researching it, I don't think that this technique is unsound, but if anyone sees a pothole I don't see, please let us know herein.

Best--TE
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Old 09-09-2003, 10:54 PM   #10
Marvin Mattelson Marvin Mattelson is offline
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Too shiny 4 me

I mix up the Gamvar and add 2 teaspoons of Bee's Wax Medium by Gamblin. It knocks down about 30% of the gloss, without having to sacrifice any of the depth. Everyone can't believe that their portraits look even better.

Mix the bee's wax medium with a little bit of Gamvar in another jar. Keep adding in more Gamvar s-l-o-w-l-y and shake, shake, shake and stir, stir, stir. Eventually you'll add this "slurry" (Robert Gamblin's word) to the remaining varnish. Shake it very well until there are no more little remnants of bee's wax remaining. You can rest when your arm gets tired. It's well worth the time and effort.
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