I just sold the painting above and wanted to varnish it with a protective layer before shipping. I’ve been afraid to try traditional damar-based varnish which is prone to drips, bubbles and yellowing. I knew that somehow at least one cat hair would embed itself. So in the past I used a spray-on varnish (which has its own disadvantagse) or just shipped sold paintings without varnishing.
I’d read that Gamblin’s Gamvar synthetic varnish was easier to use and very archival, developed based on research at the National Gallery of Art. But it came as a two-part kit that you have to gently mix, every hour over eight hours. For me, that is a recipe for failure. I knew I’d get distracted and miss an hour just like when I make a cup of tea, forget about it, and hours later have to throw it out and start over.
Now it comes Pre-Mixed! Gamblin just released a pre-mixed version of Gamvar in a 2 oz. bottle containing enough varnish to cover 40 square feet. I called Gamblin with some questions that I didn’t see answered on their website. Their technical support people were on other calls so the operator connected me to their president who cheerfully answered my questions. You can’t beat that for customer service!
My questions and his answers were:
- How long does it take to dry/how long before I can ship? Two days to ship, one day or less to dry to touch.
- How soon can you varnish a painting? Best to wait 3 – 6 months, but you can varnish with Gamvar as soon as the painting is dry to the touch, or if thickly painted, when it is firm underneath the surface of the painting. The mild solvent in Gamvar won’t dissolve the surface paint.
- What kind of brush to use? For my 9×12″ painting, he suggested just using a large filbert hog-bristle oil-painting brush. (I used a #12.) He said that regardless of the size of painting or brush, the bristles should be less than 1/4″ thick or they’ll suck up too much varnish.
- Should the painting dry flat or standing up? Either is fine. Since the varnish is the consistency of water and you apply it VERY thinly there will be NO drips. (And he was right!)
Before I got started I watched this video on the Gamblin website:
He made it look so easy. And it was! No finesse, special talents, experience, or special brushes required. It’s not sticky, oily or smelly. (But do have proper ventilation anyway.) It’s so thin that it won’t leave brushstrokes (although the shine can bring out the brush strokes in the painting).
The instructions below include tips that Gamblin tech support gave me when I called them again with more questions after varnishing a few paintings.
How to apply Gamvar Picture Varnish (with tips for troubleshooting)
- Try to work in an area where dust or pet hair won’t be a problem and remove any dust from the painting first. I gave each painting a swipe with a clean Viva paper towel (a blue “shop towel” or a lint-free cloth is OK too, but don’t use regular paper towels; they leave lint). Cover your work surface and wear gloves if you wish.
- Pour a small amount of the varnish in a separate container (I used a disposable plastic cup) and close the jar to prevent evaporation. Dip the brush just a bit so it doesn’t soak up too much varnish and wipe it several times on the side of the cup to remove any excess.
(TIP: You really need only a tiny amount. Start with much less than you think you need.)
- Brush it on vigorously, scrubbing it in, like he does in the video above, corner to corner, crisscrossing, going back and forth until the surface is completely covered. When the painting is covered with no missed dry spots (tilt it to towards the light to check for areas without shine) stop brushing, you’re done. Or, for a more matte finish you can continue brushing for another 2 or 3 minutes.
(TIP: If you notice areas where the varnish appears to bead up or resist, scrub in that area more vigorously. If it still resists, add 10% of Gamsol to the varnish you poured into a separate container. Gamvar has such a small percentage of solvent that for very slick passages of a painting it may need just a bit more solvent to “open” the surface.)
- Let it dry. I dried mine vertically on the repurposed Blockbuster video rack in my studio. Standing the paintings with the varnished side leaning towards a wall will help prevent dust from falling on them. Clean your brush with Gamsol or other odorless mineral spirits.
(TIP: After the varnish dries, if you notice any areas you missed or spots that aren’t as shiny as the rest of the painting, just apply a second coat of the Gamvar to the dull spots, not the whole painting.)
Yesterday I varnished nearly two dozen works painted with oils, Holbein Duo water-soluble oils, acrylics, Golden Open Acrylics. The surface textures ranged from very smooth to very rough. Today they are all dry and have a nice even sheen that has restored the richness of the colors and darks. It took me less than one stress-free hour.
I also tried it on watercolor; it was fine on Aquabord, but on watercolor paper it just soaked in, accomplishing nothing. Even though it didn’t lift the paint, Gamblin doesn’t recommend it for watercolor without first applying an isolation coat and even then they say it doesn’t provide the needed protection of framing under glass.
- It is a way to unify the surface with an even sheen and bring back the depth of the colors.
- It provides a protective coating and archival varnishes like Gamvar can be easily removed so that if the surface gets dirty, greasy, smoke-damaged or something splashes on it, when you remove the varnish with a little mild solvent, the paint surface below will be undamaged.
Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in Gamblin and was not asked to write a review. They’re just a great company.