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What Happened? A Varnishing F**k Up

Did y'all see the video I posted on social media over the weekend?

I was varnishing two paintings and on one of the pieces, the varnish began to melt the paint! Once I noticed it was happening I was horrified because there's really nothing I could have done at that point. It's a stupid mistake and in the moment I just wanted to cry. After a bit, I just had to laugh at myself, hence the post.

So, what happened? Let's take it as a learning / teachable moment, shall we? But before we get there, I have to back up a wee bit and tell you the story...

At the beginning of September, I got notification that my painting, 'Improprieties 2020' is going to be included in Dab Art Co., Art In the Time of Corona | A Global Art Project. The painting will be included in an online exhibition, published in a book, included in an exhibition, and part of a documentary. I knew the photo I submitted wasn't great so, I asked if I could submit a better image. They said yes but to be quick and that sent me into a mad scramble to have the painting professionally photographed - but first it needed to be varnished.

Why varnish? For two reasons; to even out the painting's final appearance and to protect the painting. Since moving from traditional oils to water soluble oils, the need for varnishing to even out the appearance is even more important because, the flat/shiny spots are extreme and the colors get lost. After varnishing, 'Improprieties 2020', it looked amazing! All of the detail work in the dark areas at the top just glowed. And the professional photo was SO much better than the photo I took in the makeshift fort I made in my living room several months ago!

While 'Improprieties 2020' was at the photographers, I got two more notifications. Several of my portraits are going to be included in New Visionary Magazine, Issue 4, and I have been selected as a potential candidate for Texas State Artist 2D (the highest designation that the Texas Legislature gives in the arts). Wow, right?!! This lit a fire under my butt to get my portrait paintings varnished and professionally photographed. I figured, when I go pick up the one, I'll drop two more off. And yes yes, I know, professional pics should have been done BEFORE I submitted the paintings to the competitions but I didn't and so, here I am.

This brings us up to yesterday in my my story and me in the studio. So, what happened? Why did the varnish melt the painting? Well, for that, we're going to need a little science...

Oil paints are made by mixing dry pigment (the colors) with refined linseed oil into a paste and then grinding the paste until is is buttery smooth. All pigments have different drying times so therefore the individual paints have different dry times. Some, like cobalt blue, raw sienna and the umbers, dry quickly. Others, like sap green, alizarin crimson and titanium white dry slower. Plus, paint brands uses different oil to pigment formulas so therefore each brand of paint also has its own drying rate. After years of painting in oils, I have learned how to manipulate the paints I use. How to make them dry quicker or slower, how far I can push the paint until I need to stop, and how long it takes for a painting to dry once it's finished. In addition, it's important to understand how oil paints dry. Water based paints dry through the water evaporating. Oil based paints dry through oxidation. That means, the oil layers absorb oxygen from the air and cure the painting layers from top to bottom. This is how the paint layers to stick together. What all this means is that the surface of the painting may feel dry to the touch but the under layers my still be squishy. Which is why in oil painting we follow the fat over lean rule - less oil (lean) in the bottom layers so they dry quickly progressing to using more oils (fatter) as you build up your painting.

As if oil painting wasn't already chemistry intense, I added another factor - I am no longer using traditional oil paints. I now use water soluble oil paints. They are basically traditional oil paints but with a chemical modification that allows me to clean up with water rather than heavy solvents, which are very toxic. A necessary move since I now have chemically sensitive kiddos in the house.

Even though soluble oil paints behave like traditional oil paints and I can achieve all of the things I could before making the switch, there are differences. One of the biggest differences is drying time. With traditional oil paints, it is recommended that you wait AT LEAST a year after the painting is finished before you varnish. Traditionally this event would be celebrated with a vernissage - the first viewing. Of course I knew all of this because this is how I've always painted but given the fact that things were coming at me fast, and I wanted to give great photographs to everyone, I did a little research into how long I had to wait before varnishing my paintings in water soluble oils. The recommendation was six to eight months. Both, 'Morpho Musica' and 'Brave and True' fit into that timeline.

I started with 'Brave and True', Jackson's portrait. It varnished up real pretty! Then I moved onto 'Morpho Musica', Mona's portrait. It was going fine until I noticed a blue tint in the skin. At that moment I knew that the painting wasn't yet totally dry and that the varnish was picking up the pigment. THAT'S when I shut off the camera. I was horrified because I knew the science. The top layer may have been dry but the under-layers were still curing. The varnish created a chemical reaction and basically started melting the painting. There was nothing I could do but wait and see how bad it was going to get. It got pretty bad. The paint did melt in spots and created "holes", and the skin doesn't look as even toned as it did before I put the varnish on it. It still looks okay but I'm going to have to wait and see how it looks once everything drys. Then there is the long term damage that may occur. Now that the varnish is over the not quite dry paint, and varnish is a lean layer, I created a situation of thin over fat. Basically the varnish will dry quickly and "suffocate" the oil layer. In the long run, this could cause cracking in the painting layers and could even damage the canvas.

I have lovingly placed her in a drawer where she will wait, and I will wait, to see what will become of her. I am so beyond bummed for such a stupid mistake and by my impatience but in my defense, I have only been working with the water soluble oils for two years. I long for my traditional oil paints but I know the paints I am using now are healthier for me and everyone in the house. Which is a good thing but I'm still on the learning curve.

Though this whole experience reminded me of something one of my teachers, Ernst Fuchs, once said to me - that he too was still learning even after a lifetime as an oil painter. It's a great reminder to not beat myself up too much when things go horrible wrong in my painting practice. It is called a practice for a reason - there's always something to learn!


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