Varnishing an Oil Painting: How-To and Review

Perhaps the single most important step in the oil painting process, and no, I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating one bit.

I tend to get really excited about some random things. Like when my husband surprised me with a new Dyson on Black Friday 2018. I went on about that for weeks. I just wanted to tell everyone about how many canisters I filled just on the first go around the house. It was life-changing. Or when I discovered you can mail order dog food. Did you know you can mail order dog food!? And set a delivery schedule? That was pretty big. Or when we bought a food dehydrator and made our own raisins from grapes. That was really, really cool.

So anyway, usually when I have one of these discoveries I like to tell anyone who will listen. Varnishing my oil paintings is now one of those things. I feel like I can’t stop talking about it because it has made me so inexplicably happy. Everyone has been really polite about me going on about it, but the non-painters inundated with my excitement can only appreciate this so much. This topic is definitely more suited to visitors of my art blog. ☺️

Teelo says, Mom, it’s time to varnish your paintings!

To all the artists reading this: Varnishing is a big deal. Those of you in the know are thinking, well duh. I have always varnished my acrylic paintings, most recently with TriArt gloss varnish. However, my experience using Gamblin Gamvar Gloss Picture Varnish this week is what has left me feeling so impressed. First of all, you should varnish your acrylic and oil paintings to give them a protective surface (watercolorists – obviously varnish will ruin your work, just stick with glass framing). While I appreciate this protective layer, the majority of my happiness is because varnishing has made my oil paintings look so much better.

I finished three oil paintings from November to end of December 2018 (This is a Cat, Big Beesa, and Downtown Brown) and those are the paintings that I varnished for the first time this week. Like I said, I’ve been waiting for this day forever.

A bit of a preamble: I was really hesitant to start painting with oil paints in the first place, but now that I’ve made the transition – honestly I don’t know why I put it off for so long. Oh my goodness if you’re considering it – just switch. Like right now. My style of painting improved by leaps and bounds when I committed to acrylic painting on canvas (instead of forcing watercolours on myself, which is still hit and miss to this day) but I just could not stand the drying time. There is nothing worse than going back to work on a section with one more perfecting brushstroke and you hit dry paint and your brush skids across the sticky canvas. I just hate it. And I paint in fairly thin layers so it just happened all the time. I’ve been loving the leap to oil painting because I still feel like it retains everything I enjoy about acrylic paint but with even more benefits – colours blend so beautifully, the canvas is saturated in colour, and I have been achieving a level of realism and luminosity beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been loving the leap to oil painting because I still feel like it retains everything I enjoy about acrylic paint but with even more benefits – colours blend so beautifully, the canvas is saturated in colour, and I have been achieving a level of realism and luminosity beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.

However. And this is a big however. One thing that I noticed with the oils almost right away was that, while the painting may have looked amazing and perfect right at the end of a painting session (when all the paint was still wet and shiny and freshly applied), a few days later with a bit of drying – some of the paint seemed uneven. Some areas were still glossy, but some colours that had so much depth when first applied were now matte and dull and uneven too. At first I thought, oh when it’s totally dry it will even out. Not so. For the paintings This is a Cat and Big Beesa, the dark backgrounds were really dramatic when first applied but dried really patchy. No amount of layering fixed this (I tried, and just wasted paint for no reason). It really took away from both paintings.

The streakiness is really evident here in this process pic from Downtown Brown. Those black areas should be totally black:

After Googling this issue (thank you Google!) I learned that this is a fairly common issue for oil painting. This “sunken in” appearance is especially problematic for darker colours where it is more obvious. As for the reason – as usual it seems like a number of reasons are suggested – painting too thin, mixing too many colours, too much solvent. One big issue that faces all oil painters is that oil may not be absorbed from paints uniformly by your painted surface as the paints dry. Combine that with the fact that different oil colours differ in terms of oil content to begin with and you have all the makings for uneven drying and overall appearance in your final painting.

The fix

The good news is, there is a solution. The fix for this variation in paint appearance is varnishing (in addition to bestowing all those wonderful protective qualities). I have really, really been looking forward to this final step because I’ve read so much about how this really adds so much to your final painting. I love colour and contrast and I was so disappointed to see that some colours significantly dulled with drying.

I expected the varnish step to even out the surface and that the glossy finish would return and saturate my colours and really make them pop. Gamblin advertises that their Picture Varnish will unify the surface of your painting.

Gamblin is a great company and really committed to artist education. If you have a question and contact them they WILL get back to you with a personalized email. For example, Dave from Gamblin sent me a lovely email response to my question about using graphite for your underdrawing for an oil painting (I had concerns). Anyway, they produced a really handy post about varnishing that covers everything you need to know. I followed it exactly with excellent results.

Gamblin recommends waiting until your painting is touch-dry to varnish. This may be a few weeks or a few months. I paint in pretty thin layers so after a week or so all of my paintings are just about touch dry. I thought I would be extra good and I gave all of my paintings at least a month to dry. I also figured a varnish assembly-line would make the best use of my time.

Step 1: Assemble your tools

Not much to assemble. I had my varnish bottle from which I poured a small quantity into a flat container (old Tupperware repurposed for the art room). I cleared off my flat art room table to place each painting during the varnishing. It’s best to work on a flat surface so the varnish goes on evenly and isn’t drawn downwards by gravity.

I purchased this 2″ Royal and Langnickel Jumbo flatbrush just for varnishing. Soft but firm synthetic bristles and well constructed (no bristles falling out during the actual varnishing and ruining the painting).

Loving this new varnish brush.

If you have a dedicated varnish brush, you don’t need to clean your brush after using Gamvar. You can just let it dry and put it away until your next varnishing party.

Step 2: Varnish!

I laid each painting flat on my big table in the art room. Using my large brush, I dipped it into a flat container holding some Gamvar. I tapped off the brush and then starting at the top of each painting I swept it in long even strokes across the canvas. I worked my way down being careful to lay the varnish down in a thin layer picking up any excess as I go. You want to watch out for any areas where it may pool, especially on amore textured painting surface. The Gamvar needs to be applied very thinly or it will always remain tacky. It dries solely by solvent evaporation and if done correctly will be dry to the touch in a couple days (I checked, mine were dry to the touch in a couple days!). I did ignore the unsolicited advice of a well-meaning sales lady at Michael’s who I chatted with on a recent canvas buying expedition. She advised to rub the varnish in with a cloth. I have no idea how this would be superior but I implore you, do not do this. It seems more likely to ruin your painting. For my 24 x 30″ Big Beesa I dipped my brush into the varnish twice for the entire thing. That’s it.

Here’s a pic of the varnish process halfway thru. The Gamvar immediately saturated the painting, You can see a distinct line about halfway down. The top half is varnished, the bottom half not varnished. The difference is really striking in this photo and that richness was retained when the varnish dried.

Another compare and contrast. Varnish applied on the left side of painting, the red, especially the darkest areas are noticeably more vibrant. The right side is awaiting varnish. It is more dull and muted.

Step 3: Drying

Let your varnished painting(s) dry for a few days in a safe pet-free zone. They should be totally dry to the touch if done properly.

Before and After

All of these pics are totally un-retouched to try to show you the true before and afters.

This is a Cat

You can see the top-down vertical steaks in the black background and the variation in light and dark black throughout even though black was used straight from the tube. I applied two layers of black to the background to try to fix this but it dried the same every time. In the after, you can see that the background is totally uniform and this effect is even more striking in person. All of the colours look more saturated.

Big Beesa

I felt that the dark background was even more problematic in this painting. Again I applied multiple layers of paint in the background to no avail. In the after image, again the paint is totally uniform and all of the colours have been restored to their straight-from-the-tube lustre.

Downtown Brown

This painting was so streaky in the before image. Again the darker colours are a bigger problem but you can see in the varnished image that everything gains a greater intensity and the steaks are lost.

Final Verdict

I put so much love and care into all of my paintings that it just makes sense to kind of finish them up and tie everything into a neat package with a final varnish (like the ribbon on a present). The same goes for painting the edges of my canvas and signing my work. It’s the little things that can elevate a painting so much. In terms of the varnish step, the difference is subtle but it is also everything. Not only will you protect your artistic investment, you’re allowing it to reach its full potential.

I’m sorry this turned into a bit of a review of Gamvar varnish but I just can’t get over it. I received it for Christmas from my husband and it’s now one of my favourite presents (the spiky shoes and Neewer lights were the front runners up until now ;)). I think the Gamvar Picture Varnish is an absolutely excellent product. It’s always hard to photograph paintings, especially glossy ones, but in person the paintings have a rich, saturated, unified appearance. A little Gamvar goes an extremely long way. I have a 500ml container and I think it will last me for years of oil painting varnishing. And yes, in case you were wondering (I know I was!) you can use Gamvar Picture Varnish on oil and acrylic paintings.

I hope these impressions will help any of you starting out or on the fence about which product to varnish with. If you have any questions please feel free to write to me in the comments below.

Thank you for reading everyone. Happy varnishing!

One fish, two fish. Red fish, blue fish.

Or, colour theory for absolute beginners.

Palette
My watercolour palette with all the colours!

I was writing what I thought was the second post of my Painting for Absolute Beginners series (you can check out the first post, How to Paint for Absolute Beginners Part 1, here) when I digressed into colour theory, and I realized – this really deserves its own post. So, may I present to you Painting for Absolute Beginners – Part 2. Colour Theory.

To begin with, regardless of which type of paint you choose to paint with, the “rules” of colour mixing are pretty universal. Whether you’re working with watercolour or acrylic or oil – red plus yellow generally makes some sort of orange. And blue plus red makes some sort of purple. There are just a few finer details you might want to consider and that’s what I’m going to discuss here.

Coloured markers
I love to surround myself with colour in my art room 🌈

Colour theory – so boring right? Wrong! Unless you’re just planning on throwing some paint, any old paint, at a canvas – this is the stuff that all painting is made of. Realists and abstract expressionists can finally find common ground here. Colour is everything (well, design, technical ability, narrative quality are good too – but for today’s post – let’s agree that colour is everything). Colour theory is very intuitive, and heavily studied, but there’s a little information that can help you out if you are starting from scratch.

Side note: For any scientists (mainly physicists) out there – this is strictly a bit of artist’s colour theory, ,and a little bit of advice from what works well for me. We’re certainly not talking about how your eyes perceive different wavelengths of light and the physics of optics. That was way too out there in Grade 12 and we’re not going back there now. Just had to get that out there…

Colour chart
High school watercolour colour chart.

Traditional colour theory: Red + Blue = ?

Traditional colour theory dates to around the 18th century when there was a push to kind of formalize the painting process and the canon of art instruction. A good first step in this colour theory is that there are three primary pigment colours – red, yellow, and blue. These colours are special because they can’t be mixed from any other colours.

Red yellow and blue
The primary colours: Red, yellow, and blue.

In theory, the primary colours can’t be mixed from any other colours. If you take even one physics course that covers the science of optics, your mind will be blown because that’s not technically how it works in the science world, but it IS essentially how it works on your paint palette. When you mix two primary colours together, you get… a secondary colour. There are three basic secondary colours made from the three possible pairs above. These are orange (red + yellow), green (yellow + blue), and purple (blue + red):

Secondary colours
The secondary colours: Orange, green, and purple.

When you mix two primary colours together, the resulting secondary colour lacks a little… oomph. In general these mixed colours are a little less bright, a little less intense – they are less colourful. Sometimes you will have to adjust for this in your mixtures to get just the right amount of colour and tone and hue. In fact, these less colourful mixes make sense as they’re one step closer to neutral grey which we will discuss later.

Colours
All together now.

You will often see colours arranged in a colour wheel. Here are the primary colours, and the shared secondary colours appear between them.

Colour wheel with primary colours.
Colour wheel with primary and secondary colours.


When paint-makers make paint, they usually try to find a natural or “pure” source for a pigment, versus relying on a mixture. As we discussed, mixtures tend to be a little less brilliant, a little more muddy. So if there is a pure or primary pigment they will tend to pick that for their paint. Some pigments are naturally occurring – like a lot of the earth tones. The pigment in raw umber is natural raw umber. Alizarin lake contains naturally- occurring quinacridone pigment. Ultramarine blue was very expensive because it originally used ground lapis lazuli powder mined in Afghanistan. Today, synthetic ultramarine pigment is used which costs a lot less. Many synthetic pigments are used in modern paint which is often more economical and also safer in some cases (historical colours see to have an abundance of lead, cadmium, and other toxins and carcinogens). For some colours, like green, there are very few pigments that are found naturally. In these cases, paint-makers will turn to mixtures or chemically-derived compounds.

I want to point out something about colour permanence. When you shop for paint colours, you may notice that, in addition to other info, the tubes may be labelled with the word “permanence” or “lightfastness”. Lightfastness is a property of colourants like paint. It describes how resistant a specific colour (pigment) is to fading when exposed to light. You may have noticed that old paintings look light and faded. This is because exposure to sunlight breaks down the chemical bonds in pigments. You can see this in an old watercolour chart (above) that’s been hanging on my bulletin board by the window since 2015. The burnt sienna isn’t looking too great these days but the ultramarine blue is holding on nicely. Lightfastness doesn’t necessarily have to do with paint quality. There are some colours that contain volatile pigments. In general you want paints with a lightfastness of ASTM I. Oil paints tend to be more lightfast than watercolour – the oil binder encapsulates the pigment better and has a bit of a protective quality. Just wanted to point that out. 😉

All the primary and secondary colours…

You’re hot then you’re cold: Warm versus cool colours.

Unfortunately it’s not as simple as looking at something orange, and mixing any old yellow plus any old red to paint it. Colours do in fact have a “temperature” – you may have heard of colours being described as warm or cool before. Think of a snowy, cold painting – probably lots of ultramarine blue in the shadows cast on the snow. Or a warm sunset painting – probably lots of reds, oranges, and yellows in the tropical sky. Part of this is psychological – how a colour or colour scheme makes you feel. A painting of a crackling orange camp fire will probably look warm, while a painting of a stormy, grey sea will probably appear cool. For the same colour, a warmer hue will tend towards being more red, while the cooler hue will tend towards more blue.

When you’re mixing colours, this can be an issue. There are cool yellows (think lemons) and warm blues (think turquoise beaches). If you are looking at an object, you need to determine if it is warm or cool or somewhere in between and mix colours accordingly. When you mix a warm colour with a cool colour and vice versa, that tends to produce a muddy mix. It’s best to stay within like “temperatures” when colour mixing. Here are some examples of warm AND cool primary colours:

Examples of warm and cool primary colours. Warm colours are painted along the top row, corresponding cool colours are painted along the bottom. Part of it is psychological perception, part of it is the hue itself. This is definitely not an exact science.

This idea of warm and cool colours can also be illustrated with phone filters:

Colours with “Nashville” warm colour filter applied. Note the white paper background is changed to a warm, reddish white and the warm elements of the colours are more prominent – you pick up more red. This is an example of how you would perceive a warm palette.
Cool colour palette

Colours with Clarendon “cool” filter added. Note that the paper background has a blue tint. The colours are more blue, especially the purple. This is an example of how we would perceive a cool palette.
#Nofilter.

You… Complete me… Complementary colours.

Colours that are located directly across from each other in the colour wheel are called complementary colours. These are special pairs of colours that, when placed directly next to each other, create the strongest visual contrast. For any horoscope buffs out there, it’s like astrological signs – opposites attract! The shadow cast by an object often contains some of its complementary colour.

In the colour wheel, colours directly across from each other, like orange and blue, are called complementary.
Complementary colour pairs. Note that in each pair there is a primary colour and a secondary colour.

More examples:

Circa Grade 10. My version of Lawren Harris’s Miner’s Houses (I absolutely love the original painting). This was done for art history class – recreating a historical work of art as a means to study that artist’s methods. Note the blue-orange complementary colour scheme. It makes the cold landscape warm and inviting and is incredibly appealing.
Another example of a complementary colour scheme. I often gravitate towards a variation of blue-orange. There is just something so appealing about it to me.
Red-green complementary colour scheme. Birdhouse art by my sister, circa 2014 when she was in her “Painted decorative wooden birdhouse” phase.
Purple-yellow complementary colour scheme.

Not so boring neutrals

Neutral grey is created by mixing complementary colours together: Yellow plus purple, red plus green, blue plus orange.

When you mix two complementary colours together, you get what is called neutral grey. This is an excellent way to mix shadows. I know people tend to think you can just use black in place of a cast shadow, but strictly-speaking that’s not necessarily true. The impressionists really celebrated the rainbow of colours present in all levels of light in their paintings. Shadows contain all sorts of colours and neutral grey in varying mixes is a great place to start.

Paint it black!

No don’t. Everyone should use black sparingly, but you may need it from time-to-time. On the opposite end, watercolourists will use the white of their paper, but acrylic and oil painters will arm themselves with their favourite white, and probably use a lot of it! As I mentioned, there is a tendency to darken colours with black, but that’s not always the best way for representational painting. You can mix colours with neutral grey to darken them. Whenever you mix colours, you may shift the hue – you may unexpectedly make the colour more warm or more cool which may require subsequent mixing and adjustments. For example, yellow plus black can result in a greenish-blue tint because of the interactions between the different pigments and how your eyes perceive them. In colour theory, a tint is a mixture with white, and a shade is a mixture with black as illustrated below:

Paintings with an example of a monochromatic tint colour scheme. Browns and blacks with varying degrees of white.

Putting it all together – A basic painter’s palette for absolute beginners 😉

For a basic painter’s palette, I would recommend the following colours (and this list is tried and true, going way back to my very first watercolour palette – it still works well!)

  • Alizarin crimson
  • Cadmium red
  • Cadmium yellow
  • Ultramarine blue
  • Burnt sienna
  • Burnt umber
  • Raw sienna
  • Payne’s grey**

**I’ve added Payne’s grey as a staple colour over the years because it is just so great for adding depth and shadows – it’s a mix of blue and black and incredibly useful. Payne’s grey and burnt umber are always my most used paints regardless of the type of paint I’m using.

Teelo helping out.
This is my oil painting palette. It’s a bit expanded from my basic list. I have extra browns, and a warm and cool of blue, red, and yellow.

I think it’s best to start with less in terms of colour. You can get a reasonable approximation of many observed colours with the list provided here and as you learn more you can add judiciously to your palette. Sometimes there may be a modern colour that you observe that you will not be able to mix no matter how hard you try (fluorescent orange would be an extreme example). In this case you would have to purchase.

Note – you don’t need black to start! Try to work around it. Use your complementary colours, neutral grey, even Payne’s grey. Acrylic and oil painters will also want to add titanium white to your shopping list (or your favourite white – there are a few with different properties, I personally like titanium for its strong tinting strength and opacity).

A note on green and black.

Green is not a primary colour and there are not a lot of naturally-occurring green pigments. The picture above shows some examples of green. You can always mix green yourself with the palette I suggested. Sap green is a dark, earthy green with beautiful yellow undertones that you can purchase. It’s a favourite of mine. Turquoise and permanent green are a little less natural looking for painting landscapes but have their uses – always use green carefully. Especially with oil painting it can kind of infiltrate and infect and tint your whole palette if you’re not careful, you can easily cast everything in a sickly glow.

Black was one of the first pigments used by prehistoric artists – charcoal was one of the first drawing tools after fire was invented. 😝 We’ve touched on black a few times but this is important so here we are again. If you don’t have black in your palette, one work-around mix is ultramarine blue plus burnt umber as shown above – it gives you a really rich, earthy black colour. Some examples of blacks you can purchase are lamp black and ivory lack. Every line of good quality paint will offer a few blacks and these all have different properties (much likes whites). You can see the lamp black above is more transparent than the ivory black which has better covering power. Ivory black is a good, all-purpose black. Note my personal favourite, Payne’s grey on the end which can be used as a kind of black-alternative. It’s a cool black, and is a mix of ultramarine blue and ivory black.

Putting it all together.

I created this very quick painting as an exercise to show a little colour theory in practice. I used gouache paints. I started with lemon yellow, which is both fitting name-wise and colour wise. It’s a coolish yellow. I went back in with a lemon yellow darkened with some purple. I started with a more yellow mixture that I progressively darkened with more purple until I achieved a neutral grey for the most shaded areas. I used a light purple background to make the yellow lemons pop, and amplified that effect with a bright purple tabletop. I darkened the shaded areas of the table with a little more purple toned with corresponding neutral grey. I highlighted the lemon with some opaque white. No black used but representational highlights and shading achieved. The colour scheme is pleasing because it makes use of complementary colours.

Summary

This was a long post to write, but in fact this has been a very, very quick discussion of colour theory in a really tiny nutshell. If you look up colour theory online there are so many useful resources and so much has been written about this topic. For beginner painters reading this: When you go to mix colours, try not to get too lost in the details. It really is something that is learned with time, it does become intuitive, and you will kind of memorize your go-tos. It is truly more of an art than a science. I’ve tried to give you some guiding principles to follow, but there aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules.

I do recommend that you try to take a more holistic approach when you’re trying to figure out how to paint something, and how to mix your colours. Really study what you are painting. Say you’re painting a portrait of a brunette. The brown in her hair – are there blonde (yellow) highlights? Is there a red undertone? Is it dark brown, veering more towards black and more towards cool undertones (like raw umber and Payne’s grey?).

When you study the world around you, when you really look at it, you’ll notice that there are all sorts of colours in someone’s hair, in the petals of a flower, in the dark of the shadows cast by a building on a sunny day. The more you can perceive those, and suggest these colours and transitions between colours in your work, the closer you will get to representing the world as you see it, through your painting.

And that’s it!

For those of you starting out, I hope this helps! For all of you who have taken the time to read this, I thank you! Any questions? Feel free to ask in the comments below.

How to Start an Oil Painting

Freshly primed canvas, full of promise…

It may seem kind of daunting (or is it just me?), but starting your first oil painting is actually pretty straightforward with the right materials, a little know-how, and a bit of a, “What the hell, let’s just give it a try” attitude. Here’s a video to help you lay down your first layer of oil paint and get your drawing transferred to your canvas and ready to go.

***Disclaimer*** Cute dogs make an appearance and cause a little chaos. So sorry for any video awkwardness on my part. Oh, and please excuse Baby Riggs for growling at Teelo around the first minute or so, I don’t know what that was about. Materials listed after the video for your information 🙂

Materials needed:

Canvas (I like the extra thick gallery-stretched canvases)

Oil painting medium (I use 1 part Gamsol: 1 part Galkyd stored in a screw top glass container)

A neutral oil paint colour like burnt umber or Payne’s grey (my favourites :)); I’ve been using burnt umber so much for my cat paintings I’m renaming it Beesa umber 🙂


These Old Holland paints are looking well-loved and well-used already.
Always a Dog Mom 🙂

A soft, flat brush (I use a 3/4″ synthetic bristle watercolour brush – reserved just for this purpose)

Paper towels or rags

Extras:

Acrylic paint in your choice of colour to finish the sides of your canvas (I like Tri-Art charcoal black for the price and the quality);

Saral white transfer paper for transferring your under-drawing to the canvas

Good boy Teelo!!

White Prismacolour pencil crayons – also for drawing on the canvas

And that’s it. Happy painting and thanks for visiting! If this tutorial is helpful at all to you, please let me know in the comments below!