Varnish or not?

Meubelwonder J-10, Kleines Chemische Fabrieken, pic1

Over at Painting Perceptions there’s a great post on the historical symbolism of varnishing paintings.

It covers a fair bit of ground, but for me the major takeaway was that, back in the 19th century, not varnishing their paintings was one of the ways the Moderns distanced themselves from their more aesthetically conservative Academic counterparts. Varnish, over and above its practical function as a protective layer, carried a whole freight of symbolic value, the sum total of which was to affirm a painting’s status as a Valuable Object, part of a continuity of great art extending back over the centuries. The Moderns, beginning with the Impressionists, sought to make painting that was less obviously precious and more an expression of the contemporary world with its rough edges and discontinuities.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, mainly because I’ve started painting oils again and I have to figure out what my approach to varnishing them (or not) is going to be. Symbolism aside, varnishing your paintings isn’t a bad idea. Varnish may carry some unwanted symbolic freight, but it also confers a significant practical benefit: all else being equal, your paintings last longer and are easier to clean and cheaper to maintain. So there are good, pragmatic reasons for varnishing.

On the other hand, I am consciously approaching Modernism as a tradition of sorts, the way some musicians approach, say, Dixieland jazz. That doesn’t mean I have to slavishly adhere to its conventions, but if I depart from them I should have good reasons.

So here they are:

  • The battle with the Academy is over. The Moderns won, and then lost their own battle with the Post-Moderns, for whom the whole question of varnishing was simply meaningless, fifty years later. Not varnishing because I want to distance myself from a school of painting that’s been out of fashion for over 100 years seems pretty silly.
  • If you’re going to abandon good craft practice by not varnishing, why stop there? If rough edges are what you seek, there are all sorts of ways you can roughen up your painting materials, including:
    • Use housepaint, cheap poster paint, or better still toothpaste, tar and molasses
    • Use brushes made from your own hair and old popsicle sticks, or better still no brushes at all.
    • Paint on corrugated cardboard or newsprint, not linen
    • No frames, obviously

    … and so forth, all of which were done at some point during the 20th century, creating no end of work for the conservators trying to keep the resulting stuff from falling apart.

  • And really, if I cared that much about expressing the discontinuities and contradictions of the contemporary world I wouldn’t be a painter at all, I’d be some kind of New Media artist. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m at least as interested in establishing continuities with the past as I am with repudiating them; the whole question is really which continuities should we maintain and which should we discard? So although I’m interested in the pictorial languages of Modernism I’m not really continuing their avante-garde project in any meaningful way.

Ultimately I think that for me, the symbolism of varnish doesn’t need to be given a lot of weight, and my decision should be based more on practicality and pure aesthetics. Since we’ve already established the practical case for varnishing, any resistance would ultimately have to be aesthetically based: which is to say, if I just didn’t think my paintings will look their best with a glossy sheen over top of them.

But the glossy sheen doesn’t have to be a problem. There are new kinds of painting materials now, including newer and  better varnishes than they had 100 years ago. These let you control the level of gloss to achieve whatever effect you want, from the glossiest old-master finish to completely matte.

The only thing you can’t do with the newer materials, as far as I know,  is maintain the variations in sheen that you get with a completely unvarnished picture. A certain uniformity of surface is the inevitable outcome of the varnishing process. But unless you’re consciously using those variations for expressive purposes, which I’m not, then there’s no reason you should seek to maintain them.

So there you have it. A matte varnish (or more accurately wax) would seem to be the best way forward here: a tip of the hat to the Modern aversion to glossy surfaces, but hopefully keeping up the craft standards at the same time.

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