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Along with artistic paints, varnish is one of the artist’s tools. It is a blend of natural or artificial resin, which dries and forms a strong thin film on the picture surface. Varnish not only preserves the painting for many years, but also makes the colors brighter and the small details more expressive. The long time preservation of the picture its reliable protection from light, moisture and dirt depends on how correctly the means for fixing the work is selected. As a topcoat, the varnish is only applied to the picture after the paint gets completely dry. In the case of oil painting, the application of a protective layer on the painting can take place a year after the end of the work.
Artists use varnish not only for its protective properties. It is also used for painting retouching. If the artist does not paint a picture alla prima, that is, in a single session, but works on it for a long time, finishing the canvas from time to time, he/she cannot do without varnish. It is used to avoid drying and discoloration of the upper paint layers, which lay over the previous, not completely dry layer. Thus, in multi-layer painting, the varnish serves for better adhesion of the paint layers.
If the artist wants to achieve transparency of paints, their color saturation, he/she also uses varnish as a diluent of pigments or their blends. This technique is often used in painting at glazing, when the master works with thin layers of transparent and translucent paints. Note that, in addition to varnish, oil and oil varnishes are used for the glazing technique.
The most famous and popular is dammar varnish, which is a solution of dammar resin in pinene with the addition of ethyl alcohol. It is used for adhesion of paint layers, as well as for the final coating of works. Dammar varnish turns yellow over time, so it is better suited for paintings made in warm colors. It can also become cloudy in humid conditions, as it is quite hygroscopic.
Megilp is made of the resin of mastic tree dissolved in pinene. It is used as a retouch in multi-layer painting, as well as a cover layer. Over time, it becomes yellowish.
Pistachio varnish is colorless and takes a long time to dry. It contains pistachio resin, which is dissolved in pinene, as well as butyl alcohol and white spirit.
Acrylic pistachio varnish is very popular with contemporary artists. It is stronger than dammar varnish and megilp, gives an almost colorless film and is very elastic. In addition to pistachio resin, it contains synthetic polybutyl methacrylic resin and butyl alcohol. Acrylic pistachio varnish is loved by the artists who prefer to work in cold and light colors.
Acrylic varnish is not only used as a top coat, but also for diluting acrylic paints. When working in oil, acrylic varnish can be used for finishing the surface, as well as for priming or diluting acrylic and oil paints. It dries quickly to form a transparent and flexible water-repellent film. Acrylic varnish gives the paintings brightness and gloss.
Acrylic styrene varnish is used only for finishing painting. It is quite versatile and suitable for fixing the surfaces of paintings made with oil, acrylic and tempera. Acrylic styrene varnish gives a transparent elastic film. It is valued for its high drying speed — about 24 hours, so the dust does not have time to stick to the picture. Water resistance and transparency over the years makes acrylic styrene varnish very popular with contemporary artists.
Copal varnish is made of kauri resin with the addition of pinene and refined linseed oil. It is quite dark, therefore it is used as a thinner for paints.
Artists use a special retouching varnish in order to prevent drying out and better hold the colourful layers together.
For paintings made in mixed media, as well as for drawings made with charcoal, pastel or ink, it is preferable to use aerosol varnishes. In each case, the fixing composition is selected for a specific task.
Like paints, varnishes are quite flexible and interesting tools for the artist. Their diverse composition and properties expand the painter’s possibilities.