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Freshness of Color

by Keith Bond on 5/30/2011 10:33:05 AM

This article is by Keith Bond, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews.  You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.



This is a follow-up to last week’s article about Liquin.  I will offer a few suggestions for maintaining fresh color after the painting has dried but before you varnish.


Oil Primed Canvas

Gesso will suck the oil out of your colors leaving them looking dull or “sunken” when dry.  Using an oil primer instead will leave colors with much more life.  Oil primer doesn’t suck the oil out of your paint.  Yes, gesso does have its good points.  Only you can weigh the pros and cons for yourself. 


Paints and Pigments

Dry pigments are mixed with oil to create the paints you use.  Some pigments absorb more oil than others.  These colors will dry duller and lifeless.  Student grades often use inferior pigments which also absorb more oil.  In general, higher quality paints will do better to retain their freshness of color compared to student grades of the same color (this is one of many reasons to use artist quality paints).  But as explained above, certain pigments of the same brand/quality will retain freshness of color better than others.  Research and experimentation will help you find pigments that suit your needs.



There are many mediums on the market (Liquin is just one of many).  Some will increase the gloss of your paint.  Others will decrease the gloss. Caution should be used when working with any medium, because they change the chemical properties of your paint.  They each have advantages and disadvantages and must be used properly.  They should never be used as a varnish.  Do your homework.  Read the books by Mayer, Gottsegen, and Taubes.  I won’t go into all the pros and cons of mediums here.  It’s much too lengthy a topic.  Only you can decide if you want to use them.  But be informed before you decide.  Also, a word of caution, just because a famous artist uses a medium in a certain way, doesn’t mean that it is a good idea.  He may be uninformed.



I must admit that I know very little about using wax as a final coat for oil paintings.  I know it is done.  But I don’t know the pros or cons or how or when to apply it.  When mixing wax in paints or adding it to varnishes, it creates a matte finish.  I would assume, then, that when used as a final coat it would be matte.  Any input from those who know would be welcome. 



Varnishing is a huge topic.  I’ll try to briefly touch upon the important points.  A more thorough discussion warrants a separate article.  After reading your comments, I’ll decide whether or not I need to write a follow-up.


Retouch varnish

Retouch varnish will restore the fresh wet look to dry paintings, but only temporarily.  Retouch is not intended to be applied in a thick coat.  It is intended to create a bond between dry and wet layers of paint.  It also aids in matching color and value as you resume painting.  If used as a temporary varnish over a dry painting, the gloss effect will fade quickly.  If you apply it heavily enough to retain its fresh glossy look for any length of time, it will cover the painting much more heavily than intended.  It would be similar to a final varnish.  Retouch varnish is nothing other than a diluted final varnish.



Spray with final varnish while the painting is wet.

Kamar is one brand that many of you mentioned.  But there are many others.  I have done this only once.  It was about 15 years ago and my painting ran.  I have never done it again.  Some artists do it cautiously so it won’t run.  It must be applied thinly.  To me it isn’t worth the risk.  However, if you do, you are creating a bond between the paint and varnish.  It would dry as a continuous film rather than two separate films.  Thus, on a molecular level it would be akin to using a medium.  I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be a removable layer, but I might be wrong.  Also, because it must be applied very thinly, I don’t know how long the glossy look would last.  Any input from those who know more would be helpful.


Apply Varnish when dry to the touch (spray or brush).

There is a school of thought that suggests that it is safe to varnish when the painting is dry to the touch as opposed to waiting 6 months to a year.  The reasoning is this:


The tradition of waiting so long to varnish is carried over from an era centuries ago when the varnish was poured on in a thick, glossy layer.  The current taste of a much thinner layer of varnish doesn’t require the lengthy cure time.  The thinner layer isn’t as brittle as a thick layer.  It would bond to the paint creating one durable layer that would expand and contract with the paint.  


According to Mayer, the benefits of varnishing so soon also include protecting the painting from dust, smoke, dirt, and other particulates which could become imbedded in the paint if left unvarnished.


Some say that you must varnish within 2 weeks of drying to the touch or you have missed the window of opportunity and must then wait the traditional 6 to 12 months.  I don’t have any expertise in this area to know if this claim is true.  Again, any input is welcome.


Wait to Varnish.

Of course, there are many who still subscribe to the practice of waiting 6 to 12 months to varnish.  There are a few cons to this practice: a) the length of time the painting remains unprotected; b) the challenge of having the painting varnished if it is no longer in your possession; c) the aesthetics of an unvarnished painting. 


These aren’t an issue if you are able to get ahead with enough inventory to have cured, ready-to-varnish paintings at any given time.  The paintings you do now could remain in your possession until they can be varnished because you will have older paintings ready as you need them.  But this is rarely possible for most artists.


If you chose to wait for the final varnish, then you are faced with the imperfect options discussed above.  There really isn’t a perfect solution. 


For me, though, I find that oil primed canvas (I use linen) and artist grade paints make a significant difference in the freshness of color when dry.  I rarely use any medium.  I only use it when I want to achieve a certain effect.  I varnish within 2 weeks of drying to the touch, unless the painting needs to be shipped out sooner. 


Best wishes,

Keith Bond


PS.  Did I miss any other methods of restoring freshness of color after the paint has dried?

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Don't Use Liquin as a Varnish

Topics: FineArtViews | Instruction | Keith Bond 

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Keith, thanks for the summary on this topic, it was very useful. I'm wondering if anyone has any experience with Soluvar, a Liquitex product that claims to be an archival removable varnish for acrylic and oil paintings. I've seen it in stores but have not used it.

kohlene hendrickson
HI Keith,
I'm responding to the "wax" part of your article. It is not necessarily matte at all! If you set it with heat until it starts to become glossy it will stay that way. You can then also polish it with a cloth like you would for your furniture to enhance the luster.

Kohlene, please explain what "set it with heat" means. Do you mean heating the wax before application or on the canvas? How would that be done? Thanks, K.

Melinda Cootsona
I've used Kamar for years. I learned about it from Ted Goerschner. I have never had it run as I always spray my canvas flat. Once in one direction wait 10 minutes then rotate the canvas 90 degrees and spray another layer, repeating this process two or three times. The medium gloss effect that Kamar produces does seem to fade over time which is not ideal. It is considered a "re-workable varnish" so I have painted over old paintings with no problem, which is a definite plus.
I'd love to know about Soluvar as well. I've heard good things.
Regarding wax above, I believe you need to continue to polish it over time as the wax will dull....

jack white
Keith, excellent topic. Years ago I began adding five coats of gesso, sanding very smooth in between each coat. For the final coat I mix a table spoonful of marble dust in a jar with some gesso, thin the two with water and use a foam brush for the final coat. Just wash on the last mix. This is my process for high details portraits. I don't care if the portraits are not bright. In fact I want them to be muted.

Mikki, my mate, has found by washing a thin layer of white acrylic over her canvas her oils pop. As you say they don't get sucked up. She paints in a high key double primary palette and doesn't want her colors to be dull.

I find the acrylic coat makes the surface too slick, but I'm hooked on the marble dust mix, which gives me such great tooth. jack

kohlene hendrickson
HI Karen, I am working with encaustic...bleached beeswax with damar resin.. You heat it lightly with a heat gun or infrared lamp.

Kohlene ... oh, so you are not using wax as a varnish over an oil painting then?

Keith Bond

I have used Soluvar for several years. I am very happy with it. It does seem to be archival and removable. None of mine have yellowed. But the true test will be decades from now.

Keith Bond

Do you spray while the painting is still wet to the touch?

Thanks, Keith. I'm going to try it on an older study and see how I like the look.


Melinda Cootsona
Hi Keith, no I wait until the painting is dry to the touch, like you, before I spray, but not nearly as long as the typical 6 months. Kamar is particularly nice if you need to get something ready for a show quickly. Also I'd like to mention Gamblin's website for a lot of great information on all things technical.
@Karen: Gamblin also describes how to varnish with cold wax medium.
Keith, I would love to know more about the pigments that absorb more oil dulling over time. I'm assuming these are the more transparent colors that have finer pigments? Where can I find out more information about this? I would have thought that the pigments that absorbed the oil would not be the ones to "release it into the gesso." Guess I got that backwards!
Thanks for any reference material!!

Sue Favinger Smith
Karen and Keith - I have used Gamblin's cold wax medium as a final varnish, thinned with OMS and brushed on, then buffed when dry. I wanted a little more gloss than I could get with polishing this wax coat, so I switched to the Gamar varnish, which was easy to mix and use. Both products have worked well for me, the main difference is that the wax remains too matte for my work even with buffing, but it is easily reversed, while the Gamar goes on thin and has a nice gloss finish. Gamblin's website offers the best product information of any manufacturer's site that I've found.

Good overview. Any thoughts on oiling out? My guess is that it would be similar to using liquin, and shouldn't be used as a varnish, but is it a good idea to use it to bring up the color for additional painting even if you are not painting over that specific area?

@Melinda Cootsona,
Paints that absorb more oil would be the clay and earth based ones, such as the umbers, siennas, and ochers. These colors will tend to suck the oil out of paint layers put over them.

An acrylic ground will suck the oil out of these very absorbent paints because it doesn't contain any oil at all.

So, you have the ground sucking the oil from the earth pigments, and the earth pigments sucking the oil from everything else.

If you are using earth pigments, following fat over lean can be crucial.

A good reference for absorbent paints would be Virgil Elliott's book Traditional Oil Painting.

Melinda Cootsona
@Brady, Thank You!! I rarely use traditional earth colors so that explains why I don't seem to have this problem. Thanks again for your help.

Marian Fortunati
Thanks again for a good synopses of information and your experiences with varnishes. I enjoy learning from those I admire.

I just stumbled on this site - what luck. I've gotten a lot of valuable information.

Has anybody used Gamblin's Neo Meglip? I put it on a dry oil painting with a cloth and find it gives a lovely finish, evens out any dull areas.

Sue Favinger Smith
Neo Meglip is considered an oil painting medium and thus intended to be mixed with paints to thin them without removing the "body", so it shouldn't be used as a varnish. It has an alkyd resin base like the Galkyd mediums but it's thicker, more like the gel product - which I use similarly to using Maroger but without the odor or the tendency to yellow over time. I would email Gamblin if you have questions about the use of any of their products - they have always responded to my questions, no matter how weird.

Thank you, I will email Gamblin as I really like this product.

Donna Robillard
This has been incredible. I have had so many questions answered here today. Thank you all for sharing what you know about the different products.

Bonnie Samuel
What varnish or finish would you recommend for "water-based" oils, Keith. I use these, like them, and find they retain the gloss look after drying, but a protective coat would be good to add.

I've just started watercolor on yupo paper too--very interesting. Has anyone had experience with sealing this medium?

Joanne Benson
Thank you all for a treasure trove of information. I too use the water mixable oils and have used the Gamblin Cold Wax on them with good results. It does, however, pick up some of the color from the paints as my buffing rag will come away with color. I haven't noticed dulling though but then I haven't done that many I don't have a good experience base. I have waxed a month or so after doing the paintings so they are definitely dry to the touch. Who makes Soluvar and can it be used with water mixable oils?

George De Chiara
I have been using the "wait 6 months" approach to varnishing my paintings, but now I'm starting to think I might be able to get away with using the 2 week method Keith talked about. My biggest problem with waiting 6 months is if I no longer have the painting, getting it back to varnish can be difficult. I usually paint fairly thin - slightly thick so I think the 2 week wait might be enough. Thanks Keith!

Jo Allebach
WOW! I had no idea there was so much to know. Thank you all for the info and thought on researching this topic.

Brady: for oiling out you should just use oil. I prefer walnut oil as it doesn't yellow as much as linseed, but you can use poppy, linseed, etc. I always hesitate to use retouch because it has a lot of damar (varnish) in it. If I use it, it's only on final layer(s) and I dilute it with turp.

Thanks for the discussion!

Also, I personally would never give a final layer of "real" varnish to my paintings before min. 6 months. I use Kamar when I need to get a painting out quick, as it claims to be a breathable film. (and even the semi-gloss loses its luster quickly) Just because a painting is dry to the touch doesn't mean that it's dry at all, it's just like the paint on your palette forming that skin.. The actual oil (of course depending on content, kind of oil, what pigment, etc. etc.) isn't dry all the way through for quite a long time..

Thanks again!

Bettye Rivers
Keith, what kind of oil?...I don't know what you are talking about.

Keith Bond

Any varnish formulated for oil can be used over water-based oil paints.


Keith Bond

I'm not sure what your question is.

The article is about oil painting. The paints are made with a variety of types of oil, depending upon the brand. There is walnut,linseed, poppyseed. When a painting becomes dull, it is because the oil contained in the paint is absorbed out of the film of paint (either by the pigment itself or the gesso).

The article discusses a few options to return the glossy look of the paint.

Hope this answers your question.


Keith Bond

Just to add to Sue's response about Meglip. She is correct, it is a medium and shouldn't be used as varnish.

But what I would like to add is a word of caution.

From what I read, it isn't a very good medium to use. It was created to replicate some of the effects that the old Flemmish painters achieved. But from what I have read, there tends to be problems with cracking down the road. I don't have any firsthand experience. I just offer this as a recommendation that you research it thoroughly.

This brings up another point, many artists like the immediate effects of a particular medium or technique with less regard to longeavity. The manufacturers cater to this and some products really aren't that good.

Most artists probably don't realize the detriment down the road. They don't see the problems.


Sue Favinger Smith
Keith, I would also add that artists use caution when using oil painting mediums, protecting themselves against the odors/fumes and also using skin barriers - gloves or cream. A friend of mine who is a master printer and a former dean of an art school pointed out that there is growing research to indicate some products are not as safe as manufacturers believe. It should be a regular practice to maintain a healthy studio environment.

Victoria Page Miller
@Bonnie I have painted watercolor on Yupo and framed behind glass but just started looking into sealing. According to my research, you can use Krylon Workable Fixative spray as the first layer. Then it is safe to apply varnish without having the watercolor run or integrate with the varnish.

What is a safe way to remove little bits of fiber/dust on an unvarnished painting? As you write, the waiting time means that they do collect little 'thingies' that present a problem in removing, and I was wondering if there was something that can be used to safely wipe off the minute debris that seems to appear out of nowhere.

oh dear! I had that problem once (when painting in a studio with a furry cat, yikes!) My only solution was a pair of tweezers.. Unfortunately once it's dry I don't think that you can do anything. Maybe someone else has better advice?

jack white

If the oils are dry you can use Windex with an old tee-shirt. First try a feather duster. If that doesn't remove all the gunk then use Windex. Make sure and not use a rag with lint.

An old timer told me to mix a cup of alcohol, four drops of Dove liquid soap and fill the spray bottle with water. Shake well. He swore by this to clean dusty oil paintings. jack

Victoria Page Miller
@Kim Tweezers!! You have the patience of a Saint!

I have studio animals too, and it is constantly lofting into the air and settling onto surfaces. I am pretty successful using a Tack Cloth. You can find it at your local hardware store. It's in the painting/refinishing section. It's traditionally used after sanding wood, to pick up the micro pieces of sawdust left on your wood - so it's great for larger elements like hair! Think of it like a slightly sticky cloth - like a lint roller - only in gentler, cloth form.

Hope this helps,

Melinda Cootsona
@ Jack: that is awesome information! Thank you for that.

Thanks for the great hints, all! Yep, with 5 cats that spend some of the time indoors the kitty fur is always a problem, and complicated by living in one of the dustiest, most arid places in the country. I try to keep up with the vacuuming and dusting, but it's a chronic problem. I'm very glad to read that Windex is OK to use, I'll make note of the Dove cleaning formula, and I'll look for tack cloth next time we make a run to the hardware store. I do have some plastic sheets that I drape over the finished work, but that can be cumbersome and I want to be able to display work in my gallery without having plastic draped over everything all the time. When I worked in a biology prep lab we used distilled water for many things, and I'm wondering if that might be even better for the Dove formula than tap or bottled water-? Don't know if you can buy it outright, as our lab had a water distilling machine and we made distilled water in the lab for our uses.

jack white
Kim go with Windex. You probably already have some in your pantry. This will save you time. (smile)

Elaine Locati
Thank you Keith for approaching this complicated issue for all artists. May I also ask your opinion of the toxicity of Liquin? For years I used it as a painting medium until an instructor whom I respect stated that Liquin should be avoided because of the toxicity. I no longer use it but I notice that some very well known artists use it as a medium and even use their fingers to move the paint around.
The information on the absorbability of the acrylic gesso was an eye opener for me. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. We learn something everyday at FASO. Thanks Elaine

Candace Doub
Great information on such a broad topic. I had no idea that gesso would absorb the oil from the paint. Since I have gessoed a few boards in advance, can you suggest something I can apply over it to correct this? These were untreated masonite boards which needed something to give them 'tooth' before painting. Thanks for the great insight into a confusing subject. Candy

Keith Bond

Someone once told me that you could rub a small amount of linseed oil (or other painters' oils) all over the canvas before beginning to paint. In effect, this oil is absorbed rather than the oil in the paint. It also increases the bond between gesso and oil.

To be honest, I don't know whether this is a good idea or not. I have not read anything that is authoritative about that practice. It makes sense to me, but I would recommend researching that practice.

I would assume that if it is safe to do, you would need to take extra care in ensuring that you paint fat over lean. Since you add more oil in the beginning, make sure subsequent layers have enough oil.

Secondly, a clear coat of shellac may work. It is often used to seal masonite or wood panels for painting. It creates a barrier between the wood substrate and the paint film, but the paint is able to bond to it. Bullseye 123 is probably the most convenient and readily available shellac to use. If you shellac over the gesso, it makes the gesso essentially pointless other than texture. And you may find that the shellac smooths out the texture you created.

Again, a word of caution, though. I am not an authority on this process either. I don't know the long-term effects. I don't know how well it adheres to the gesso. I assume it is a viable option, but again, I would recommend doing some research to make sure.

Good luck. And please pass on what you find out. Many of us would be interested.



jack white
Keeping color fresh. Brush on a thin layer of white acrylic. This prevents the colors from soaking into the canvas. jack

Candace Doub
Thanks, Keith, for the detailed response. I don't normally even use masonite boards, but have a few great antique frames I wanted to use that were odd sizes and my husband cut them to fit. I ended up applying the gesso and then sanding it smooth between the two coats, so the texture was not important as much as sealing the masonite prior to painting. I like the shellac idea and will research it. I'll keep you posted! Candace

Candace Doub
Jack: Will brushing on a thin layer of white acrylic also prevent my previously gessoed masonite from soaking up the oil in the paint? Thanks! Candace

jack white
Candace, Acrylic Wash...Actually a thin layer of acrylic. Oils will not soak in.

When you put a thin layer of white acrylic over a gessoed Masonite panel, the surface has very little "tooth." In other words its slick.

If you want some tooth, then pour a little gesso in a small container, add water until you have a wash, then drop in a spoon full of marble dust and stir.

Use a foam brush to wash on the final marble dust coat. This will prevent your brush from picking up paint. The Acrylic will not allow your oils to soak in and the marble dust - gesso mixture will make the surface more enjoyable to paint on. Your brush will grab the surface.

You can buy a small jar of marble dust at Michael's or some crafts shop. Don't buy a 10lb bag,(smile) but a small jar.

When I work on Masonite I do five coats of gesso, sand between each coat and do my final coat with the marble dust mix. This makes a great surface. Many of the old Dutch Masters used the five coats of gesso and the marble dust mix at the end. Jack

Candace Doub
Thanks, Jack and Keith! Support like this from the pros to a student is priceless! Much gratitude for sharing your knowledge. Candace

Keith, Thank you for taking the time to put so much valuable information together on pros and cons of varnishes and that it's okay to do so earlier than what has been traditional thought.


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