Watching Paint Dry

Q. Everything I’ve read about lacquering oil paintings says it must be done, but to wait at least six months to a year after completion. If that’s correct, how can I complete, frame and sell (or give away) a painting? This would require that I sit my finished paintings in the corner with a date on them and let them age before I can do anything with them. How is this normally handled?

A. By “lacquering” I presume you mean “varnishing.” Lacquers are very different from varnishes; very often lacquers contain volatile solvents that promote rapid drying and are usually sprayed on, a method of application I don’t generally recommend for individual artists unless they’re well protected with safety equipment. Lacquers also tend to be slightly tinted, while varnishes dry as a clear coating.

If you choose to varnish your oil paintings with a normal coating, you do have to wait until the painting is pretty dry. This can take up to a year if the oil paint layers are of average thickness, but could take less time if the paints are thinner or more time if the paints are thicker. There’s no way for me to tell how long it might take unless I can look at the actual painting.

In situations such as yours, I often recommend that the artist apply a single coat of retouch varnish, which is normal varnish thinned with its solvent in a proportion of about four parts solvent to one part varnish. To do this, the surface of your painting must be dry. Then brush on the retouch varnish lightly, so as not to disturb the paint. Allow it to dry, then frame and exhibit the piece. If you sell or give away the work then you must remember to contact the client in a year’s time and propose to give the painting its final varnish coating.

Mark Gottsegen is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and chair of ASTM International’s subcommittee on artists’ materials.

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