Removing Varnish

Q. I applied damar varnish to an oil painting and the surface rippled like waves after it dried. It’s been dry now for about four months. How do I strip the varnish without destroying the painting?
Ron Gabriel
Diamond Bar, CA

A. The first step is to study the painting more closely. Is it definitely the varnish that’s rippled? While I have on occasion seen small wrinkles form in a varnish layer, more often I find that the paint layer is wrinkled as well. If this is the case, removing the varnish won’t solve your problem; it will merely leave you with an unvarnished, wrinkled surface.

If you do determine that just the varnish has been affected, then you can try to remove it—but I strongly recommend you seek professional help. It’s very easy for an inexperienced person to cause harm to a painting in this process. But if you feel up to the task, the most important rule is to test, test and test.

You may find that one color passage will be unaffected by solvent, while another will dissolve immediately. Still other areas could start to dissolve with a little more rubbing. This can be especially true with a young painting, where the paint hasn’t had time to solidify completely. That’s why you’ll want to check each color with small, discrete tests.

I recommend trying a petroleum distillate, such as mineral spirits. Apply the solvent with a lightly moistened cotton swab, gently rolling it back and forth over a small spot. Watch your swab carefully for any hints of color. As a freshly applied varnish has no appreciable color itself, the easiest way to tell if it’s coming up is to look for a change in gloss on the painting’s surface as the solvent evaporates. With the removal of varnish, it should appear more matte.

As a conservator, I do want to warn you again and explain why varnish removal is such a tricky process. Different batches of damar resin may have different solubility parameters. Damar isn’t made up in a laboratory environment; it’s a resin collected from trees, and so the quality varies. If you applied a commercially prepared damar varnish, there may be additives that could complicate its removal. If you made the varnish yourself but it’s been sitting around your studio for a year, this could also affect its behavior.

Even if you made the varnish fresh but used turpentine that had been sitting around for a long time, this too could affect the behavior of the varnish. The types of paints you used, any additional media, the amount of time that passed before you varnished your painting—all can play into the ease or difficulty of removing a varnish.

It would be a good idea to make an appointment with a conservator, who can look at the painting and help you understand what’s going on. To find one in your area, call the American Institute for Conservation at 202/452-9545. You can also reach the institute by e-mail at info@aic-faic.org.

Keep in mind that while all conservators have experience with damar, you might want to seek out someone who focuses on contemporary art, as he or she may be more receptive to the idea of advising an artist.

Whether or not your present predicament can be solved to your satisfaction, try to review the situation for clues on how to avoid such problems in the future. Wrinkling of a varnish or paint layer usually suggests that the layer dried by skinning over, perhaps rather quickly, while the material underneath was still fluid enough to flow. When a layer dries like this, the mobile portions can distort and wrinkle the already-dried upper skin. Paint layers are more apt to do this, as they oxidize and solidify at a much slower pace than spirit varnishes such as damar, which dry by the evaporation of solvents.

Furthermore, thick paint layers are more likely to wrinkle than those thinly applied. One of damar’s drawbacks is that it’s a fairly brittle varnish, and some commercial products may add drying oils to increase its flexibility. If this is the case with your painting, and you varnished it before it was dry to the touch or applied a very thick layer of varnish, you could have impeded the drying of your paint layer.

While this may be of little consolation, keep in mind that sometimes painting materials go wrong and we never really understand why. In such cases, all we can do is learn to accept it and move on.

“Drawing and painting have been an integral part of my life for as long as I can remember,” says Patricia Harrington. “I was fortunate to attend a school system that fostered creative development, and also to have patient parents who encouraged my study of art.” Harrington majored in art at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, where she was “introduced to many exciting things,” including watercolor. While developing into the respected artist she is today, Harrington reared four boys and moved from Michigan to Chicago, Illinois, then to Athens, Georgia, and finally, in 1967, to Lynchburg, Virginia, where she and her husband continue to reside today.

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