Gamvar: Gamblin’s Easy-to-Use Picture Varnish for Oil Painters

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gamvar-gloss-satin-matteOnce in a while I come across a product that makes life in the studio so much easier that I feel compelled to share it with readers. I am not an employee of Gamblin, nor do I receive any compensation for this review.

Once a painting is done, the oil painter faces two vexing questions: should I varnish the painting and, if so, how should I varnish it? The “why” of varnishing is not the primary subject of this article, but for those who are interested, please see  Why Varnish at the end. The “how” of varnishing, though, is more problematic. There are many different types of varnishes and brands and applying any of them incorrectly can easily ruin a painting.

I recently tried Gamvar picture varnish from Gamblin Artist’s Oil Colors. With just a little testing, I could see that I had found a varnish that solved my most difficult varnishing problems:

1. It can be applied much sooner than traditional varnishes
An oil painting goes through a curing process that continues long after it feels dry to the touch. So as not to interfere with this drying process, it is usually recommended that you wait six months (for thin paint) to a year (for thicker paint) before varnishing. This is a real problem for painters who must release their work to buyers or galleries sooner than that. The Gamvar formula is permeable enough to allow the underlying oil paint to proceed with its natural curing process, so you can apply the varnish once the paint is dry. What’s more, the solvent component of Gamvar is mild enough so it won’t dissolve the thin glaze layers of the painting. Gamblin notes, “How do you tell if a painting is ready to varnish? It’s easy — just touch it. If there are impasto areas, gently press your fingernail into that impasto. If it is firm underneath the surface of the painting then it is ready for varnishing [with Gamvar].”

Use a wide 2″ to 3″ natural bristle brush for varnishing. The finer the bristle, the less chance you will leave brush streaks. Use a very thin coat to avoid this.

2. It is easy to apply
Gamvar is very thin and non-oily, so it can easily be applied in an even, thin coat. This is good news. Some brush-on varnishes are oilier and slightly viscous, making it harder to achieve an even coat. Spray varnishes can be very effective, but they require protective masks and a dedicated spray area.

3. It permits control of the surface sheen from glossy to matte
One of the benefits of varnishing is that it enables painters to adjust the surface sheen of the painting after it is done. It can also correct or reduce flat (matt) spots. Gamvar is available in gloss (original), satin, and matte formulas. With t the addition of Gamvar Matte to the lineup, adding cold wax medium to the gloss formula is no longer necessary.
Gamvar also offers another advantage. It can be removed with Gamsol, a very mild solvent. Damar varnish can only be removed with a strong solvent such as turpentine. Being able to remove a varnish with a mild solvent means less risk of damaging the delicate paint layers.

Although Gamvar is easy to use, you should test it on an old painting first, as you would any new studio method. Gamvar naturally creates a gloss sheen. If you want a satin or matte finish, you will need add cold wax medium.

Shelf life: I am often asked how long Gamvar lasts. Scott Gellatly, product development manager at Gamblin, writes: “Gamvar does not have a specific shelf life, compared to other varnishes.  As the case with all varnishes, however, they are best used as fresh as possible.  Painters should buy the size container that is appropriate for their needs and use it within a year or two. Here is the approximate coverage for each size we now make available:

4.2 fl oz: 80 square feet
8.5 fl oz: 160 square feet
16.9 fl oz: 320 square feet

varnish-streak-brush

Avoiding streaks: If you are getting streaks you are almost certainly applying too much varnish. Always apply varnish as thinly as possible, avoiding visible brush strokes. Those new to varnishing overestimate the amount of varnish necessary and apply far too much. Imagine that you are trying spread the varnish as far as it can go.

When a painting’s surface is more textured, say, from a coarse-weave canvas or the texture of the strokes themselves, streaking will be less noticeable. However, the potential for streaks is greater when the surface of the painting  is very smooth and the paint is applied very thinly with little or no visible texture. Then there is no texture to interrupt or camouflage the streaks.

Immediately after applying a very thin layer of varnish, I use a very soft, delicate, “fluffy” brush and lightly dab the surface. This breaks up the streaks. Use a quick, but light up and down dabbing motion, and pay close attention that you don’t miss any spots. The brush shown here (above) is a 2-1/2 inch wide Asian-style Hake wash brush with sheep hair. Note: It is preferable to not use the same brush for this dabbing step as you did for the varnishing. The varnishing brush is laden with wet varnish; its hairs will be clumped together and have less “fluffiness.” Use a dry brush with hairs that are still fluffy and open. If you must use the same brush as you used for varnishing, wipe it back and forth on a roll of paper towels until most of the remaining varnish has been soaked up and the bristles have opened again and regained some of their fluffiness.

From the Gamblin website: “Gamvar Picture Varnish saturates colors in your painting and gives your work a unified and protective surface. Developed in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, Gamvar goes on water-clear, stays water-clear and can be easily and safely removed with Gamsol. Gamvar is virtually odorless and ready to apply. Brush apply. Do not spray. All Gamvar can be applied when the thickest areas of your painting are thoroughly dry and firm to the touch. Please visit our Video Demos page for additional information.”

Why varnish? Painters varnish their work for two reasons. First, it is a way to control the surface sheen of the painting once it is finished. Second, a varnish serves as a protective coating. A painting, like the walls in your house, becomes dirty over time. Or worse, if there is smoke damage or the painting were accidentally splattered with a foreign substance, the varnish is what would be affected, not the paint itself. If you try to remove a foreign substance from an unvarnished painting, you risk damaging the paint surface. But when you remove a foreign substance from a varnished painting, you are only removing the varnish, and are able to preserve the integrity of the paint surface. Then, a new varnish can be applied. Needless to say, varnishing won’t protect the painting from mechanical damage. If your cat uses it as a scratching post (this really happened to me), varnish will not help!

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About Author

Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). A best-seller with over 35,000 copies in print, it has been called the "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, Mitchell currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, Winslow Art Center, and Arte Umbria in Italy. He has also lectured at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines.

25 Comments

  1. Michelle Waldele-Dick on

    Thanks Mitch, I’m excited to try this product. I definitely come up against the problem of needing to varnish before paintings go to the gallery, usually before the minimum 6 months.

  2. Mitch, this is very helpful. I rarely use oils, but when I do, I’ve often had to forgo the varnishing process because of time constraints. Also, this varnish must be appropriate for alkyd resin based paintings, as well.

  3. Janice Kirstein on

    Hi Mitch,

    I used Gamvar the last time I varnished and I loved it. I was amazed how little odor it had. I didn’t realize, however, that it could be applied so soon after painting. Thank you so much for your informative blog.

  4. Hi Mitch,
    This is so helpful, thank you. A few questions: Do you use a bristle or sponge brush; how many coats are required; how many days before the varnish dries to it’s final sheen?
    Thank you again!

  5. Mitchell Albala on

    I have only tried it with natural bristle brushes (see new photo above), so I’m not sure how the sponge brush would perform. Only one coat is required, and it dries to its final sheen overnight.

  6. Hi,
    I too prefer a matte finish. Is there a reason I shouldn’t Cold Wax Medium alone as a varnish, as opposed to mixing it with Gamvar?
    Thanks!

  7. Mitchell Albala on

    Good question, Robin. Gamblin says that the cold wax medium does meet one important requirement of a varnish: it is removable. However, Scott Gellatly, technical consultant at Gamblin Colors, says that the better, more conservative approach would be to apply the Gamvar alone for a gloss surface and then (once dry) apply the cold wax medium over that. As a true varnish the Gamvar provides a stronger layer of protection than the cold wax alone.

  8. Thanks so much for the response! Sounds like the ideal solution, will try it on my next finished piece.
    P.S. Have really enjoyed your book on so many levels. Great technical information, and an even better survey of the infinite approaches to the contemporary landscape.
    Robin

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  10. kathryn altus on

    Hi Mitch. I tried the cold wax medium mixed with Gamvar. The paint on my piece is uneven, thicker and shinier in some areas, thinner and dull in other areas. I wanted to
    even that out, but when I applied one coat of varnish it didn’t resolve the problem. Can I put on a second coat, with more wax in the emulsion? Or do I have to take off the first coat
    and start over?

  11. Mitchell Albala on

    To answer this question, I turned to Scott Gellatley, the technical consultant at Gamblin colors, who knows more about this product than I do. He writes:

    Here are a few thoughts about the uneven surface of Gamvar/Cold Wax Medium you experienced:

    1. It is very common that oil paintings dry to varying levels of absorbency, due to the varying rates that pigments absorb the linseed oil binder. One coat of varnish will even the surface out some, but it may “sink in” to the absorbent areas, resulting in dull spots. A second coat of varnish will even this out. If appropriate, you may choose to simply “spot varnish” in those duller areas only. For future reference, the “oiling out” technique does a great job of unifying the surface and absorbency of a painting prior to varnishing. I wouldn’t do this on the piece that is already varnished …but for future paintings, it’s a great way to ensure that the varnish goes on more evenly.

    2. It could be as simple as a incomplete mixture of Gamvar and cold way medium. Here’s a mixing tip: mix a small amount of Gamvar into the cold way medium on a palette with a palette knife until you’ve reached a slurry consistency, then add the slurry mixture to the larger component of Gamvar. This will expedite the mixing of the two materials and will help achieve a more complete mixture.

    3. I don’t think you have to remove the varnish, as a more even surface can be achieved through a second layer. But if you ever have to remove Gamvar, it is very easy. Simply wet a rag with Gamsol OMS and dissolve the varnish on the painting, then pick up the dissolved varnish with a second, clean rag.

    For more information on our varnishes, including application tips, and a video demonstration, please visit http://www.gamblincolors.com/oil.painting.techniques/varnishes.html

  12. I am so excited to think that there is a way to make a reliable matte varnish. I’m restoring a large number of pictures for a client who wants a very matt finish on them after their cleaning, and I think this will do it! Thanks in advance so much. Is there a way that I could glimpse your book? I think I would like to buy a copy, but don’t like to buy an art book unseen. Can you let me know? Thanks.

  13. I used Picture varnish gloss on my painting and it has left residue of spots on my painting, what should I do? Do I colour all over again? Do I varnish with a brush to rectify these specks? please help me.

  14. Mitchell Albala on

    First of all, I assume you are referring to Gamvar picture varnish? I don’t use other brands so I can’t comment on those. I ran this problem by Scott Gellatly, technical consultant at Gamblin Colors. He writes, “Spots left on the varnish layer can be caused by a number of factors — most likely that dust may have settled on the varnish layer as it was drying.” Also be sure that you apply the varnish VERY thinly. See “Tips” in the post above. I place a large cardboard lid (like a box top) over the painting to prevent dust particles from settling. When you suggest “color all over again,” if you mean applying fresh oil paint over the problem spots — definitely not! Varnish is meant to be a final layer. Putting oil paint over the varnish is bad chemistry. If I have a bad varnishing outcome, the best thing to do is remove that layer of varnish and try again. One of the benefits of Gamvar is that it is easily removed with the the Gamblin’s solvent, Gamsol. Because it is a very mild solvent it cannot harm the delicate paint layers as other, harsher solvents can. Of course, removing the varnish is a gentle process. As you rub gently with a solvent-moistened rag, you’ll know that the solvent is coming off because it will feel a little sticky. Keep turning the the rag, exposing a fresh portion, so you are not reapplying the removed varnish. With a second pass, you should no longer feel that stickiness, which is a good indicator that the varnish has been removed. Remember, rub VERY gently! Even though Gamsol is a very gentle solvent, rubbing too hard can and will remove paint.

  15. Can Gamvar be applied over Winsor Newton’s liquin? I had been told some time ago that liquin could be used to varnish; I now discover that liquin should not be used. Is there any solution to the already varnished with liquin paintings?

  16. Mitchell Albala on

    This is a good question, Marie, and I don’t have a perfect answer for you. That’s right, whoever told you that it was OK to “varnish” with Liquin was in error. Why? Because Liquin is not a varnish! A varnish needs to have a different chemical nature than the paint itself, so it sits on top of the paint layers (not merge with them), so it can be to removed at a later date if need be. The post from David Pyle at Winsor Newton explains the problem in more detail.
    I suspect that the Liquin cannot be removed, and that you will have to simply varnish over it. Check with Scott Gellatly, technical consultant at Gamblin Artists Colors. I’m sure he has been asked this question before.

  17. Amanda Teicher on

    I’m about to deliver a painting to a buyer. It’s dry to the touch, but not varnished. Oh no! This is my first sale, so I’ve never faced this situation before. Now that I’ve read this article … problem solved!

  18. Mitchell Albala on

    It’s still a good idea to experiment with any new varnishing medium before you try it out on your “final” painting. Test it on an old canvas you don’t care about anymore … just to see if you encounter any problems, which you can then account for in the varnish of the final painting.

  19. Gamvar with cold wax is the best varnish solution I’ve ever used and I’ve used many. I use the Omega brush that Scott Gellatly suggested above (the Escoda 2360 natutal bristle works equally well). I’m glad to hear that Gamvar’s popularity is growing, hopefully that will ensure Gamblin keeps making it for years to come. I think I’d be lost without it now.

  20. I have used Gamvar on several occasions and to good effect. However, I recently varnished a painting with Gamvar and there are about three spots in the middle, about a quarter of an inch diameter that won’t take the varnish. It is as if these areas are gamvar repellant. Has anyone any explaination and suggestions?

  21. Mitchell Albala on

    I can’t say for sure, but it does sound like there is a varnish-resistant spot. Have you inspected the spot closely to see if there is something there, like an oil or grease spot? I will defer to Scott Gellatly on this one, the technical consultant at Gamblin Colors, the makers of Gamvar. I’m sure he will have a more reliable answer: scott@gamblincolors.com

  22. Hi, thank you for the information.
    I have to varnish a painting that I have to deliver in 6 days. I have used Gamvar before and it was wonderful, but, stores are not selling it unless is online…takes time to ship!!! I have some Gamvar varnish left that I mixed together 6 month ago. My question is, can I still use it?
    thank you!