Dammar Varnish

Dammar varnish is used in oil painting techniques, for several purposes:

  • As an inbetween varnish, for glossying up the first oil paint layer(s) that went matte
  • For sealing dry egg tempera underpainting
  • It's used in oil painting mediums, to make the paint more shiny
  • As a finishing varnish, to protect the painting from smoke, dust etc. As such, it's applied only after the painting dried for a few months.

Making dammar varnish

Dammar-varnish is a tree resin. It doesn't make your paint fatter, but too much use makes your paint too brittle. You can buy it as a liquid, but also as lumps of soft stone (a bit like amber). You can dissolve these lumps in turpentine oil. This is not the mineral turpentine you buy in the supermarket - and its often imitated. The brands Schmincke and Lukas have real turpentine oil. Put the lumps of dammar in a panty-hose, and hang them in a jar of turpentine oil. 1 part of dammar on 2 parts of turpentine oil.

Dammar varnish in oil painting mediums

In oil painting, you add a medium to stick to the rule "painting fat over lean". The best and simplest oil painting medium is dammar varnish and stand oil, mixed 1 on 1. This medium can be used in other recipes as well, such as oily egg tempera. The old masters used it to speed up the drying process of their oil paint. Here you'll find an oil painting guide that contains the recipes and more info on the procedures and application.

Free recipe sheets for oil painting techniques

Free recipe sheets

Part of my e-book is available for free: a recipes and product list, focused on primers and underpainting. You'll find it when you subscribe to this website. It will get you started right away. There's not much text in it, only recipes - if you want to understand your materials more, you can always buy the e-book later.

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Dammar varnish as in-between varnish

As an in-between varnish over egg-tempera or lean oil underpainting, take a dammar varnish that was extra thinned with turpentine (1 on 1), and brush it on lightly. It's better not to make thick layers of dammar in between the oils - it's brittle, and it tends to yellow. When the end-varnish is yellow, it can be taken off. But when it's in between the oil layers, there's nothing you can do about it.

Varnishing a finished painting

Somewhere in the early 20th century, painters stopped varnishing their oil paintings. An unvarnished painting is has different levels of matteness and gloss, and that's often found more beautiful. Matte paint has an 'open' look, and with much gloss the color can seemed to be closed in behind a window. When experimenting, I found that a shiny varnish can have a big impact on the colors. A lean black paint is not a deep black. It gets to be deep black by varnishing it. So, you can paint a black object on a grey background, by applying only varnish on a matte black.

Varnishing and protection

Before the 1890's, you couldn't sell a painting that wasn't varnished. Varnishing was done with dammar varnish, after the painting had dried for months, to make sure the varnish layer could be taken off without harming the oil underneath it. Varnish meant: protection. That was necessary: there were oil lamps, candles, open fire places, all the men smoked - without varnish, a painting would be ruined within a few years. Still, the modernist painters preferred to keep their paints pure and matte. They preferred pure color over shine.

Nowadays, there's no more fumes in the house, the need for protection is less urgent. Varnishing can be considered as a matter of taste. Still, an oil painting won't keep clean forever. And also a varnish has to be renewed, every few hundred years - apart from the dirt, it will go yellow too. There's no final solution to this, I guess. But, in any case: for adding shine, there's no equal to dammar varnish.


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