One of the most common “material questions” that I receive from painters is in regards to my choice of varnish—and as you can probably tell from the title of this post—It’s obvious that my choice is Winsor & Newton’s Original Liquin. Now many consider this to be a very bad idea (including Winsor & Newton) for VERY good reasons. I would like to be very clear here that this article is NOT a recommendation or endorsement to utilize Liquin in this way. I share this information simply to answer a question that is frequently found in my inbox.
So why do I use Liquin in such a controversial manner? Well, let’s see if I can explain it clearly.
First, what is a varnish and what is it supposed to do?
A varnish is a liquid which, when applied to a solid surface, dries to a transparent film of varying degrees of gloss, toughness, flexibility, and protection, depending upon its composition. It is applied to fully ‘cured’ finished works to provide protection from dust and other atmospheric contaminants, provide a uniform finish, and may assist in the elimination of sinking effects.
What makes a good varnish for Oil Paintings? While this question has led to some debate, we can find a starting point for ‘varnish criteria’ as explored at the International Conference for the Study of Scientific Methods for the Examination and Preservation of Works of Art held in Rome in October of 1930.
The committee for the restoration of paintings established this ideal criteria:
The Varnish should protect the painting for atmospheric impurities. It is interesting to note that many experts would tend to agree that dust can cause the most damage to a painting. Atmospheric contaminants like dust can be extremely abrasive and difficult to remove if it becomes embedded in the paint film.
Its cohesion and elasticity should be such as to allow for all ordinary changes in atmospheric conditions and temperature.
The elasticity of the paint film and tissues under the varnish should be preserved.
It should be transparent and colorless.
It should be capable of being applied thinly.
It should not bloom.
It should be easily removable.
It should not be glossy.
However in November 1934, it was published in the Journal of Chemical Education that the committee did not know of ANY varnish that met all of these requirements.
Here’s a more recent summary of the role of a varnish from Natural Pigments founder George O’Hanlon for the answer:
"A varnish serves several important functions, protective as well as purely visual.
An unvarnished painting is vulnerable to dirt and dust that will eventually become embedded in the paint. It is also subject to deterioration caused by ultraviolet light and oxidation, and abrasion from handling and transport. A varnish can protect the painting from dirt, ultraviolet light and abrasion.
Over the years dirt and dust adhere to the varnish rather than the painting and when the varnish has served its protective function, it can be removed and the painting re-varnished to look as good as new. Applying a varnish to your painting than is an important part of maintaining its appearance and value.
If you decide to apply a varnish to your painting, you must decide on the type of varnish, method of application, and desired final appearance. The following discussion can help you make the right choice for your art work."
Now I did experiment with a good number of varnishes in college and art school. However, as a Trompe L’oeil painter that was quite fond of using ephemera as a subject—a high gloss finish was rather undesirable. Worse yet, the choice of mat varnishes was quite limited and each seemed to result in a very uneven appearance (sheen).
So, amid a salvo of much research and experimentation, I eventually found Original Liquin. I tried it for the first time in the late 90s as a final coat and found the finish to be more mat, and more even in sheen, than anything I have tried before. I was quite thrilled until I found out that Winsor & Newton stated emphatically that the material should not be used in this manner.
Here is a quote I found that was printed in a Winsor & Newton flyer for Liquin from David Pyle, the Director of Communications/Technical Education and the Director of Marketing for Winsor & Newton in North America at the time the flyer was published:
"Because Liquin is used as a medium by so many artists to speed the drying of the paint layer, it has been an easy conceptual leap for many to presume that a layer of Liquin on top is just as good as Liquin added inside. It’s not. Since its introduction in the 1960’s, Liquin has been, and always will be, intended only for use as a medium. The problem with Liquin isn’t the clarity or the resiliency of the film (it has both of those in abundance); it’s that it dries too darn fast and to a solid and highly impermeable film.
If used to seal a still-wet paint layer, Liquin will fully block any further access to the atmosphere and the oxygen that is absolutely essential to the drying of the paint film. Without oxygen, the oil is incapable of forming all those nifty linkages that turn it into a highly durable layer. The paint layer will never fully dry, eventually proving unstable in a number of ways. Moreover, Liquin isn’t soluble or removable (at least not in a way that leaves the painting beneath intact), making it virtually impossible for a conservator or restorer to work on the paint film when needed at a later date."
In addition, the following is a direct quote from the FAQs page on the Winsor and Newton website.
Can Liquin be used as a varnish or final coat?
"It is definitely not advisable to use Liquin as final layer to a painting based on the reasons below:
- Unlike Conserv-Art and other modern picture varnishes, when dry Liquin is not soluble in normal paint solvents. Therefore when the picture surface becomes discoloured by ingrained dirt from the atmosphere, it cannot be either completely cleaned or removed and the picture re-varnished.
- Although Liquin has much better resistance to yellowing than linseed oil, it will discolour more than acrylic varnishes such as ConservArt.
- Liquin will seal the surface of the painting and prevent the drying of underlying paint layers. This is similar to Artists’ Painting Medium or Conserv-Art varnishes. All produce a continuous film which excludes oxygen and delays the drying process - hence the recommendation to wait at least six months before varnishing. It is therefore advisable to use one of the Winsor & Newton specifically formulated varnishes."
So why would I use something in a manner that so many (including the manufacturer) advise against?
Because it suits my needs in a manner that far outweighs any potential issues that I may encounter. —plain and simple. However, allow me to address the issues here one by one:
- Liquin cannot be removed or cleaned.
- Liquin can/will yellow.
- The Liquin bond on a painting prevents oxygen from reaching the paint film. Oxygen is necessary for oil to cure properly.
1. Liquin cannot be removed or cleaned.
This is absolutely true. As clearly stated by Marla Morrison, W&N Technical Advisor: “As the Liquin layer settles and oxidizes, it will seep into the paint layer below. In itself, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the function of an ideal varnish is to form a discrete top layer that can be removed if, at some later date, the paint film needs restoration or repair. The Liquin will form an insoluble layer that becomes, on some level, inseparable from the paint film itself, making the painting difficult if not impossible to repair or restore without extensive repainting.”
However, relative to my own work, I view this as a pro rather than a con. This may sound odd to many and it truly is not intended to sound egotistical, but my paintings are not collaborations. I would never want anyone now or in the future to ever attempt to ‘fix’ or ‘enhance’ one of my paintings in any way shape or form. Owners of my work in the future can have an artist do something additive on top of the Liquin coat (which works just fine) if they are determined to, but it is my wish that my original work will never be touched underneath. As such, Liquin seems to be the best choice to ensure this.
2. Liquin can/will yellow.
This is also true. Even though you can find the phrase “resists yellowing” on any bottle of Original Liquin, it will definitely yellow over time. However, I have been fortunate in that a local collector acquired two of my early ‘Liquin fished’ paintings completed almost 20 years ago. I still have occasion to view them and they have not yellowed to any degree that I can notice. The works are indeed well kept, and I do not mean to downplay the role of environment on yellowing, but seeing these paintings is relatively reassuring for me. Will these yellow more in the future? Most definitely—but I would suspect to no degree that would hamper appearance MORE than what a restoration might.
Furthermore, I am fortunate as well to have many international collectors that exhibit the work in widely varied climates. Thus far I have never had anyone mention that Liquin is “re-tacking” or becoming sticky again as some other varnishes do in various climates causing airborne contaminates to potentially embed in the surface. I DID have a painting get scratched twice. I lightly sanded the area, re-painted the scratch, and re-applied liquin. The new liquin appeared to bond to the old quite seamlessly and there was no evidence that the damage had ever existed (nor was there a apparent shift in color.) The fix was isolated to the damaged surface area alone and impact to the artwork was absolutely minimal. These were the only two fixes I had to do after the fact and the fix was very successful.
3. The Liquin bond on a painting prevents oxygen from reaching the paint film. Oxygen is necessary for oil to cure properly.
This former part of this one is debatable (the latter is true of course). The idea that Liquin can act as an “oxygen barrier” had always seemed a tad spurious to me. While David Pyle and other technical advisors for Winsor&Newton have continued to promote this idea—Natural Pigment’s founder George O’Hanlon disagrees:
“If you are referring to “arresting oxidation” of paint under layers when an alkyd paint is applied on top, than no it does not since there are no coatings used by artists that provide an oxygen barrier. The underlying paint layers will eventually dry, but they will take longer to do so, which may cause issues with wrinkling or cracking due to the fast drying Liquin layer and shrinkage of the underlying paint layers if they were not already in the “recoat” stage of drying.”
Nonetheless, my paint film is relatively thin (another reason I am VERY wary of future restorations) and finished works are “varnished” in a time-frame in which the oxidation process does not seem to hampered in any way to cause any of the aforementioned issues (keep in mind that some past estimates of full oxidation are in the 60-80 year range.)
So there you have it—a few of the reasons why I use Liquin. I am NOT saying anyone else should or am I trying to promote it in any way. I tell each and everyone of the artists that I work with to experiment as much as possible. There are many, many choices out there to give you the quality you desire while making your procedure enjoyable and rewarding.