Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Late last year, I showed some paintings with The Great Nude, a New York arts organization focused on a subject with regard to which I will give you three guesses, at the New York Contemporary Art Fair. I was fairly dismayed with how my paintings looked under the angled hard lights:

left to right: me, Cassandra, dismay-inducing presentation of painting

Why? Because they weren't varnished.

Varnishing is a process whereby a dry painting is coated with a layer of transparent medium. It has a couple benefits:

1. It protects the painting itself from dust, smoke, and naturally-occurring floating acid droplets.

2. It restores color saturation and value contrast. Oil paints are not unlike wet rocks - the wetness of the oil enriches the colors and darkens the darks. The oil, however, loses its wet-like qualities as the painting dries. Some of the oil sinks into the primer on the canvas. The rest polymerizes, altering its optical properties. Long story short, your gorgeously deep colors and blacks wind up faded and chalky, as mine looked at the art fair. Varnish acts like a permanent surface wetter. It makes the paintings look fresh even when dry.

While varnishing has been around for hundreds of years, and varnishes have evolved from their early "turn brittle and yellow and screw up the underlying painting" period, varnishing as a practice is not intuitively obvious like painting itself. You kind of need to learn how to do it.

As you may remember, I have never gone to art school, so among the many things most painters know which are a total mystery to me is the practice of varnishing. But after my dismal showing with The Great Nude, I decided - enough: I'm going to learn. I discussed the matter with co-exhibitor/surrealist Scott Goodwillie, who is a charismatic painter and awfully nice guy. He gave me some good tips. And I also looked at Sadie Jernigan Valeri's blog post on the topic, which, if you are starting out with varnishing, holy smokes, this is the blog post to read.

Armed with knowledge and varnish, I entered my studio. My heart was in my throat, because if you varnish your painting wrong, it can be next to impossible to fix it.

So I started on a crappy painting I had stopped halfway through because it was such a catastrophe. The varnishing went perfectly! And its promised properties materialized - the blacks went clean and black (the painting was monochrome). It looked like much less of a catastrophe with varnish.

The next day, I started varnishing the two paintings I had scheduled for another show, at 950 Hart Gallery in Bushwick. I was using a modified form of Valeri's prescription. And by modified, I mean sloppier. For instance, she recommends removing stray hairs from your wet varnish with a #1 filbert brush. This is a small brush which can be used to gently lift detritus without disturbing the varnish surface. Well, I find a fingertip will do the trick too, if you don't mind leaving a smudge and not getting the hair off your varnish.

Why yes, some of my paints are Wintons, why do you ask?

Anyhow, let me give you a rough idea of the effects of varnishing. Here's the unvarnished painting with a little puddle of varnish freshly poured on it. Notice the difference in the reds inside and outside the puddle:

The same painting I had shown at the art fair was showing at the 950 Hart show - selling confrontational nudes is hard, yo. Now look at the effects of that puddle as spread over part of the painting. You can see exactly where the varnish stops:

Here's a completely pointless diptych of me smoothing varnish using the Valeri-recommended foam brush. Because I like to take pictures of myself:

And here's a picture displaying the startling vividity that varnish produces in black areas of a painting:

When I got done, the painting not only looked better than it did dry, it looked better than it did when I was painting it. I generally work with a model on a painting once a week, to give the previous week's work time to dry. That way I don't get involved in any sticky areas where two painting sessions overlap. So I had *never* seen it all looking fresh at once.

Now, art is grounded in technique, but its substance is emotion. So how did this technique of "varnishing" make me feel? I tell you what, it made me feel like I had superpowers. You can keep your flying and your invisibility, your phasing and your magnetic eyeballs. I'll take the superpower of varnishing. It's awesome! Just look at these intimidatingly hip people, enthralled with my lovelily varnished painting at the 950 Hart opening, December 7, 2011:

No, it didn't sell there either. You want it, call me. It's nicely varnished.

Now, let's zoom back to an issue you might call the Achilles Heel of the Autodidact, which can be summed up this way: he's ignorant. Varnishing is a perfectly legitimate and extremely useful technique but, like the integral of the cosine and knotting a tie properly, it is not intuitive. It builds on generations of expertise. You're not going to just figure out how to do it right, or at all, on your own.

I am an autodidact, so I am highly vulnerable to the achilles heel. Don't trust my opinions because I can write. If you had had to generate the number of five-paragraph essays I had to generate in middle school, you'd be able to drop a thousand words on any old heap of cow flops too. The example of varnishing provides a vivid instance of my ignorance in action, but it is not the only example of it. The troubling part is that I don't know all the examples. This is a case of, to use Don Rumsfeld's underappreciated system of classification, unknown unknowns.

I was reflecting on my previous musings on Clyfford Still. They could be interpreted as unkind. I don't have a problem with that - I sincerely believe that his work is trash and that it reflects a sadistic streak a mile wide. Here's my problem: I haven't a clue why this opinion is not universal. I'm not saying that reading the body of criticism and theory attached to his atrocious paintings would either make me see that there's something to them, or decide that they are any good at all. But it troubles me that I don't know this stuff, and moreover, that I am recklessly using my voice, which I know sounds authoritative, to denigrate his crappy, crappy art.

I still think that one ought to be able to approach a painting clothed in nothing more than one's experience as a human being, and have that painting mean something, if it is a good painting.

But lots of thought has gone into painting from other perspectives, and I am relatively ignorant of it.

Having a will to self-improvement, here's my pledge to you: this year I'll make more of an effort to acquaint myself with the thinking that underlies post-war art. Even if it means actually parsing the obstreperous grammar of pill-popping French theorists.

Some of you will be thinking: finally. To you I say - shut up, OK?

Others of you will be thinking: why would you bother, Maidman? And to you I say - knowing more is almost always a good thing. If our hunches prove to have been correct, our study will allow us to snark about Still and his like from the more comfortable position of knowing the theoretical basis of the work. And if our hunches prove to have been wrong, then a little study will open vast new territories to us. That would be exciting.

I want to speak, but I want to speak responsibly. So it's a little remedial reading for me.

Best wishes, all.


  1. Hey don't beat yourself up, I don't think you sound the least bit authoritative!

    Seriously though, about the varnish, very interesting. And it seems scary to do that to a work you've put so much time and soul into. I'm psyched for you that you found great resources and figured it out and had success with it! The painting looks fantastic.

    Regarding your previous post, I enjoyed the hell out of it and unsuccessfully tried to comment on it. I'll try again now.

  2. Yeah - I have been varnishing - trying out different ones. However, I don't have a formal studio so sometimes I varnish outside on my porch and sometimes the darn thing falls and gets full of dog hair. Sigh. Anyway my paintings are not in any shows so I just brush it off and move on to the next one. I am now trying different varnishes on oil pastels. Spray mostly.

  3. Ed - thanks! You wouldn't know it, but I'm usually totally baked when I write these things. Except for on caffeine, not weed, because that stuff makes me paranoid. So technically, I'm not baked. But I don't usually proofread, that oughta count for something.

    It is *so* scary to take a finished painting and be like, "Now I will try a procedure which could well destroy this." Thanks for the kind comments on the posts...

    Didi - I had no idea you were even reading my blog - I'm honored! I am so glad every time you run my work in your gorgeous publications. Your painting situation, however, sounds like kind of a nightmare. Try not to get dog hair in the Batman painting please! Or to varnish outside during pollen season. Ugh. From what I understand, a whole separate set of concerns applies to varnishing pastels. The artists who write about it describe the balance between conflicting demands - on the one hand, a complete varnish protects the surface, but on the other hand, the same complete varnish compresses the layering of powders and makes them lose their delicate interactions. So it's usually a compromise of varnishing enough to keep every tool who picks it up from destroying it, without providing the kind of complete protection an oil painting can support. Good luck with that, it sounds horribly ambiguous to me.

  4. Varnishing does make such a difference, doesn't it?

    All artists learn by hanging out with other artists and asking questions. Thankfully the internet lets folks like you and me do that these days, without having to go to a draughty room in Paris.

    Post-war art is my weak point, too - one of the reasons I'm coming to NYC - don't feel its right to criticise paintings if I haven't seen 'em in the flesh.

  5. Jane - it sure does! And the internet is a tremendous resource for learning stuff that I missed in art school, and without a teacher breathing down my neck to do it their way.

    I hope you enjoy cracking on post-war art from the unassailable position of having seen it for yourself! Actually, my experience is that in-person viewing tends to confirm 9 out of 10 mediated opinions, and the other 1 turns out to be amazing in person and I'd never have known. I wonder if you'll have a 1, and who it will be.

  6. Hi Daniel
    I was searching Google images under "art or practice of graphic delineation" and found the image of your nude (upside down with that drop of varnish on it) It caught my eye for two reasons...it was upside down ... and there was this funny little section on it (the varnish) so I had to click on it to see what it was. Loved the post! And the one on Clyfford too (He Deserved it). I'll be back!

  7. Edinburgh - thanks so much! I will certainly try. And I apologize for the slow response.

    Col - Hello! I'm sorry it's taken me a while to reply to you too. I'm glad you found the blog and enjoyed it! It's nice to know the one thumbnail was interesting enough to bring you here; thanks for telling the story. And I hope it continues to be worth your while. Have a wonderful weekend.