This week I’m applying varnish to a couple of finished paintings. Varnish does things. It seals and protects the painting from smoke, light, minor scratches, marks and other possible surface damage. It intensifies the colors of the paintings, like adding a piece of glass over an image printed on matte finished paper. It adds a very shiny surface to the painting as well, and for those reasons many, if not most oil painters add multiple coats of varnish to their finished paintings.
I do it, too. Pretty much all the time.
I once asked my friend and fellow artist Mitra about whether I should add a coat of varnish to a painting and surprisingly, she said no. When I asked her why, she said that it added a layer of separation between the viewer and the art.
She was right, of course. It does. The shininess of varnish puts a very noticeable “finish” on the painting, and that can certainly be seen as a protectant both real and metaphorical. Perhaps as artifice and illusion, as well. Does the viewer have a closer connection to the artistic process (and by transubstantiation to the artIst) if the true qualities of the paint are preserved? It becomes a pretty subtle nuance for both the creator and the purchaser of the artwork. Does the new owner sacrifice a type of intimacy with the object over its preservation or the potential of aesthetic enhancement? Is the artist subconsciously keeping a physical distance between him/herself and the world for reasons of privacy or self-preservation?
I can’t recall if I ended up varnishing the painting in question. If I didn’t, it would have been one of the very few that I left au naturel. Mitra owns a few of my paintings and most, if not all of them have been varnished.
I’m guessing that the greatest reason i had for doing it was to make them more attractive. Perhaps, even with my closest friends, my work and I need the sheerest of gossamer to keep from being completely exposed.