A Couple of Painting Myths

Corey D'Augustine Photo
Art historian, fine art restoration expert and painter, Corey D’ Augustine, host of MoMA’s “In the Studio” YouTube videos.

A few months, maybe a year ago, a painter friend, Diane Stewart, turned me on to the “In the Studio” series of videos presented by the “Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)” on YouTube. They’re  hosted by Corey D’Augustine, an art historian, art restorer and painter in his own right.

Mr. D’Augustine hosts a series that brings all his talents to force as, before your eyes, he creates paintings in the style of major figures from Modern painting movements, explaining what they were attempting to achieve, their materials of choice , how they used them and much, much more along the way…fascinating! Every so often, he takes a break from painting to answer questions sent in by viewers. There’s much to be learned during these sessions.

Two things I recently learned from Corey turned things a little upside-down for me: information about varnishing a painting and working with acrylic paints.

I’d always accepted that varnishing a finished oil or acrylic painting  was necessary to protect it from ultraviolet light damage, the elements and pollution and that a removable varnish should always be used. This way if/when a painting became dirty, it would be the varnish layer, not the painting surface itself that collected the dirt. At that point the varnish could be removed, restoring the quality of the painting’s original surface appearance and a new, clean layer of varnish could be applied to continue the protection. I’ve even mapped out the proper contemporary methods for applying that varnish to both oil and acrylic paintings, for readers, in this very blog.

Mr. D’Ausgustine sunk the varnishing myth, sharing that it’s just as easy for an art restorer to remove dirt and grim from a painting’s actual surface as it is from a protective varnish layer. In fact, since the varnish layer has to be carefully removed, before any restoration of the actual painting surface can be preformed, the varnish layer just puts another time obstacle in the art restoration expert’s way. His recommendation was to only use varnishes (gloss, matte or in-between), if you desire the aesthetic effect it produces, not as protection for your painting. Picasso always demanded that additional varnish never be applied to his paintings, that they left his hands exactly as he wanted them to look…shinny where he wanted them shinny and matte where he wanted them matte.

The other alarming bit of news Corey passed on was that the jury is still out, as far as the archival qualities of acrylic paints are concerned. He mentioned that art restorers are today dealing with adhesion loss and other problems in acrylic paintings that were created immediately following World War II, when the paint was introduced. He went as far as to say, if you’re concerned about longevity in your paintings, you should use the time proven medium, oil paint and follow the recommended methods for preparing your canvases and applying your paints (thick over thin…fat over lean). This guy restores multi-million dollar paintings for the Museum of Modern Art, so I tend to believe he knows what he’s talking about.

Gauguin Paintings
“Day of the Gods,” Paul Gauguin.

While I’m busting myths, here’s a truth I discovered years ago, that I can’t resist sharing. Many artists and non-artist alike have lusted after Gauguin’s famous lifestyle. His paradise existence in Tahiti, painting the beautiful native people in their highly colorful environment, living off the abundance that the island provided in a shirt (even clothing) optional climate. I hate to destroy the fantasy, but the reality was that after a months-long journey through stormy seas, filled with violent attacks of sea sickness, Gauguin arrived on Tahiti to discover that the native people had been highly westernized decades prior to his arrival. They long ago abandoned their native dress for European styles, their open air bamboo and straw villages for western style homes and apartments and that Tahiti now ran on cash. To survive Gauguin accepted a job as a map-maker, working at a desk in the corner of a large shipping warehouse.

The artist had to hire individual native citizens willing to disrobe and dawn their native costumes, posing for those beautiful paintings of a time long past. He never made enough money to buy passage back to Europe, dying on the island from an advanced case of syphilis, which he’d  acquired earlier, in the brothels of Europe.

Sorry!