Damar (also spelled dammar) varnish is a traditional oil painter’s medium, often used as a final varnish or in glazes. Most artists who work in oils will have heard of damar varnish and will have bought it premade in tins and bottles, but a much more versatile and economical option is to make your own. Doing so enables you to adjust the formula to your liking and create glazing mediums and exhibition varnish with little effort.
For many, damar resin is a staple of the studio, as it is the base for many mixtures: high-gloss mediums, glazing mediums, oil mediums and wax mediums can all be formulated with damar as a base. From the Middle Ages to today, the mixing of an oil (usually linseed) with coloured pigments has been used to make oil paints. This formula of oil and pigment has the ability to “sink in” to the canvas when it dries, which creates matt, faded patches that are most apparent in the darker areas.
An application of varnish has historically been used in between layers of pigment to bring out those darks in a technique known as “oiling out” [see Skull, above]. A damar varnish can also be used as a thick protective final layer on a painting, while some artists mix it with oil paint for a glazing medium.
While there are many varnish options available, Damar has been one of the most popular choices for centuries – and with good reason. It is known as a stable varnish, meaning it has held up over the centuries without flaking off or yellowing too much. JMW Turner was among the leading artists known to use damar in his paintings.
Damar was discovered in the late 17th century. It is a naturally occurring resin that is tapped from the damar fir tree, which is found mainly in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Like most resins used with oil paint, damar needs to be dissolved in a solvent before use. On the opposite page, I will guide you through this basic process, and then I’ve also included some other useful damar-based recipes on page 58.
HOW TO MAKE
Basic damar varnish
•1 part damar crystals
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