Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Why Use Baltic Amber Varnish In Oil Painting?

Amber has been used in oil painting for centuries. Although it was certainly not the predominate medium of the Renaissance, much evidence does exist to ascertain that it was used. Many artists upon hearing of old mediums such as those containing amber, will often wonder if it imparts some special property, or quality to paint. My answer to this is opinion, based on my own experience. Having made quite a bit of amber varnish from the raw materials (a process that I would not recommend) I have been able to adjust the resin to oil ratios, in many versions, and have found that at certain percentages of resin to oil (linseed), the material does create a medium that will effect oil paint in ways that no other substance, including the various copal mediums, will accomplish.

I have found that the addition of a single drop of amber medium, to a pea sized paint nut will dramatically alter the properties of the paint. If one mixes one drop into the paint nut, and then waits one hour, the paint will stiffen up, and perform more like a jewel paste, than a loose oil paint. This will permit many impasto effects, as well as multi-layered techniques, all on the same day. The strokes will tend to remain exactly as they are laid down, with no slumping, fusing, leveling or changes of any type. Some copals permit this, but in a slightly different manner, and I know of no balsams and certainly no dammar containing mediums that will perform this way. Drying oil alone will absolutely not permit these effects.

At lower resin to oil ratios, the medium will permit some effects that are very similar to the glass like, or enamel appearing effects that one may observe in the works of the Flemish masters. 

Is amber the best of all oil painting additives? Quite frankly, I would say that there is no one medium that is the best. The better question is which medium is best for which special effect. In that regard, there are certain special effects that amber will permit that would be exceedingly difficult, using any other medium. Does it duplicate the effects of mediums containing larch turpentine, or Canada balsam? Absolutely not. It is important to ask what one is trying to accomplish. Many artists take up oil painting, and then go looking for a medium to help them out, without knowing what it is that they even want to accomplish, or what special effect they are after. This is a flawed, and costly method of progressing. 

If oil paint alone, or with the addition of a small amount of drying oil, is all that is necessary for an artist to carry out their work, then certainly there is no need to throw amber, or any other medium into the mix. If on the other hand one is looking for effects as stated above, it may be a nice addition.

The final note that I would like to convey is that if amber varnish is used as a varnish, over the entire oil painting, a removable solvent varnish should be applied over it, at the appropriate time. Amber varnish is not removable, by any method that will not destroy the underlying paint film. So, again, a final removable varnish should be used. 


  1. Great read, thank you for your knowledge!

    I was wondering why it is so dangerous to make ones own amber varnish?

    1. Sorry about the delay in responding. The danger comes from the temperature that it takes in order to make the varnish. Any number of things can go wrong, and fire is an ever present danger. There are many factors to consider while making this material (too many to mention), and if any one of them go wrong, disaster can result, or the varnish can be destroyed in an instant. The material is available, already made, through Kremer pigments, and I have found the products they sell to be superb. I will try to create a few more posts related to amber varnish, and try to go into a little more detail. Regards, JT

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    3. Addendum: As of 8/30/17, I no longer see the amber varnish product that Kremer used to sell, on their inventory page. They still have other amber products, as made by Alchemist, but I do not recommend those. If a person is interested in an amber product (commercially made), Blockx has a very good reputation, but their versions are quite expensive.