How do we know that Amber Varnish was used?
Over the years our customers have asked us a variety of questions about amber varnish. The first of these is have any traces of amber varnish been found in Old masters painting. The answer is yes.
Raymond White of the National Gallery, found a well preserved sample of dark amber varnish glaze on the painting "A Lady with a Fan" by Ferdinand Bol, a 17th century painter and follower of Rembrandt1.
Unfortunately the ability to find amber varnish in 15th and 17th century paintings can be traced to a number of factors. The first is that numerous Old Master oil paintings have been badly cleaned to such an extent that they no longer possess their upper layer of paint or any traces of amber varnishes they might have contained. The second reason originate from a belief that the traditional dark amber varnish, mentioned in many 17th century writing on the arts of painting, could not be mixed with light colors like white or blue.
The following copy of Jan van Eyck 15th century painting of the Man With the Turban, and the Baroque Still Life with flowers, painted by the Californian oil painter, Rick Peterson, using our dark amber varnish is proof that dark amber varnishes can be mixed with light colors, like white.
The fact that dark amber varnishes were added to oil paint in such a small amount is the reason why they have not so far been traceable.
In order to illustrate how little dark amber varnish was actually added to oil paints by 15th to 17th century oil painters, one only needs to mix a drop of our traditional dark amber varnish made from the 17th century De Mayerne Ms. recipe to some white oil paint. If the white oil paint goes down in value, too much amber varnish has been added. The following marginal note from page 9 of the De Mayerne Ms. illustrates this point: "M. (Monsieur) Gentileschi an excellent Florentine painter adds on his pallet just a drop of Venetian amber varnish, used for varnishing lutes, mainly when painting flesh parts so that the white spreads and paints easily and also dries faster. By these means he works when he likes without waiting for the paint to dry completely and although the varnish is reddish it still does not ruin the white. Vidi."
The Latin word 'vidi' meaning I saw, written by Dr. De Mayerne, clearly states his personal observation of this fact2.
The third reason why traces of amber varnish have not been detected is due to the extremely high temperatures required to dissolve the Baltic amber resins into linseed, walnut or poppy drying oils.
A sample of our clear walnut amber varnish in which the Baltic amber resin was heated into the oil at 398 ºC was submitted, by the New York based artist Michael Price, for testing to Dr. Shaya Wei of the Vienna Technology University. The results of the test, using gas chromatography mass spectrometry showed no traces of amber resin, only reading for walnut oil. Similar tests were done by Dr. Leslie Carlyle on a copal varnish in which the copal resin was heated to 300 ºC before being added to the oil. The results on the varnish sample using gas chromatography mass spectrometry showed no traces of copal resin, only reading for heat bodied oil3.
With the small amount of amber varnish that is added to paint, the over-cleaning of paintings, and the inability to find traces of amber varnish using current technology explains why the presence of amber resin varnish in aged paint film seems unlikely to be found.
The Nature of Amber Resin
There are only two (2) hard resins in nature, amber and copal. Amber resin comes from fossilized sources only; they range in age from 10 to 40 million years old.
Copal resin can be obtained from fossils as well as from living trees, the fossilized copal resins are often no more than a few thousand years old. Amber resin is indigenous to the continent of Europe while copal resin is required to be imported from areas outside of the European continent. This fact alone makes it unlikely that copal resin was widely available to European varnish makers before the middle of the 16th century. During the 14th century the city of Bruges, Belgium, was the center for the manufacture of rosary beads and other items made from amber. The scraps from the carving of these amber resins would easily have served as source for making amber varnish4.
Mentions of Amber Resin and their use in the Historical Records
The Russian Academy of Sciences in the USSR published in 1981 a book entitled: "The country estate of Novgord, painter of the 12th century5 Novgord, the ancient capital of Northern Russia, was a huge trade center, close by the Baltic Sea. The book lists the location of the house and studio where the painter Olisey Grechin produced his paints, varnishes and various art materials, needed in the daily practice of making Icons. No fewer than 1115 pieces of amber resin and cloth soaked amber varnish made with hemp- or linseed oil were found showing that the site was used for the production of amber varnishes as coatings for Icons. Cooking pots for making paints and varnishes were also found on the site. Other mentions of amber resins and varnishes can be found scattered throughout the historical records. The treatise on painting by Leonardo Da Vinci in codex Urbinus Latinus 12706 mentions Leonardo's use of amber varnish as a coating for paintings. "To make a painting with an everlasting varnish", varnish it with oil of walnut and amber, or walnut oil thickens in sunlight".
A pricelist of varnishes from the city of Perugia in Italy in 1663 lists amber varnish under the title of Vernice è d'Ambra7. The De Mayerne Ms. B.M. Sloane 2052 list on page 153 verso a statement by the 17th century Flemish painter, Sir Anthony van Dyck, 1632, about a man who could dissolve amber resin without burning it in such a way that the solution was light yellow and transparent8.
Alchemist Mediums has located many of the 42 major manuscripts starting with the Mappea Clavicula in the 10th century till the notes of Simon Eikelenburg at the beginning of the 18th century that list recipes for making amber varnishes. Among them is a recipe of amber varnish listed on page 466 as Vernix è Succino in Collectanea Chymica Leydensia (Chemical Lectures at Leiden) written in 1684 by Sir Christopher Love Morley. Morley's book and others, like the 16th century Marciana Ms., the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis of 16189 are but some of the books of formula's for apothecaries who in the early centuries were the source of medicines, herbs, resins, varnishes, oils, and materials for painters and craftsmen.
Some 19th century painters such as Frank Holl (1845-1888) and the pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt (1827- 1910) used amber varnishes with great success10. The 20th century surrealist painter Salvador Dali describes his use of amber varnishes in his book on painting entitled "50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship"11.
Alchemist Mediums amber varnishes are composed of only Baltic amber resin and drying oils like linseed, walnut or poppy oil. They come in light and dark versions. The light amber varnish can be used as a painting medium or as a final varnish. The light amber varnishes are based on the 15th century B.M. Sloane Ms. 345 recipe of Jonathan De Ketham12. The dark amber varnishes can be used for general painting purposes as well as a coating for musical instruments and works of art. It is derived from the 17th century listed on Ms. page 43 verso of the De Mayerne Ms. B.M. Sloane 2052 under the title heading of the true varnish for lutes and viols13.
The various uses of Amber Varnish
Used as painting medium all of our Amber Varnishes are capable of being applied vertically in a fluid ink-like manner, without the running and bleeding associated with modern oil painting mediums. When added in small amounts our varnishes will harden the paint film and ensure the long-term permanence of the colors. The adding of our varnish to oil paint films will create a sense of depth and transparency, not possible using conventional and modern day painting mediums. When applied as a final protective layer, our Amber Varnish will protect the painting's surface from the effects of solvents, alkalis and the long term effects of aging.
The different kinds of Amber Varnishes
The fact that our amber varnishes and painting mediums are made with all natural ingredients, containing no solvents or (heavy metal) driers, make them safe to use.
Driers or solvents can be added if necessary. Since our varnishes do not contain these substances they are not classified as hazardous materials under international standards, and can be shipped worldwide by air or regular mail without restrictions.
In addition to varnishes made with Baltic amber resins and drying oils, there are current makers of amber varnishes that make amber-based varnishes. These varnishes unlike those composed of only Baltic amber resins and a drying oil contain a variety of resins and/or balsams plus Baltic amber. Some suppliers of amber varnishes thin them by as much as half with solvents. This limits the actual amount of pure varnish that is in each bottle. Some of these varnishes also contain japan or metal-based driers. The addition of driers to a varnish can greatly reduce their shelf life. Over time the effects of a drier in the varnish can cause a skin of varnish to form over whatever is left in a partially full bottle, for this reason it is always better to purchase varnishes that do not contain driers or solvents and only thin and add drier to part of the varnish you intent to use.
Given the difficulty and danger involved in making Baltic amber varnishes they cannot be sold inexpensively. A cheap price for a large quantity of amber varnish can be a sign that the varnish as advertised is less than it is marketed to be.
We feel a great sense of responsibility for the quality of the products we make. You will in the end get only what you pay for as there are no short cuts when it comes to buying quality art materials.
About our Book
In 2001 we published our book on historical painting mediums, amber varnish and painting methods called Lost Secrets of Flemish Painting. The book contains the first complete English translation of the 17th century De Mayerne Ms. British Museum Sloane 2052. This manuscript of 350 recipes for paints, varnishes and painting methods is one of the most important records that have survived on 17th century painting and craft practices. In addition it contains recipes for painting mediums and varnishes plus color illustration on the painting systems on Rubens and van Dyck, painted by the renowned painter Joseph Sulkowski
About our Starter Kit
Alchemist® Mediums now offers a ready-made kit, so that our customers can experience using the mediums, to apply multiple layers of paint wet into wet. The kit contains 3 basic mediums which, when used together, form the basis of the painting processes used by Sir Anthony van Dyck and Sir Peter Paul Rubens, in some of their paintings. The evidence for their use can be traced to the 17th century De Mayerne Ms. B.M. Sloane 2052 and other historical documents written before 1700 that make up our collection. These historical mediums and other products we sell can be found our website.
When ordering the Starter Kit complimentary instructions are included. This guide includes a Step-by-Step example by painter Joseph H. Sulkowski whereby Sir Anthony van Dyck's "Portrait of Cornelis van der Geest" is painted in four stages.
We are also pleased to offer a short instructional video made by painter Wayne Campbell on the use of the mediums online.
- Dutch Media re-examined, page 73, National Gallery Technical Bulletin Vol. 15, London 1994
- "Lost Secrets of Flemish Painting Including the First Complete English Translation of the De Mayerne Ms. B.M. Sloane 2052, page 143, 3rd edition.
- Klaas Jan v/d Berg and Jerre van der Horst, MolArt, "Macromolecular Aspects of Natural Resins - Progress Report 1999".
- Patty C. Rice Phd, Amber the Golden Gem of the Ages, page 54, 55, published by the Kosciuszko foundation Inc, New York 1980
- Russian Academy of Sciences, 1991, B.A. Kolchin, A.C. Horoshev and V.L. Janin.
- Treatise on Painting by Leonardo da Vinci Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270, Vol. I, translated and annotated by A. Philip Mc Mahon, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press 1956, on Ms. page 161.
- Trade in Artist Materials Markets and Commerce in Europe to 1700, edited by Jo Kirby, Susie Nash, and Joanna Cannon, Publisher Archetype 2010
- "Lost Secrets of Flemish Painting Including the First Complete English Translation of the De Mayerne Ms. B.M. Sloane 2052, page 269, 3rd edition. Original Treatise dating from the 12th to the 18th centuries on the Arts of Painting, in oil, miniature, mosaic, and on glass by Mary P. Merrifield published by J. Murray, London 1849.
- The Pharmacopoeia Londinensis of 1618, reproduced in facsimile, by Hollister, Pharmaceutical Library, nr. 2, Madison State Historical Society of Wisconsin 1944.
- Harold Speed, Oil techniques and materials, pages 225, 226, Dover Publications Inc.
- Dali, Salvatore, 50 Secrets of magic Craftsmanship, page 164, 165, translated by Haakon M. Chevalier, Dover Publications 1992.
- "Medische en Technische Middelnederlandse recepten", edited by Willy L. Breakman, recipes from the Ms. Sloane 345, London, no. 494-1217, page 149, recipe nr 510.
- "Lost Secrets of Flemish Painting Including the First Complete English Translation of the De Mayerne Ms. B.M. Sloane 2052, page178, 179, 3rd edition.