The Final Ceremony: Varnish


Today I finally began the last step in the long line of steps that leads to the day I release my work into the hands of others.  My last intimate days with my creations, the physical manifestations of chemical reactions in my brain,  and darkroom.  My work is deeply rooted in the physical, mental, and emotional journey I experience in the quest to make it.  My work is most complete when I am so tired from the effort of bring it to life, raising it from nothing into something.  Often in the dark for hours, surrounded by only my thoughts and fears and the hazards of the tools I choose to use I often wonder what I will feel when the journey is finally over.

That time draws just a bit closer with the beginning of the end, the application of the protective varnish on the plates.  Today I varnished the first few plates of the Flight Patterns series.  After weeks of agonizing over which course to take with this last step the decision was finally made.  Because of a limited amount of time before the October 30th opening, and the amount of work left to compete I chose to return to the embracing aroma of lavender and sandarac.

Vintage formula varnish used since the earliest days of collodion plate photography fits the bill nicely for the current  task at hand because it sets and dries fast.  Although my last few projects have use commercial varnishes, the look of which I really enjoy, the massive size of many of the Flight Pattern works requires something that is not as vulnerable to debris, such as dust, during application and drying.  The vintage varnish, unlike the commercial product I had explored at the beginning if the year is set with heat and dries fast minimizing the exposure to airborne contamination which was a problem with the work created for the Aspect: Ratio 2 show in January.

Captain William De Wiveleslie  Abney describes the process of varnish application in his book Photography With Emulsions printed in 1885 like this:

To apply the varnish, the plate should be gently warmed over a spirit-lamp or before the fire to such a heat that the back of the hand can only just bear the touch of the plate.  The varnish is applied like the collodion.  After draining off all excess, and rocking the plate, it is warmed till all spirit has evaporated, and till the film is glossy.  A lack of warmth will cause the film to dry “dead.”

The image above was taken as I collected the needed material to create the varnish to be used to finish the plates.  As with most other elements of my work, many manual steps are involved, here the weighing and grinding of the gum sandarac being my favorite.  The sandarac is dissolved in 190 proof alcohol and lavender oil is added.  Simple, effective, and extremely resilient, but it is the smell that is most pleasing.


~ by Phil Nesmith on October 11, 2009.

One Response to “The Final Ceremony: Varnish”

  1. […] have posted on this blog in the past about varnishing.  It is really the only step in the process of making wet collodion images that I […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: