Olifa: Linseed Oil Varnish for the Egg Tempera Icon
“This process must be shown by someone who knows it. It cannot be communicated by reading.”
- Leonid Ouspensky, talking about the varnishing technique known as Olifa.
Having practiced the technique of olifa oil varnish for more than 20 years, I can attest to the wisdom of this statement. Olifa is a very difficult varnishing process to learn, best done by watching or assisting someone with experience doing it. I prepared the following instructions for students to whom I have taught the process. If you are new to varnishing with olifa, you really must find someone who can show you how it works. These instructions may be useful to someone having trouble with the process, allowing for varying techniques of different schools. This paper describes what my teacher taught me, together with some of my own observations, and experiences. There are many parts of the process that are unpredictable and irreversible.
The application of olifa should be tried and practiced before being used for a finished icon. I strongly recommend that a few small practice panels with a paint surface similar to what is to be varnished should be made, and properly dried. This varnishing technique is one that works best if the varnisher understands what is happening during the process, and knows what to look for.
The varnishing must be planned for a day when you can remain with the icon into the evening. It is a process that, once begun cannot be stopped or interrupted. Do not varnish on a day where you have another commitment. Start early in the day, as the part of the process that can be physically demanding comes at the end of the day, when strength can be low, and the natural light is gone.
The paint surface and proper tempering of the colors:
The first consideration of varnishing an icon painted in egg tempera is the condition of the paint surface to be varnished:
(1) Is the paint cured (dried) enough? If the paint surface is too new (a few days old, for example), the varnishing process may dislodge certain colors, particularly reds, making a muddy mess of the olifa. In a damp winter, the paint surface takes longer to cure than in a dry summer. In a dry climate, I would allow the icon to dry for 1-2 weeks. In a humid climate, or in a rainy season, I would wait 3 weeks. A longer drying time is better but not usually possible in my experience. Allowing the icon to sit in the sun in a sunny window will facilitate the drying process. Ouspensky usually coated his reds (vermilion or cadmium red) with a little pure egg medium as an extra precaution against dislodging color.
(2) Are the colors tempered enough? To add egg yoke medium to the pigment is to temper it. If the colors do not have enough egg, the result will be poor, with “under-tempered” colors letting go and making the varnish dirty. In my experience, the paint surface should have a slight shine, but not a high gloss. Consistent tempering can be helped during the painting of the icon by the daily application of a wash of very diluted medium prior to the day’s work (one brush full of egg medium, and seven of water). Evenly and adequately tempered colors will be much easier to varnish. If the surface is very matte, and has no surface reflection at all, like a piece of velvet, it is under-tempered, and will give trouble during the varnishing. Colors that are not tempered enough will varnish unevenly, leaving dry spots that are difficult to fix.
(3) Gold leaf can present difficulties. Prior to the olifa process, I varnish gold leaf (water gilded) with shellac, also covering all lettering, lines of haloes, and contours that overlap onto the gold. Shellac painted over paint that sits on gold (lettering and haloes) will hold it in place during the olifa process.
2 ml liquid cobalt acetate dryer
250 ml refined linseed oil
.8 ml liquid cobalt acetate dryer
4.25 oz refined linseed oil
8 ml liquid cobalt acetate dryer
1 quart refined linseed oil
These recipes have the same proportions; the different measures are given to accommodate the differing measures in which linseed oil is sold in the U.S.
Drop the liquid cobalt dryer into the linseed oil with a calibrated measuring dropper (fig 1 - photo not available). Stir thoroughly (fig 2 - photo not available). I usually keep new olifa on a window sill, so that the light and heat of the sun will thicken it a little. In my experience, old olifa is superior to newly made olifa. New olifa is thin and brown. With time, it changes color to become a beautiful golden amber, it thickens somewhat, and works better (fig 3: on the left. two year old olifa; on the right newly made olifa - photo not available). When making a new batch of olifa, I mix a little aged olifa into the new batch, which seems to facilitate this beneficial aging process. It is also a good idea to keep the olifa in a wide mouth jar that is larger than the volume of olifa being stored. The air coming into contact with the olifa also helps to age it.
To varnish a work executed in egg tempera:
The technique works best if the weather is dry and sunny. It is possible to do the process on a wet, rainy day, but it is much more difficult, not to mention slower. During the process, the icon should sit in sunlight, either in a window, or outside, if it is warm. If the icon is sitting outside, you will want to watch over it, and keep insects from landing on it. Some insects will eat the egg in the paint. The icon should also be shielded from birds flying overhead. If the weather is bad, an ultra-violet heat lamp (or several, for a large icon) may be used.
I've taken to using latex gloves while doing olifa to prevent contact with the cobalt dryer. Since where I tend to work with such large amounts of olifa, it seems the better part of wisdom.
1. Application of the olifa
The varnishing should begin early in the day, as soon as the sun is strong enough to warm the surface of the icon. The icon and the jar of olifa should be warmed in the sun for about 10 minutes. With the icon lying flat, the olifa is then poured out onto the surface (figs 4-5), and spread with the fingers over the entire surface of the panel (figs 6-8). Put the icon, lying flat, in the sun, or under an artificial heat/light source. If using a heat lamp, instead of sunlight, be careful to:
(1) keep the lamp far enough from the icon to make the surface warm, but not very hot. Too much heat could damage both the paint film and the gilding; and,
(2) make sure that the surface is warmed evenly by moving the panel slightly every few minutes. Some heat lamp bulbs direct a pinpoint of very strong heat onto a small part of the surface, and this will make the varnish film develop unevenly.
How much olifa to pour onto the surface is a matter of preference and experience. In theory, you cannot apply too much oil, as the surface will hold only so much varnish before it runs off the sides, and excess varnish will be removed later on in the process anyway. I like to apply a little less than the maximum amount of varnish the surface will hold, as the less varnish that is used, the faster the process will go. If you use too little varnish, it will all disappear into the paint over the course of the day, or dry too quickly, in an uncontrolled manner.
In the following few hours, 3 things will happen:
(1) The colors will absorb varnish, each absorbing different amounts at different rates of time.
(2) The varnish will thicken, due to the action of light and heat.
(3) A permanent film of varnish will slowly form directly on top of the surface of the paint, and underneath thickening linseed oil.
2. Redistributing the olifa throughout the day
Leaving the icon in the light/heat source (fig 9), return every 15 minutes and move the thickening olifa around with your fingers, rubbing, in small circles, over the surface of the panel (figs 10-12). During the first few hours, the thin varnish will move and recede, leaving dry areas, and you must redistribute it evenly. Within an hour or so, the olifa will become thicker, and it will not leave dry areas, but you must continue to move it around every 15 minutes, as small pockets of varnish will coagulate, and you want to break them up, redistribute them, and keep the developing film evenly spread over the surface of the panel.
Two very important warnings!
(1) The panel may become too hot to touch if it is in strong sunlight or too close to a heat lamp. If this becomes the case, move the panel into the shade or indoors, (or turn off the heat lamp(s) and let it cool, then move the olifa around with your fingers. Continue to do this throughout the day.
(2) Be very careful when looking at the surface of the varnish in direct sunlight. The sunlight’s refraction in the oil surface is very strong, and can injure the eyes. You could permanently injure your eyes, due to the reflected light of the sun. Never look at the surface of the oil directly. Again, here it is best to move the icon into the shade, or indoors, and to attend to it there. When using heat lamps, turn off the lamps before looking at the icon, and working on it.
The olifa varnish will begin with the consistency of thin oil, then become like honey, then become very viscous.
3. The developing paint film
After about 2 hours, you should notice a film of permanent varnish forming right on the surface of the paint, and under the thickening linseed oil. As you rub your fingers across the surface of the panel, you will begin to feel this film under the movable olifa, as it begins to stick to the paint, and become one with the paint surface. This film will thicken and harden, becoming the final varnish coat. Although you could easily remove it at this point by rubbing hard with your fingers, it will become firmer in the coming hours, and finally, it will be impossible to remove by the end of the process. You still rub the surface firmly, but try not to rub so hard that you take this film off altogether. If you feel small patches of coagulated olifa on the surface of the paint, break them up as you move the thickening olifa around. The surface should become evenly thick.
4. Removing a little excess olifa
When you see that a good film of olifa varnish is forming on the surface of the paint, you may carefully remove some of the thickened olifa, leaving a good amount on the surface to continue the process. Do this by lightly wiping off olifa with your fingers systematically over the whole panel, removing a square of olifa about the size of your hand at a time (figs 13 -14). Removing the extra thickened olifa accelerates the varnishing process, which you may or may not want on a given day. This removed thickened olifa can be stored in a small glass jar for later use and retouching (fig 15). How do you know when or if you may remove some of the olifa? Experience counts for much here. You may remove some of the olifa when there is enough of a film formed on the surface, and there is more olifa on this film than you will need to complete the process. You may not have put enough olifa on the icon at the beginning of the day to remove any now. You may find that the olifa is not thickening as fast as you would like, and need to remove quite a bit to accelerate the drying. There are many possibilities at this point. You can only discern what is “enough” or “more than enough” by experience, trial and error. Practice panels will help the beginner. NOTE: Some varnishers skip this part of the process, removing the excess olifa in one step only, as described below.
5. Influencing the speed of the varnishing process
There are two ways that the varnishing can be relatively speeded up or slowed down: 1. You can remove the unneeded thickened olifa, or not. 2. You may vary the amount of time you leave the icon with the developing olifa in the sun ( or under the heat lamps.) Take the icon out of the light and heat source to slow the process down.
6. The final removal of all the excess olifa
When the olifa becomes so thick that it begins to “grab” your fingers, and the panel moves around as you attempt to redistribute the olifa, it is time to remove the rest of the excess olifa, leaving a thin film behind, which becomes the varnish coat. The time it takes to reach this point after the initial application of the olifa varies: 2-3 hours at least, but you may need 5-6 hours(or more). This depends on atmospheric conditions, how much olifa you have applied, the age of the olifa, and the condition of your paint.
To remove the excess olifa: have a large knife (not too sharp) and a lint-free towel ready (cloth or paper). Scrape off a section of olifa with your hand from the lower left hand corner of the panel (fig. 16- 17). If you are beginner, start small, about 6 square inches. You may take more off at a time, when you gain experience. Scrape the thickened olifa off your hand with the knife (fig. 18-19), and wipe the knife with the towel, or scrape it into a tin can if you have a lot of olifa on the knife (fig. 20). Remove all the olifa in this way, moving across the panel, (working in 6 square inch sections,) then continuing up the panel, working systematically. You will have to press very hard to remove this thickened olifa. If you are acting at the correct time, you will be taking every bit of the olifa which can come off. You will probably have to go over each part of the surface several times. If there is pigment that does not have enough egg medium in it, it will smear at this point, which is not really fixable. If this does happen, I suggest that you take off all the excess olifa, loose paint and all, and try to fix the icon when the varnishing is completed if you can.
NOTE: I have begun to use a soft rubber silk screen squeegee to remove olifa (fig 21). With it, the olifa may be removed very quickly (fig 22-26), if necessary (and sometimes it is necessary to move very quickly.) You can leave the thickened olifa on the panel longer, because you can remove it quickly. Removing the olifa by hand is usually very strenuous, exhausting, and difficult.
However you choose to remove the olifa, work systematically up the panel, then turn the panel sideways, and work at a right angle to what you have been doing (figs 27-30).
Gilded areas should have the same film as the paint, but be careful over gold. The pressure of your hand should be firm, but do not make any quick pulls over it, as gold or shellac may be caught in a suction, and pulled off, with disastrous results.
How much olifa is taken away? Olifa is removed until a thin layer of hardened olifa is left on the surface of the paint. The texture of the paint can be seen, when examined against the light (figs 31-32). You should be able to see any thick brush strokes. This is also a matter of personal preference. The olifa may be thicker or thinner, depending on the decision of the varnisher. If an icon is for a church, it should have a substantial varnish. The icon will be very shiny and very tacky at this point. It should be leaned with the varnished side towards a wall, in an environment as dust-free as possible.
If you remove the olifa too soon, it will disappear into the paint, leaving the paint dry and unvarnished. If this happens the icon may be varnished a second time in the same way. If you try to take off the excess olifa too late, however, you will be left with a thick, sticky film of linseed oil which never becomes totally transparent or evenly shiny. The work can certainly be ruined at this point, and there is a good case for believing that this process is best learned only by making painful mistakes in the early attempts at the varnishing. In this way the limitations and the characteristics of olifa are learned. Do not try this for the first time on an important work. Try it on test panels.
7. The final step of the process: “brushing” the varnish
After 15 minutes, lay the icon flat on the table, taking care not to touch the surface of the varnish. Gently but firmly brush the surface with the out-side half of the palm of your hand or with your fingers. Begin in the lower corner of the icon and brush in slow, downward strokes, moving sideways across the panel with each stroke, thus treating the bottom 6 inches, or so of the panel. Hold the bottom of the panel with one hand, and brush with the other hand, pulling your hand towards you. Repeat for the next horizontal 6 inch band, and continue to move up the panel until it has been brushed entirely You need be able to see the reflection of the light on the surface of the varnish, so position yourself accordingly, with the panel between you and the light source. It is easier to see the surface of the varnish in daylight rather than in electric light, so sit opposite a window, if possible, with the icon between you and the window. As the olifa begins to dry and harden, brushing it will make the surface mat, but then the shine slowly returns (fig 33). Doing this for the next hour or so, every 10 or 15 minutes, will make the icon less sticky and shiny. When not brushing the icon, it should be leaned, face against the wall.
If the olifa makes a squeaky noise, or if the varnish becomes very dull, and won’t become shiny again, it is time to stop. For this reason, always begin in the lower corner, and pay close attention to what happens when you brush the olifa: does it become dull, then become shiny again? All is well, and you may progress. Does the varnish make a frightening sounding squeak or become very dull, not becoming shiny again? It is probably time to stop. It will be very sticky, but this should go away overnight, although it will be a little tacky for a few days. Lean the panel towards a wall, and do not touch it until the next day. I have gotten into the practice of not touching the icon until two days after I varnish. The difficulty here is to stop touching the varnish before the time when it is too late to touch it, and to learn to watch for the signs, which can only be learned through experience.
If the icon is not brushed in this way, it will remain shiny and sticky. A good olifa surface is slightly glossy, but not altogether shiny. It should not look "candy-coated." It should not be sticky.
If the icon is tacky after two days, try putting it in the sun, or in a sunny window. This should help in the drying. The olifa may be slightly tacky for several days. If it is very shiny and tacky, it probably was not brushed enough. It should dry with time, anyhow. Do not touch the surface of the varnish until it has cooled. When the fresh olifa is warm, it is also soft, and fingerprints can become permanent.
Occasionally, it is necessary to do a little retouching. Sometimes, a little of the paint which lies on top of gold comes off during the varnishing. This is pretty easy to fix. Mix up the paint in the usual way. Mix in a little ox gall (available at most art stores). This is a wetting agent. It helps the paint not to bead up on the non-absorbent olifa. Do your repairs; let dry an hour or so. Carefully, varnish over the repairs or retouchings with a little shellac. This method cannot be used for large areas, but for small repairs only. Remember that the shellac will degrade and discolor in different ways that the olifa, so add shellac, or any other retouch varnish to the olifa, bearing that eventuality in mind.
To ship an icon with fresh varnish, I wrap it in brown paper, wrap the wrapped icon in cardboard, then box the whole thing. The brown paper will usually not adhere to the varnish. Never wrap an icon in plastic.
An Alternate Method
Rub a small amount of olifa into the surface of the icon. Let it sink into the paint completely. If after 1 hour, if there is still some varnish collecting in pools on the surface of the icon, wipe most of it off, leaving only a little behind to sink in. Leave overnight. Pick up the process, by putting in more olifa, the next day, and proceed with the process described above. This method is one that consolidates the paint surface ahead of time, and has proved easier for some people.
A sample olifa scenario
The following scenario is a record of the varnishing of a small icon (8 X 10 inches) by Leonide Ouspensky in 1981 in his Paris studio. The weather was cold and rainy outside, but the studio was adequately heated by a small wood stove, which provided a good, dry heat source for the process.
9:30 (AM): The icon is warmed by being put face down on top of the little wood stove. NOTE: The stove was giving out very little heat from the top. The same could be achieved by standing the icon near a radiator, or laying it in the sun, or under a heat lamp. Do not place an icon directly onto a heat source. It will damage the icon, if the heat is at all strong.
10:00: The olifa is applied.
10:15: The olifa is rubbed and spread around the surface of the icon.
10:30, and each 15 minutes following: The olifa is rubbed and spread. NOTE: The stove had feet, and was raised about 9 inches off the floor. The icon lay face up, during this time, under the stove, where the panel remained warm, but not hot. Two pieces of thin wood were placed to cover the sides of the area under the stove to prevent drafts.
12:00 noon: Some of the thickened olifa is removed, and stored in a small jar for retouching and restoration.
12:40: The olifa had thickened noticeably, and had formed a good film on the paint surface. The olifa was carefully rubbed and smoothed. The fingers leave tracks now, which soon disappear back into the olifa.
1:20: The icon is removed from the heat. It is very tacky, and it is difficult to move one’s fingers across the sticky surface. The olifa is worked and spread, making sure that the developing film is even. The rubbing continues each 15 minutes.
2:00: The olifa is removed by hand & fingers with great physical effort. This takes about 15 minutes. The icon is very sticky and very shiny. It is turned to the wall.
Each 15 minutes thereafter: the icon is brushed as described above, and then turned to the wall.
4:00: The brushing stops. The varnishing is complete except for the overnight drying.