3 Reasons why artists varnish their work (and why some artists don’t)

by Will Kemp

in acrylic painting

acrylicpaintingvarnish

We’ve all done it.

Spent hours, days, even weeks slaving away on a painting but when we finally apply a varnish…it all goes horribly wrong.

The anxiousness builds.

You’re now sure there’s mismatched sheens on the surface and it was perfect before you started varnishing!

Or maybe you thought it was a good idea to wrap your newly varnished painting with bubble wrap just before the deadline of an exhibition, only to find out at the private view the bubble wrap had left hundreds of tiny circle imprints on the surface of the painting….mmm..surely no one would ever do that!

The anxiety and disappointment that comes with varnishing can sometimes seem too much.

With all the confusion, conflicting advice and frustration in creating the perfect varnish finish, you can’t help wondering, what’s the point of varnishing at all?…

Traditionally varnishes were applied to keep paintings protected from all the dust, dirt, smoke etc.. in the atmosphere. The varnish provides a non-porous, protective layer that is removable for conservation purposes; it serves its aesthetic purpose whilst also providing protection.

Any dirt that attaches to the painting will be on the varnish layer and not imbedded in the paint layer.

So when a painting has yellowed and looks suitably dirty, the varnish can be removed (and all the dirt with it) restoring the painting to it’s vibrant, former glory, then a new varnish can be applied to protect it for the next 100 years or so.

fontana-lady-with-dog-mid-clean-detail

Portrait of a lady with a dog 1590s, Lavinia Fontana 1552-1614 (Rebecca Gregg Conservation mid point through a varnish removal)

As I mention below, there are other aesthetic reasons to varnish but it’s worth remembering that although it’s often called a ‘Final picture varnish’, traditionally varnishes are meant to have the capacity to be removed without damaging the painting.

It’s worth noting there are many Acrylic permanent ‘non-removable’ varnishes on the market. They will give you a nice even finish to your work – without going through the process below.

Personally though, I always work with a removable varnish to ensure the future preservation of the aesthetics of my paintings.

Is removable varnishing appropriate for you?

I always think with portraits and paintings that will be handed down to generations in the future it is definitely worth varnishing with an old school technique. However, it’s a personal call as I appreciate some of our paintings end up on the neighbours wall. It might be in this scenario an acrylic permanent ‘non-removable’ varnish fits the job.

Whatever you decide is best for you and your paintings, it’s always worth knowing good professional practice.

So we shall carry on as if all of your paintings will some day hang in the Musée du Louvre!

The main 3 reasons why artists varnish their work:

1. Deepen (saturate) the colours:

Although we are going to be looking at acrylic varnishing techniques, the anxiety over how to varnish, or what to varnish with stems back to Fresco paintings.

In his book The Craftsman’s Handbook, Cennino Cennini (about 1370–about 1440) tried many times to create a matte varnish to his paintings, he created a recipe for a varnish from whipped eggwhites. The only issue was it went grey over time.

Then with the Renaissance a more high gloss varnish finish was favoured, giving the paintings the “Old Master Glow” and helping to give a permanent enrichment to the colours.

Acrylic paintings can often look dull when they’re dry and some manufacturers such as Old Holland and Winsor & Newton have started to add a glossy acrylic binder to give the paints a more satin appearance.

Even though that helps, to get the most saturated colour from your acrylic painting, a glossy varnish will always enhance your colours more than just using paint alone.

2. Create an even gloss/satin/matte sheen over the entire picture surface.

There are some acrylic pigments that dry shinier than others.

Different mediums and gels also have different finishes and on top of that, acrylic paint changes in sheen depending on how much water is added to the paint.

This result is a finished painting with areas of different sheens.

acrylic varnish gloss vs matte

You can see in this painting there are uneven levels of sheen, due to parts where I’ve mixed a gloss glazing liquid into my paint and then worked, water thinned paint over the top.

So can I just paint a varnish directly onto my acrylic painting to unify the appearance?

Well yes and no.

If you want your acrylic painting in the future to be easily cleaned/restored to exactly the same finish as when you paint it i.e. remove and replace the varnish – then you need to apply an isolation coat first.

A Note for Oil painters

If you were varnishing your oil painting (or if you decide to use a non-removable acrylic varnish ) the process is slightly different and you can usually paint your varnish straight onto the paint layer without the need for an isolation coat.

An Isolation Coat

This does all the heavy lifting for you.

By painting an isolation coat it provides an even sheen and a glass-like surface, so when you apply the final varnish it will just glide on. It’s a bit like laying a sheet of thin glass over the paint surface, and then applying a varnish to the glass.

So rather than the varnish soaking into sections of absorbent canvas it ‘sits on top’ of the isolation coat.

N.B. An isolation coat has to be done with a gloss medium. When it’s dry you can then apply a varnish of either Matte, Satin or Gloss depending on your taste which will always supercede the glossy isolation coat finish.

How do you mix an isolation coat?

isolationcoat

Mix the isolation coat to the consistency of single cream

I use products from Golden Acrylics. Liquitiex, Winsor & Newton and Atelier Interactive all have slightly different medium choices, but the same principles apply.

Golden Soft Gel Gloss – it must be the gloss version, the satin and matte version of soft gel are not recommend due to the matting agent in the medium. The gloss will dry the clearest of the gels. Even if you want to finish with a Matte surface, apply the gloss isolation coat.

  • 2 parts Soft Gel Gloss
  • 1 part water

Then in the future, if you ever need to replace the varnish, you can simply apply a varnish remover and it will go back to the isolation coat and never hit the acrylic paint surface.

Common questions about how I apply an isolation coat:

Q. Why do you use a brush?

A. Most of my paintings are quite thin in application, there aren’t any thick impasto areas so the brush just glides over very easily and I can work quicker.

Q. Why don’t you spray your isolation coat?

A. If you are working on a very large-scale painting and wanted a super, super even finish then spray application will always give you the most even sheen finish, however, it is more costly and you need a very well ventilated area. Ideally outside.

You would also need to use a different medium than the Soft Gel Gloss.

For a spray application of an isolation coat

For a spray application Soft Gel Gloss will be too viscous to go cleanly through the  airbrush, if you want to spray use a mix of:

2 parts – Golden GAC-500

1 part – Transparent Airbrush Extender

Apply multiple thin layers depending on absorbency of the surface you’re spraying. It’s quite a lot of extra effort.

Q. Do you ever a use a sponge to apply an isolation coat?

A. No, a sponge has the tendency to cause froth and bubbles in the isolation coat, but can be used when applying certain water-based varnishes.

Q.What is the biggest isolation coat application problem?

A. Working too slow.

Going over a nearly dry section of the isolation coat with your brush.

Trying to cover a large area in one go.

Applying the isolation coat with bubbles in the mix.

Trying to finish with one thick coat, where two thin coats would be better.

Deciding on the level of sheen of your varnish

It’s a personal preference.

Many of the Impressionists preferred not to varnish at all. They didn’t like the visual effect or the ostentatious feel of a highly glossed surface.

“The Matte surfaces favoured by impressionists and fauves within a primitivizing impulse – in their case a return to the look of fifteenth-century tempera and fresco painting”

Seeing Through Paintings: Physical Examination in Art Historical Studies by Andrea Kirsh, Rustin S. Levenson

Pissaro and Monet preferred the unvarnished look and many Impressionists would aim to work on a more absorbent gesso ground.

The gesso ground would soak up the oil from the paint and leave a matte appearance on the surface.

In an ideal world I would have a matte finish to my paintings too, but with all the colour intensity a gloss varnish delivers….but I said ‘in an ideal world’ because with varnish it’s always a compromise between aesthetic ideals and chemical limitations.

The Matting agent used to create Matte varnish is usually white.

On light coloured paintings it isn’t noticeable, but on dark paintings it can give the surface a cloudy or frosty look, therefore the colours don’t necessarily shine through it and blacks in particular will always lighten in appearance with a matte varnish.

A Matte surface

As mentioned above a matte varnish contains a matting agent which is usually white, so even though it dries clear, its still not 100% transparent.

As a comparison, gloss varnishes dry almost 100% transparent and satin somewhere between the two.

Modern painter Robert Motherwell had to accept the aesthetic implications of the varnish. It led him to varnish different areas of the painting in different sheens

“the whole conception of this painting was extremely matte….The difficulty with varnishes is that they are shiny, glossy, so there is a problem: for example, if one made a drawing on white rag paper, and if one varnishes it, it immediately becomes shiny, like the illustrations in popular women’s magazines on glossy paper…But my greatest anxiety was to get a varnish that was not shiny.”

Matte vs satin vs gloss varnish

Different varnish finishes on black paint

This matte finish that can often appear in acrylics is exactly the same as areas of an oil painting that have ‘sunk in’.

This is often why dark dramatic paintings have a final glossy picture varnish applied. It brings back the colours and makes the blacks look really black.

If you try to apply a satin or matte varnish to a black painting the level of blackness will be lifted.

varnishingacrylicpainting

Notice the difference in intensity of the black above, depending on the varnish.

So what approach do I take?

I apply an isolation coat, which will always be gloss.

Then leave it to dry for 24hours so I can assess the level of sheen that will best suit the painting colours and the environment the painting is going to hang (if it’s a specific commission). It’s worth taking into consideration bright lights within the hanging space as these can often cause a glare on a too glossy finish.

Most of the time I would then mix a bespoke solvent based varnish by adding matte varnish to a gloss varnish. So in essence creating a controllable satin finish.

I apply thin coats, sometimes 3 or 4 always assessing when it’s dry whether I’m happy with the level of sheen/colour saturation compromise.

3. Protect the painted surface from atmospheric effects to make the surface easier to clean.

Acrylic paint by its very nature is quite a soft material. If you have a blob of acrylic paint that is dry you can still push it and squeeze it and it will move.

There are 2 main choices for your acrylic painting. Either a water based varnish or a solvent based varnish.

Water based varnish (Polymer)

Water based varnishes usually are created from an acrylic polymer, similar in consistency to a acrylic glazing liquid.

They provide a good level of protection and for small to medium pieces are a easy great choice, especially if you work from a small studio within your home.

They are convenient, cleanup friendly and don’t smell strongly however, they are harder to apply evenly on larger areas with a brush as they dry too quickly for big canvases.

They are also milky white when applied, drying to clear with a tendency to foam when mixed (so often need to be left to settle before applying)

They don’t give as hard a surface finish as a solvent based varnish.

Pro tip: If you’re having problems working quickly enough with water based varnishes, then you can use a large sponge to apply.

This only works if you’re using a water-based varnish that is already quite fluid. You need to work quickly and be patient to build up the varnish in thin layers. Be careful using a sponge with an isolation coat as it can lead to foaming.

Pros

Clean up with water
Dry quickly
No strong smell
No need for mineral spirits for cleaning

Cons

Tricky to apply
Dry very quickly
Not as hard varnish finish
Milky when wet

Solvent based varnish (MSA)

msavarnish

Solvent based varnishes or Mineral Spirit Acrylic varnish dry to a tough, yet flexible layer.

MSA varnishes are clear when wet and also provide an easier application with self leveling qualities. The clarity and appearance of the finish is slightly superior compared to a water based varnish.

The biggest drawback with MSA Varnishes is that they must be thinned before use, with full strength spirits. They are strong smelling and clean up is messy, so for home use can be impractical.

Pros

Easier to apply
Self leveling qualities give an even sheen
Dry slowly so are excellent for big pieces
Hard varnish finish

Cons

Have to thin with full strength spirits before using (not odourless mineral spirits)
Clean up using solvents
Strong smell
Not as cleanup friendly in a home (a bit messy)

I’ll be covering the techniques of the different applications in a future article and if your varnished painting looks a little uneven or the finish isn’t absolutely perfect, don’t be too hard on yourself – spare a little thought for Renoir.

Varnishing day Salon - Paris

Within the French Academy, before the official opening of the Salon exhibition, artists were allowed a varnishing day. This was often carried out by the artists colourmen.

Cezanne’s art dealer Vollard quotes Renoir from 1879:

“The day before the opening, a friend came and told me that he had just been to the Salon, and that something queer seemed to have happened to my Mademoiselle Samary. I dashed to the Salon and found the picture almost beyond recognition – it looked as if it were melting away. It seems that the framer instructed the delivery boy to varnish another picture that he was delivering at the same time. The boy had a little varnish left over and decided to give me the benefit of it.

I didn’t varnish mine because it was still wet, but he thought I was being economical! The result was I had to paint the whole thing in an afternoon.”

So my bubble wrap bubblemarks over my piece don’t seem so disastrous after all!

I hope this helps when making a decision about varnishing your own works.

 

 

 

{ 111 comments… read them below or add one }

Alison Stafford December 19, 2013

Top tips once again! Thanks for sharing Will :)
Can I ask will you be sharing similar tips for oil Paintings? or does the same apply?

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Thanks Ali, oh yes, I forgot to mention that. I’ll be doing another article on the best practice for oil paint varnishes soon, lots of cross-overs but a few different considerations.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Nadya December 19, 2013

Thank You Will for a very useful object!! All your articles really help a lot!
The Best!!

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Thanks Nadya, pleased you found it helpful.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Liz Geeslin December 19, 2013

Great information Will! Thanks as always for your wonderful site and advise!

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

You’re welcome Liz, hope it helps.
Will

Reply

David Shaiken December 19, 2013

Very informative, Will. Thanks for posting this.

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Hey David,

Hope you’re keeping well, pleased you found the article helpful.
Will

Reply

Tara December 19, 2013

This is so comprehensive, and I learned a huge amount as usual! Thanks for laying it all out so clearly. I’m wondering though if varnishing is essential? I paint in acrylics and don’t varnish them, but am wondering if I should for protective reasons.

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Hi Tara, ahh the elusive varnishing decision!

Reply

Rachel December 19, 2013

Great information thank you

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

You’re welcome Rachel

Reply

Carole Pivarnik December 19, 2013

Thanks for a very informative post! I look forward to the oil painting one, as well.

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

You’re welcome Carole.

Will

Reply

Jacque Bernadette December 19, 2013

Thank you for the amazing tips. It is appreciated as I will be varnishing 22 pieces for a display.

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Really pleased it helped Jacque, by the end of 22 pieces you’ll be a varnishing master!

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Lois Glass Webb December 19, 2013

Many of my oil paintings that I still have are over thirty years old and have never been varnished. What do I clean the surface with before applying any coating including varnish? And why can I not use a polyethylene furniture varnish from the paint store? I was a student of Frederick Taubes in the 40s -50s and he made me very conscious of the chemical contents of any varnish… Just wondering.

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Hi Lois, I’ll be covering oil painting varnishing in a future article, the polyethylene furniture varnish usually has a tendency to yellow more over time.

Cheers,

Will

Reply

Lois Glass Webb December 19, 2013

Thank you for your answer. I look forward to your information on varnishing oil paintings.
Lois

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

You’re welcome Lois

Reply

Norene Schreiner December 19, 2013

Thanks! Very informative!

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

You’re welcome Norene

Reply

Tania December 19, 2013

Great subject Will, thank you very much. As you know I have started in acrylics not so long time ago and you are so helpful. I like that colours are so bright after varnishing, but I noticed sometimes there are some ugly streaks. I do use a very soft brush. What do I do wrong?

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Hi Tania,

A number of things that cause streaks, from the varnish drying too quickly, to the brush technique on application, I’ll be looking at different application methods in the next varnishing article.

Will

Reply

Jacque Bernadette December 19, 2013

I was wondering if this was accurate? I do the first coat horizontally (left-to-right) and the second coat vertically (up-and-down). Prevents glare…

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Hi Jacque,

It would all depend on the position of the lights that would be shining onto the painting, whether the lighting was from above (a picture light for example) of from the side (a bright low window that has strong sunlight shining through) The biggest jump in change in glare would be a change in the sheen applied.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Tania December 19, 2013

Thank you Will!

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

You’re welcome Tania.

Will

Reply

carol December 19, 2013

Thanks Will, great article, and very helpful to have the links to the work shown and the handbook. Totally amazing that something written so long ago is still in circulation and relevant! Many thanks to you for the practical and easy- to- understand info ~ your usual high standard :) I look forward to the oil painting info when it arrives!

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Pleased you enjoyed it Carol, yes it is quite amazing the similarities of problems with varnishing with artists through the ages!

Reply

Yeside December 19, 2013

Haven’t quite hit the heirloom stage, Will, but find this very useful to assimilate. Have recently treated myself to the Acrylics Still Life video to gift me a lift during the January ‘Blues’ phase. Really admire your professionalism in handling this website. As a beginnner, i am growing with confidence as well as being inspired.
Happy Christmas and wishing you continued success in 2014. :-)

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Hi Yeside,

Nice to hear from you, so pleased you’re growing with confidence in your painting, enjoy the still life course.

Cheers,

Will

Reply

margaret December 19, 2013

I had been fussing over this idea just this morning (and on and off in recent months). A holiday gift, to find this in my e-mail inbox!! Thank you for the information, well-timed for me!

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Oh good one Margaret, great to hear the article was timely for you.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Lynne December 19, 2013

Thanks Will…really appreciate your arts generosity!

Have you ever used Dorlands wax medium as a final varnish? After an isolation coat, it seems safer than removalble varnish, but I wonder whether cold wax is adequate protection.

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Hi Lynne,

I’ve used a cold wax medium as a final varnish with oil painting, as you often use it as a matting agent with oil varnishes, but haven’t used it as a standalone varnish with acrylics. It might be a good question for the oil and wax forum, who have much more experience using cold wax.

Also, you might find coldwaxpainting.com helpful

Hope this helps,
Will

Reply

Mundo December 19, 2013

Hey Will,

You are still at your best, Thanks for the info!
I have heard and read over and over that oils over acrylics, is ok, but not the opposite, your isolation coat is prepared with acrylics, please enlighten me.

Happy holidays

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Hi Mundo,

Yes, that’s right, the isolation coat is an acrylic polymer, painted over acrylics – not oil paints.
Then you can paint over with either a waterbased or solvent based varnish.

In a side profile it looks like this:

varnish layer (final finish, can be gloss, satin or matte)

isolation coat (must be with the gloss medium)

paint layer (acrylic paint)

Hope this helps,
Will

Reply

Tony Kalemba December 19, 2013

Hi Will,
Hope all is well. Just wondering what the point is of using a solvent based varnish considering the polymer acrylic varnishes are non yellowing and water resistant? Seems to me to be a waste of time, unless acrylic varnish is for acrylic painting and solvent varnish is for oil painting. I mean it is not as if anyone would allow people to touch and deliberately damage their works!

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Hi Tony, I’m doing great thanks, it’s a personal choice regarding water-based or solvent based as mentioned in the pros and cons above.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Wanda McDonald December 19, 2013

Hi Will….what perfect timing, have just finished 3 acrylic landscapes and have been asking around at my local art supply store about varnishing them and was not really all that satisfied with what I’ve been told. Your article is perfect and I will be watching out for your next round of info on varnishing. Love your art, love your school and love your vids on Art Tutor…where I really discovered painting with acrylics (my favourite medium). Cheers, Wanda

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Hi Wanda,

Nice to hear from you and pleased the varnishing article was good timing for your landscape paintings.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Virginia December 19, 2013

Hello Will,
I’m in my mid forties and have just begun painting and I’m loving every minute of it.
I go to Art classes and have a great Art Teacher. I’m like a sponge soaking up all there is to know about Art, that’s when I came across your website. Your Info and tips are fantastic and really helpful.
Thanks Will for taking your time and energy in putting your website together!

Cheers from Australia and Merry Christmas!!
Virginia

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Hi Virginia,

Thanks for your kind words on the website, so pleased you’re finding the articles helpful, have a fab Christmas!

Cheers,

Will

Reply

alan December 19, 2013

Hi Will, great article as normal, I use atelier interactive acrylics (cant get golden) I obtained a Matisse clear sealer mm12 artists acrylic medium, it says for a light varnish where minimum protection is needed, , would this be okey for a isolation coat? or is there something you recommend using with the atelier interactive, cheers Will

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Thanks Alan,

For Atelier it’s a little different because of the re-wetting qualities of the paint.
You might find this article from Marion Boddy-Evans helpful.

and this varnishing download from the Chroma website helpful.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Lynda Dinneen December 19, 2013

As always Will, you have given such helpful information! Thank you! Merry Christmas!

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Thanks Lynda, and a Merry Christmas to you!

Reply

Shirley Griffin December 19, 2013

Hello Will
As usual you have given very informative advice. I have been wondering about glazing as I like the appearance. It is definitely worth considering. I have just finished a small painting of different character houses on a hill. Quite a quarky little piece . Thanks Will
Shirley

Reply

Will Kemp December 19, 2013

Hi Shirley, Pleased you found the article of interest, your painting sounds like the perfect candidate!

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Lynette Smith December 20, 2013

Thanks Will

I have been trying to search for that type of information for ages without success!

Regards
Lyn

Reply

Will Kemp December 20, 2013

You’re welcome Lyn, pleased you found it helpful.

Will

Reply

Malini Parker December 20, 2013

Hi Will,
thank you for this informative article. One question – what would you use as an isolation coat if you were working with ATELIER products? I have been using Atelier Gloss Medium/Varnish or Binder Medium. In your experience, does this sound ok for isolation coat?

Reply

Will Kemp December 20, 2013

Hi Malini,

If you look at the Answer to Alan’s question in the comments above about using an isolation coat with Atelier, here are some helpful links:

Thanks Alan,

For Atelier it’s a little different because of the re-wetting qualities of the paint.
You might find this article from Marion Boddy-Evans helpful.

and this varnishing download from the Chroma website helpful.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Sue Maples December 20, 2013

At almost 60, I am feeling like a creative kid again! Thanks for your excellent web site. So far I have made mistakes, but am learning with every attempt. This Christmas I am giving away paintings as gifts. Your varnishing article prevented me from making another mistake! I was going to use bubble wrap as part of the gift wrap! (I said I was a beginner) Could you advise me as to how to properly package an acrylic painting?
Merry Christmas and Many Thanks
Sue from Texas

Reply

Will Kemp December 20, 2013

Hi Sue,

As long as your varnish is dry, bubble wrap is one of the best ways to go.

Make sure the bubbles are facing outwards (so it is flat onto the canvas surface)

A couple of wraps over and the canvas will be well protected.

If you are sending via post it is also worth having a sheet of thick cardboard behind the canvas to prevent anything going through the canvas. You can then make a cardboard corner protector for each corner as these will be the points that would take the most impact if the parcel was ever dropped.

Hope this helps,

Will

Reply

avi burshtein December 21, 2013

Thanks Will
I am almost 67
I am feeling that with your excellent web site
I am back at school!
Thanks for
I ask will you toget tips for oil Paintings
Regards

Avi

ISRAEL

Reply

Will Kemp December 21, 2013

You’re welcome Avi, pleased you’re enjoying the tutorials.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Murtaza December 22, 2013

Very insightful and useful info. So well explained and touched upon every aspect of Varnishing….you are a genius not only as an artist but as a Teacher….there are many with talent but few would have a talent to pass on their talent with such an ease and simplicity that anybody can understand….I am lucky to have found you….Thanks again.

Reply

Will Kemp December 22, 2013

Hi Murtaza, thanks for your very kind comments, so pleased you found the articles helpful.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Kristine December 22, 2013

Hi Will
Thanks for another very interesting article. I didn’t realise there was so much to take into consideration when varnishing!
About a year ago I completed a large acrylic on canvas (120 x 120cm) which also has areas of gold leaf applied to it. I varnished it last-minute for an exhibition in London, using the only varnish I had in my studio at the time – Atelier Satin Medium & Varnish – which seemed to go on OK and looked OK.
Since the exhibition the painting has been in a box in my studio, but I want to offer it to other exhibitions/galleries now … and after reading your article I’m wondering if I should varnish it again with something different. Your advice would be appreciated.

Reply

Will Kemp December 23, 2013

Hi Kristine,

If the painting has gold leaf on and a coat of varnish I would be tempted to leave the varnish coat you’ve applied on as trying to remove it and not damage the gold leaf is a tad tricky, also, this particular varnish is a non-removable varnish.

However, it can be repainted over the top as it designed as a medium & varnish, so if you wanted a different sheen as a finish on top you would be fine.

Hope this helps,

Will

Reply

Kristine December 23, 2013

Thanks Will.
Merry Christmas!

Reply

Will Kemp December 23, 2013

You’re welcome Kristine, Merry Christmas!

Reply

Julie Weston December 23, 2013

Thanks Will,
I have already applied the gloss gel medium coat and was wondering about the varnish…you have explained it all so well and easily that I have clarity!..sometimes these processes are a little bewildering so a big thankyou

Reply

Will Kemp December 23, 2013

You’re welcome Julie, pleased you found it helpful.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

jmorise December 25, 2013

Wouldn’t it be okay to just use the isolation coat (gloss medium mixed with water)? It looks great and is water proof. Thank you for your great tips and your great videos. Jo

Reply

Will Kemp December 26, 2013

Hi Jo, yes you could do that, it would be similar effect to using a non-removable water-based polymer varnish.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

jmorise December 27, 2013

Thank you. Have a great Holiday season. Jo

Reply

Kathy Sturr December 27, 2013

Lately I have been exploring with watercolors on different materials. I like to use watercolor canvas and aquabord finding the finished product more exciting than the traditional matted and framed under glass watercolor. Any tips on “varnishing” a watercolor to protect it, say on a canvas or aquabord?

Reply

Will Kemp December 30, 2013

Hi Kathy,

I would always try to protect watercolours behind glass, as adding any product to the watersoluble surface of the watercolours runs the risk of re-wetting the paint and the level of protection will not be as great. But I appreciate for aesthetic reasons glass isn’t always ideal, you might be interested to have a read through this article on the considerations and options when varnishing a watercolour.

Hope it helps,

Will

Reply

terri December 30, 2013

…as always, your studies and notes are invaluable! thanks, and happy new year!

Reply

Will Kemp December 30, 2013

Thanks Terri, pleased it helped, Happy New Year!

Cheers,
Will

Reply

David December 31, 2013

Will,

Thanks so much for sharing this info. I was at a frame store the other day and they asked if the painting was varnished. Until then I had know idea about varnishing. I searched the web found your site and shared knowledge and it was exactly what I needed to know.

Thank you,
David

Reply

Will Kemp January 2, 2014

Good one David, really pleased you found it helpful.
Cheers,
Will

Reply

Lisa Palmer January 4, 2014

Excellent extremely helpful article, Will. Thank you!!! I’m so happy to have found you.
One question: if one’s objective is to have a nearly gloss finish on one’s acrylic painting, would the isolation coat you recommend be enough to suffice?

Reply

Will Kemp January 7, 2014

Hi Lisa, pleased you found it helpful, the isolation coat would give you an extra level of protection, but wouldn’t enable you to remove/clean in the future. It’s a bit like adding a non-removable water based permanent varnish.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Gayatri January 5, 2014

Dear Will….
Thank you for the whole Package, full of useful information on the varnish topic. It would be very helpful if you could let me know as to how or whether exactly can i make corrections on a painting after it has been varnished and if so… the procedure to do so.. I am facing some difficulty with a budha painting in acrylic and asap need your advise.

Thanks again and Cheers
Gayatri..

Reply

Will Kemp January 7, 2014

Thanks Gayatri, if you just have an isolation coat applied you can then retouch and change areas, but its harder to alter once the final varnish has been applied as the acrylic won’t adhere as easily to the surface without removing the varnish.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Anne Swiderski January 8, 2014

Hello Will, I’ve been varnishing my acrylic paintings for some time, using an isolation coat (golden) and then applying a few coats of gloss polymer varnish with UVLS. One painting not has dry bubbles on its surface, many equidistant to each other. I tried applying a new coat but no change. Is this painting dead? LoL i know that its either too much water (I mixed it 4 varnish to 1 water) or too energetic mixing (i was as gentle as possible). I’ve heard of someone applying a hair dryer to the newly applied varnish to eliminate bubbles. thanks for this website.

Reply

Will Kemp January 9, 2014

Hi Anne,

Pleased you’ve been finding the site helpful, the usual culprit for the bubbles is, as you suspected – after too energetic mixing of the varnish (it is most noticeable with polymer varnishes) I usually tend to mix and then leave the mixture for 24hrs before applying if i’m working with a Polymer Varnish and want to be 100% sure of no bubbles.

Cheers,

Will

Reply

Kari January 9, 2014

I am new to this and I have been reading over your site as to how to varnish my acrylic painting. I bought acrylic liquid glazing gloss and Golden soft gel Gloss, thinking that that is what I needed to complete my varnish. But I am now confused. Are those two products just for the isolation coat? What do I get for the actual varnish, if it is different than the products I listed above. If you could clarify for me, that would be awesome.

Reply

Will Kemp January 9, 2014

Hi Kari,

Both of those buys are excellent products, the Acrylic liquid glazing gloss is perfect for applying thin glazing layers to your paintings, but is not needed for the varnish part of the painting.

If you want to have a removable picture varnish then you’ll need:

1. Soft Gel Gloss – To act as the barrier ‘isolation coat’ layer
2. A Varnish – depending on your aesthetic choices either a Polymer varnish or Mineral Varnish as discussed in the article.

Hope this helps.

Cheers,

Will

Reply

Jay Holobach January 18, 2014

Will,

Brilliant information as per the norm.

-Is there such a thing as an expiration date on varnish? It all looks so great on the shelf at the local store (don’t get me started with online warehouses). How can I be sure it hasn’t been sitting there for three years?

-How much does the environment influence the varnishing process? (Temp, humidity, et al?) Is there a preferable sweet spot?

-”Two parts varnish, one part water”. Would you be so kind as to explain what a “part” is?

Thanks Will.

Kind regards,
Jay

Reply

Will Kemp January 18, 2014

Hi Jay, pleased you found the article helpful, to answer your questions:

-Is there such a thing as an expiration date on varnish? It all looks so great on the shelf at the local store (don’t get me started with online warehouses). How can I be sure it hasn’t been sitting there for three years?

If the varnish is sealed it’s pretty good for years, it’s only if air gets into the mix it can start to change the consistency of the varnish.

-How much does the environment influence the varnishing process? (Temp, humidity, et al?) Is there a preferable sweet spot?

It’s best in a warm environment, if you’re spraying keep the spray next to the radiator before you varnish so you have a more consistent temperature between spray can and painting.

-”Two parts varnish, one part water”. Would you be so kind as to explain what a “part” is?

‘part’ just means a measurement/percentage, Like saying 2 cups of varnish to 1 cup of water. The ‘part’ is larger or smaller depending on the size of the painting, but the ratio stays the same.

So, for example, in a recipe that requires 150ml of isolation coat, 100ml would be soft gel gloss and 50ml would be water, this would be 2 parts soft gel gloss to 1 part water or 2:1

Hope this helps Jay,

Cheers,
Will

Reply

patricia January 29, 2014

Thank you again for such valuable guidance. You are truly thorough and most enthusiastic, which I find very refreshing.

Reply

Will Kemp January 29, 2014

You’re welcome Patricia, thanks for your kind words.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Connie January 30, 2014

Thank you Will for the information. I will keep this in my files.

Reply

Will Kemp January 30, 2014

Good one Connie,
Cheers,
Will

Reply

Liz February 17, 2014

Hi Will, I use an acrylic satin finish varnish that comes in a spray can to protect my acrylic paintings and am satisfied with that.

Most of my oil paintings over 30 years old have held their color very well. But there is one in dark background that shows some uneven patches of shine when looking at it from the side. How could that be remedied?

Another somewhat related problem is that I found that a little linseed oil in the paint

leaves shine in that part of the painting with water mixable oil paints and stays tacky for a long time after the painting is done, so I don’t use linseed as a medium anymore. So my problems are dealing with uneven shine and/or using thee wrong medium? Thanks for your help!

Reply

Will Kemp February 17, 2014

Hi Liz, its due to the different absorbency of the oil paints into the canvas and would need ‘oiling out’ to even the sheen. Have a look at this article on varnishing oils which goes through the process.

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Sharon Jordan March 5, 2014

I have a silly question. I would like to varnish a painting that I completed with acrylics. I like to mix my mediums up so I add flowers, glitter and what not but I have never sealed them before using varnish until I stumbled upon your site. I have learned a lot about how to make them better.

Here is my silly question, what happens to glitter? I need to make a word pop on my painting. I have used silver paint already but it still needs to pop. I was thinking about varnishing because I have some very visible brush strokes and what not that I want to even out. Will varnish make the glitter not so glittery? Should I varnish and then add glitter on top of it? Stupid I know but I am not a traditional painter by any means…

Reply

Will Kemp March 7, 2014

Hi Sharon,

Hope you’re doing well, the best way to apply a varnish with glitter is to lightly apply a spray varnish, or you can incorporate the varnish with a layer of soft gel gloss that will act as a glue to the glitter. You can paint your painting, apply a layer of soft gel gloss, sprinkle glitter and you’re away!

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Ken Cudmore March 6, 2014

I’m a little confused by ‘permanent’ , ‘non-removable’ varnishes versus “removable”. If I use a non-removable varnish such as Liquitex “gloss medium varnish” Fluid Medium , after I use a Golden Soft Gel Gloss as an isolation coat, would I be able to remove safely, this varnish at some point in the future? Also, is this Liquitex product, a combination of something like a Soft Gel Gloss and a varnish? So, you are probably wondering why I just don’t spray a varnish and the answer is that a 40×30″ painting results in the spray spitting varnish. I noted another artist used a sponge to apply the Liquitex product. this looked pretty easy to me and I hate breathing in varnish fumes when spraying and the N95 masks always make me wonder if I am adequately protected.

Reply

Will Kemp March 7, 2014

Hi Ken,
You wouldn’t be able to remove a non-removable varnish safely without danger of damaging the picture surface.

If you have an isolation coat, it gives you a slight edge, but the varnish isn’t designed to be removed. The Liquitex gloss medium varnish is similar in consistency and substance to the soft gel gloss, it is more of a medium than a traditional removable varnish, so yes ‘a combination of something like a Soft Gel Gloss and a (polymer) varnish’ sounds about right. In essence it would be like putting down an isolation coat, and then another isolation coat that you had mixed in some polymer varnish ontop of that. It would give you a smoother application, but if you where going down this route you could just build up layers of the Liquitex fluid medium.

Hope this helps,

Will

Reply

Jim Cotts March 12, 2014

Will the varnish not eventually turn yellow?

Reply

Will Kemp March 12, 2014

Hi Jim, as mentioned above, natural varnishes (such as Dammar) yellow over time. Man-made Synthetic varnishes do not yellow (if they do yellow at all it is a very slight shift compared with natural varnishes)

Hope this helps,

Will

Reply

leslie April 17, 2014

HI will thank you

Reply

Will Kemp April 17, 2014

You’re welcome Leslie.

Reply

David April 17, 2014

Will:
I have a painting that has some impasto areas, made with Golden extra heavy gel gloss medium mixed into heavy body paint, and another area that is painted with thin multiple glazes made with heavy body paint mixed with soft gel gloss (50%) and water (50%). I’ve applied the isolation coat. Any thoughts on whether to apply, and if so how to apply, the varnish? I’m not sure how to get the varnish to go on evenly on both the peaks and valleys of the impasto areas. Thanks.

Reply

Will Kemp April 19, 2014

Hi David, hope you’re keeping well, if there is a mix of peaks and valleys I would go for a spray varnish and build up the varnish in layers (3 or 4 thin applications).

You can make a small test piece and really exaggerate the peaks and valleys, then judge how many applications gives you the result you like aesthetically.

Hope this helps,

Will

Reply

David April 21, 2014

Thanks so much, Will.

Reply

Tomoko Ouchi August 11, 2014

Hello Will. I am getting ready to varnish a commissioned painting (acrylic). The size is 15″x60″. Your articles and Q&As are very helpful. I decided on an isolation coat with the Golden Soft Gel Gloss using the “pour and paint method” you explained in one of the replies. I cannot quite make up my mind on the varnish. I don’t have confidence to apply a polymer based varnish quickly enough on the panorama size surface. The solvent based varnish (brush) sounds better because it sounds like I have a larger window of time to apply the varnish. But is it not suitable to use in my small home studio? Or would spraying be easier? Your opinion will be greatly appreciated!

Reply

Will Kemp August 12, 2014

Hi Tomoko, personally I would go for the Solvent based Brush option. Because the painting is quite narrow you’ll be able to cover it all in good time to get a nice even finish. You’d probably also be able to get away with a polymer varnish on that size. I would be tempted to do a ‘test run’, even on a piece of cardboard, just so you can get used to the feel and the flow of the size. It would be worth the cost of varnish lost, rather than a painting finish ruined!

Hope this helps,
Will

Reply

Tomoko Ouchi August 13, 2014

Thank you so much for the reply, Will. Doing a test run makes a whole lot of sense -I would certainly feel more comfortable after that! I also wanted to comment that your recent article on whites is very helpful. Thanks again!

Reply

Will Kemp August 13, 2014

You’re welcome Tomoko, yes it’s often just feeling a sense of confidence that can help, pleased you enjoyed the white article.
Cheers,
Will

Reply

Rdbot September 4, 2014

Hello.

Im working very large scale watercolors 6-7 ft across on canvas. I really like the look of them before varnishing. Up to now was using various spray applications. I feel this takes away from the subtle matt look which has the added benefit of many creative options to light it without hot spots… when I varnish it, theres a sheen which reflects light in places and in general I think it looks worse than the original. Also when I spray it on, seems its very uneven due to the large size. Im considering brushing, but….

Some questions:

How dangerous is it to leave a watercolor painting unvarnished? That would be my top pick, but dont think its safe.

Or is there a varnish that is absolutely matt?

Would a brushed on application work better in this case for reducing hotspots?

Im curious also about trying wax varnish – I know this would give it a whole other effect, but im curious if that affect could be beautiful vs. what I find with spraying taking away from the beauty. Could a painting that large be wax varnished and polished effectively? Where might I learn more about the technique?

The last consideration is archival qualities. Do I need to worry about reversible varnishes? In what cases?

Thank you all in advance, look fwd. to hearing your suggestions.

Best,

R

Reply

Will Kemp September 4, 2014

Hi R,
Watercolours can be tricky because you can never remove the varnish as it become absorbed into the paper surface, this is from the Winsor & newton website:

Varnishes do not work well with Gouache, water colour and drawings because the varnish will be deeply absorbed by the paint and/or paper, becoming an integral part of the picture and could cause discolouration. In addition, varnishes on works created using Gouache, water colour and drawing cannot be removed.

You might find this article of interest that goes into different approaches (including wax) specifically for watercolours.
Hope this helps,

Cheers,
Will

The watersoluble nature of the paint makes

Reply

caryl hanks September 23, 2014

thanks Will. I enjoyed it but was over my head. Am 80 plus is why. lol. I am only painting on white gift bags from m. store. It’s for hand therapy but the pictures are so pretty I been using as gifts. Just thought the varnish would hold picture on good. Friends have been using as decorative pieces. thanks again. caryl

Reply

Charles December 10, 2014

Hi Will thanks for these articles.

I ve never varnished before but have delivered my paintings framed with uv glass.
Now i paint acrylic on wood, gray scale white to black with a lot of texture brush marks and hard edges, glazing and transparencies due to regular matte gel. I would like to accentuate the vividness and depth of the colors and textures, like a wet effect but without it shining crazy. The paintings will go behind uv glass again.
After reading your articles i was thinking of trying glossy isolation coat with a satin varnish on top. How would you see it? Are the old paintings safe behind glass if nothing at all was applied over the paint?
Thanks very much ,
Charles

Reply

Will Kemp December 10, 2014

Hi Charles, yes that sounds like the perfect approach, apply an isolation coat first so you can see how the painting will look with a gloss finish, then you can judge if the satin will work the best for you. Your previous paintings will be well protected behind the glass.
Hope this helps,

Cheers,
Will

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: