Applying Varnish to your paintings

Applying Varnish


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Applying varnish to your paintings is not as common today as it used to be. Many artists choose not to varnish their artwork. But applying varnish can protect your paintings from dust and damage. The varnish covers ridges and cracks and will keep the surface of your painting intact for a long time. You may also have other reasons for varnishing a painting – achieving a certain finish for example.

What sort of varnish should I buy?

There is a wide range of different kinds of varnish, and there are varnishes both for acrylic and for oil paintings. Some will give your painting a matt surface and some will make it glossier. There are varnishes that will enhance the depth and intensity of the colors in the painting. Retouching varnish is used to cover oil paint that is not completely dry and will enable you to apply a second coat of oil paint faster.

Before you buy a varnish, consider what you want to accomplish. If your only reason for applying varnish is to protect your paintings you only need to decide if you want a glossy or matt finish – or something in between, some varnishes are mixable. Look into the the selection of varnishes at your artist material retailer. Carefully read the instructions on the bottles. Check if the varnish is for oil paint or acrylic paint. Also be sure to buy a removable varnish. If the painting needs to be restored at some time in the future, the varnish may have to be removed.

Clean the painting first

Before applying varnish, you must wait until the painting is completely dry. It takes at least six months or longer for an oil painting. Clean the painting from dust if necessary. This can be quite difficult; try using a low suction vacuum with a soft brush nozzle. But be careful so you don’t damage the painting.

There may also be other kinds of smudge on the painting which is even trickier. Use damp cotton wool and clean carefully. Let the painting dry before you proceed. Check for pieces of cotton wool on the painting and remove them carefully.


How to apply the varnish

Be sure to work in a dust free environment. Lay the painting horizontally on a table. Use a varnish brush and apply varnish in vertical strokes covering the whole surface (important!) of the painting. When the first coat is dry you do the same thing again only this time with horizontal strokes so that you get crossing coats. Let it dry in a dust free environment.

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Be careful

It’s a good idea to practice on paintings you don’t care about – perhaps you have paintings you know you’ll never finish. Study the effect of the cleaning and the varnish on the painting. Let the varnish dry and check for signs of dust in the varnish.

Warning! Don’t use the same varnish on the finished painting that you have also used as a medium when you painted it. This may damage the painting. Get professional help if you feel uncertain about any of the steps described. The purpose is to protect your paintings and enhance their quality. Therefore you should proceed with caution.

Did you know? In the past the artists would varnish their paintings the day before the opening of an art exhibition. People that were important to the artists were invited to varnishing day. Today the tradition of inviting friends and sponsors remains, and is called a vernissage – from the word varnish.



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