Oils · Painting · Resources and Materials

Do I Need to Varnish My Painting?

Some of my learners ask me if they need to varnish their paintings.  I don’t think varnishing is necessary for beginners, but some like the idea of protecting their work for the future or like the look of the varnished finish.

The main reason I don’t suggest varnishing your painting as a beginner is because you are still learning and producing work that is improving all the time.  It can also get expensive to varnish every piece of work.  I like to save varnishing for the one off pieces of work that I am very proud of or if I know the work is going into an exhibition.  However if you are still keen to varnish your work, I will offer some tips on how to go about it.

To Varnish or Not to Varnish

Some good reasons to varnish might be to preserve your painting because it is going to be exhibited.  Exhibitions can take their toll on artwork, all that transportation, framing, handling and general moving around can put your work at more risk of being damaged. Varnishing  will provide a layer of protection from dust, dirt, smoke and make it more robust should it get dropped or squashed against something. Varnished paintings don’t fade or get torn as readily.  Some varnished paintings have lasted over 100 years!

Consider Varnishing Carefully

Some varnishes have a matt finish but some are very shiney once dry.  Personally I don’t like the look of the high gloss surface.  Often beginner artists don’t realise this until their work is varnished, so test the varnish out first to see if you like the finish. Most varnish is ‘non-removable’.  Removable varnish is available but more expensive, this type of varnish is designed to be removed when the painting has yellowed and then to be reapplied in future.

Will Varnish Discolour My Work?

Varnishing will change the colours very slightly, deepening them and usually making the colours appear slightly darker. The yellowing we see in paintings over time is because the surface of the paper or canvas has yellowed.  Often paintings of 30 years or more on paper keep their colour but if you turn the paper over or look at the edges it will have yellowed. Be aware that if there is dust on the surface of your painting when it is varnished the varnish will seal the dust in.

Different types of varnish
Different types of varnish

What Type of Paintings Can be Varnished?

Oil, acrylic and watercolours can be varnished.  Some paint dries with a shiney finish, this depends on the pigment/colour and the type of paint.  Varnishing is probably more suitable for paint that dries to a very flat finish like acrylic.

What Type of Varnish Do I Need? 

There are two types of varnish, solvent-based ones and water-based ones.  I tend to prefer the water-based because they don’t contain the same level of toxins and don’t have harmful odours. The water-based varnishes (polymer) tend to be a bit less robust than the solvent-based ones with a shorter life span.  They often have a milky appearance when wet when you first apply them and they dry to a clear finish.  The solvent-based varnishes are almost always clear which makes them easier to apply. Some solvent-based varnishes require thinning so do read the instructions carefully.

Gloss Medium & Varnish

Medium or Varnish?

There are various mediums that you can add to paint to give it a shinier appearance.  You may want to consider using a medium rather than a varnish. Some use both, it depends on the reason why you wish to varnish your artwork.  For protection reasons one coat of varnish after painting is best but if it is the gloss look you want a medium might be a better option.

My favourite varnish is also a glue (shown on left) because I like collage it works well for me, it sticks the paper into place and gives a varnished finish.

5 thoughts on “Do I Need to Varnish My Painting?

  1. I didn’t know you can varnish watercolour – thanks! Can you varnish gouache too? I enjoy the medium but because everything reactivates so easily I worry about its longevity.

    1. Hello Jo, watercolour and gouache isn’t normally varnished, particularly watercolour. If you do varnish I would use a very thin layer of perhaps oil based varnish, there is a risk that the paint would run once the varnish is applied if it is water-based. I would test first!

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