“Final varnish” is the liquid, protective coat that goes onto oils and acrylics. In a way it’s the equivalent of fixative on pastels or glass on watercolours. Varnishes need to remain clear, and they need to be removable. Among manufacturers who publish advice and troubleshoot for artists, the application and removal of varnish is at the top of their FAQs. Every single day, someone writes and asks me about it too.
There’s a great variety of products. All have their strengths — some have weaknesses. My advice is to find a brand you like, study the written material related to it, know how to remove the stuff when necessary, and stick to it. To say which one would be best for you would be stating my particular needs and preferences, and not yours. Having said that, Golden materials are hard to beat and there’s evidence that their ultraviolet light blockers (UVLS) do retard fading. Since high school, I’ve also been using Winsor and Newton acrylics. I remember brushing on the final varnish with one of my dad’s angled sign sables. Lately, I’ve bumped into a few of the early ones, and they’re as bright as new pins.
Oil varnishes have improved since those dark ages. The Gamblin range, for example, has a product called Gamvar. It’s based on research at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It works for oil, alkyd and acrylic, has a dedicated remover, and is packaged with plenty of info.
When applying the final varnish, be careful to make sure the painting is sufficiently cured. Varnishes must not combine with the media below — a condition I call “glomming.” An overnight wait after an “isolation coat” (medium alone) seems to be okay for acrylics, but oils can take weeks or months depending on the type and mixture of the oil media. When I want to go back into (Golden) acrylics and work on something that I’ve already varnished, I’ve traditionally removed the varnish with “sudsy” household ammonia. I do it outdoors, even in the rain. I dump it on, rub it around with a rag, and flush it off with the garden hose. As I use lots of medium in the first place, there’s never any damage. The logic of final varnish is that it’s a sort of “shrink wrap.” I often do my shrink-wrapping when I’ve built up a collection. It’s the final act and I love to see my paintings drying by the studio door — getting ready to begin their precarious travels out and about in the greater world.
PS: “Given the current state of conservation science, we feel the use of an isolation coat prior to final varnishing provides the best long-term protection.” (Golden tech support pages)
Esoterica: I’ve asked Andrew to give you some links to those online pages where manufacturers explain the nuances of their varnishing products. See below. Your favourites are probably listed. With the advent of the Internet this info is readily available and generally up-to-date. Questions of “gloss” or “matte” are personal and seem to go in and out of fashion. These days things that glitter and shine are more popular than the quiet and reserved, and this may be a comment on our times. Apart from that, “shiny” is easier to keep clean.
(RG note) Manufacturers supply varying degrees of information. As the molecular structure of varnishes and the media they are to cover varies, it’s a good idea to stick to a brand. If your favourite brand is not listed here, info can be often found by going to Google and plugging in the name of the manufacturer and the words “final varnish” and either “oil” or “acrylic.”
Gamblin: Varnish your oil paintings
Golden Artist Colors: Varnish and Top Coats
Grumbacher: Varnish and mediums
Lascaux: Lascaux Varnishes & Fixative
Liquitex: Final Picture Varnish
Matisse Derivan: Varnish and Mediums
Rowney: Acrylic Mediums and Varnishes
Talens Oil and Acrylic Varnishes
Winsor and Newton: The Oil Colour Book (pdf)
Varnish info written on back of work
by Linda Distel, Mequon, WI, USA
I’m a mixed media artist, using paper and Golden Acrylics in my work. In addition to using a couple coats of Golden’s varnish, I write on the back of the canvas with a Sharpie what the top coats are (and how many). I also print out a label that goes on the dust cover. I again tell what the top coat is, and give Golden’s url for further info. And I tell how to clean them (dust with soft brush), if I don’t put it under glass.
by Sue Cole, Fairbanks, AK, USA
Have you tried varnishing watercolors? There have been a few people that have recommended it, so that you can frame them in normal frames without glass. Don Getz talks about it in his classes, and there have been a couple of articles in the various art magazines. You usually have to do a spray fixative or varnish first, then a paint-on one.
(RG note) Thanks Sue. It’s safe to say that there’s a varnished watercolour look emerging these days. The shine makes it, and it seems to me the more and the thicker the shine the better. The odd lump and bump of impasto (yep) confuses people too and causes them to marvel. I think the “look” has a future.
Downside of shine
by Liz Margason, Lebanon, IN, USA
Regarding “Final Varnish,” what about the “shine factor” with final varnish in acrylic. So you get photos/ scans of your work first, then varnish? Sigh… so many steps. I hate putting glass over my acrylics on paper. You lose something.
(RG note) Thanks, Liz. “Shine factor” in photography is not a problem if you photograph correctly. Outdoors, open shade, vertical placement, dark background and dark clothes on photographer. Paper work, collage, etc: Yes, try sealing well with medium on both sides of paper, final varnish using several coats with spray or brush.
Non standard systems
by Sara Genn, New York, NY, USA
There’s a whole population of painters who forgo final picture varnish and instead pour Varathane, in coats and coats, onto their paintings — for that sports car finish. They even have dedicated rooms for this — Jason Young’s studio in Hoboken, New Jersey includes a dust-free annex with massive, high-tech suction fans to drag out the moisture. His paintings are bulletproof — the hyper-masculine antithesis of Helen Frankenthaler’s saturated “poured” paintings — no gesso, no medium, no varnish.
by Teyjah Mcaren, Salmon Arm, BC, Canada
Heavily textured acrylic paintings require more than one isolation coats. Let them dry thoroughly between each application. For people who do not put on an isolation coat and then put a brush-on application of varnish, it is important for them to apply a glossy varnish first. If they apply a brush-on application of Matte Varnish and they had matting agent on their previous painting coat (this can be paint with matting agent in it, Matte medium, Matte gel) they may find their painting will retain a white streak on it as the Matting agent in both products bond together ( a bit like a Velcro effect). I usually recommend that you paint with no Matte Medium whatsoever (if you are painting in Acrylics), do your isolation coats (a brush-on application is 2 parts Soft Gel Gloss to 1 part Water), a few coats of Glossy Varnish (with Golden’s Varnish you have maximum amounts of Ultraviolet Light protection) then if it is too shiny (which it will be) you then apply your final coat of Satin (half glossy/half matte) or Matte Varnish. In the meantime, you have maximized the beauty of your colors (especially if you are using Golden’s pure pigment formulations) and only dulled down the acrylic colors once rather than throughout the painting process.
I usually say to my painting friends: if you look at your paintings and wonder what happened to all your beautiful colors, it is either that you have used Matte Medium or Matte Gel or your paints have Matting Agents in them. Cheaper brands of paints and student quality acrylic paints often have matting agents in them as they are used as fillers. This does cut down the cost of your paints but the price you pay is a “dulling down” of your colors. Of course, if you add on Matte Medium, each subsequent coat gets duller and duller. However, Matting Agents do allow your paints to dry at the same rate, if this is important to you. It is vitally important to varnish. If you can’t be bothered to mix your varnish formulation then at least spray it on. Golden has a great Mineral Spirit Varnish (the best to use) in spray application. It is usually recommended to spray on Varnish rather than brush-on Varnish. If you are spraying on your isolation coat the formulation is different. It is 2 parts of Golden’s GAC 500 (has self-leveling quality) to 1 part Transparent Airbrush Extender then spray on your Varnish coats. Of course, if you are Varnishing anything water-soluble such as a watercolor you must do a spray-on application.
(RG note) Thanks, Teyja. Teyja is a demonstrator for Golden Paints. You can find more of her advice in these areas at a previous clickback Golden girl.
Sacrificial UV blockers
by Bill Kerr, Courtenay, BC, Canada
Many ultra violet blockers and absorbers are sacrificial. They are like the zinc on your boat and break down whilst doing their job. Therefore they must be replaced. The removal and replacement of ultra violet inhibited varnish is a good idea… some of the discolouration of your picture may simply be an indication that cleaning is in order. Now that so few people smoke and that coal and oil are no longer furnace fuel, cleaning needs are not as obvious. Accordingly, we should be aware that our UV protection could be diminishing. Clearly the life expectancy of a sacrificial protection process is directly related to exposure. This in turn leads to the answer, “Well, it all depends on where you place…” Of course it also depends on the thickness of application, the use of diluents, or additives to produce a matte effect and so forth. Hence the question is very easy not to answer in a meaningful manner.
(RG note) Thanks, Bill. While there are so many variants it’s safe to say that the life expectancy of properly applied Golden final varnish with UVLS is about 20 years. In answer to several other emails, I do not work for Golden or get paid by them. I pay the full price for their stuff at my local shop.
by Curtis Long, Austin, TX, USA
The importance of temporality to certain artists is understandable, but so many painters have a devil may care attitude about preservation. It is stunning that artists sell — with a clear conscience — works for thousands of dollars without any thought to preservation or, worse yet, with careless use of degradable materials making preservation impossible. Three days ago I met an artist who uses house paint exclusively on her canvas. When I asked her about conserving her works, she went immediately icy and said, “I’ll leave that to the conservators.” End of conversation. In my case, I initially dreaded this final step in the painting process for the time and space it occupies, but I have grown to deeply appreciate it. Varnishing my paintings has become a farewell ritual. It is my last intimate contact with the work, and it affords me an opportunity to simply admire the surface and the imagery without feeling I have to alter or improve it. It’s like sending a kid off to college, I suppose. The finality of completing that last coat of varnish is like a big check mark done! It’s a good feeling.
Trust the Dutch Masters
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
Your information is a great value to those who didn’t get the info in school or formal training. When I went to The School of Visual Art in the 1960s, formal / traditional training was considered “not cool, man,” abstract painting was the “far out and in thing” to be doing, along with Be-Ins, protesting the Viet Nam War, and yes, dirty pants! Oops, that just slipped out. It took me years, painful years, to learn how to paint realistically. One great fortune of living in NYC was having easy access to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I could go see for myself, make close examinations, take a mental picture and run back to the studio and apply the new knowledge. Often there were disastrous results, but hey, that’s the learning process, besides the garbage man needed something to cart off. There are many old Dutch paintings in remarkable condition that look like they were painted yesterday and no doubt the final varnish has a great deal to do with their condition today, four hundred plus years later.
Gift wrapping deserves attention
by Joanne Gervais, Kingston, ON, Canada
Although there are numerous recommendations as to the wait period for oil paintings to dry prior to varnishing, several months to a year is the safest time frame for thinly applied oils. Thicker impasto passages may take as long as two years. Oil paints dry from the outside in, and although the top layer of the painting may seem dry to the touch, the internal layers may still be solidifying. The underlayers of paint keep shrinking and moving until completely dry. If varnish is applied too soon, the danger of the varnish cracking increases. There are many products on the market now. Spray varnishes are great for applying to paintings with thick uneven impasto layers which prove difficult to varnish by brush. The selection of a brush is as important as the varnish itself. Nothing is more frustrating than applying a beautiful even stroke of varnish, then finding a hair stuck in the midst of the painting. It is wise to do a few strokes with the brush on a scrap piece of canvas or board prior to applying to the painting, and seeing if it is likely to lose any hair, or leaves an uneven, patterned, or too heavy a stroke of varnish. Ideally, practice varnishing on a test painting, to make sure you are happy with the results. Considerations include thickness, direction of stroke, leveling out of varnish, and quite important, sheen (gloss, satin, matte). The sheen will greatly affect the final look of the painting. Gloss is very transparent but is also more reflective, like glass. Matte, although non reflective, has a higher risk of “dulling” a painting and having a “bloom” effect. Semi-gloss is often a compromise between the two finishes.
It is highly recommended that tests be done, so that you as an artist can select the varnish that will best enhance your work. Varnishing is as important a step in the painting process as all others, but it tends to be the step most ignored by artists. This is the gift wrapping of your work, and deserves your attention!
Keeping brushes clean
by Dorit Pittman, New Orleans, LA, USA
My question is what is the best way to clean brushes? I paint in oil, I use Liquin and Sansador and use good sable brushes. First I wipe off excess paint, then swish in turpenoid, in a glass jar with a metal coil, and every few days I use a WN gel to clean again. I find that although pretty clean they are not real clean and when wiping I get hairs on my cloth. So what is the best way to get brushes really clean and keep hair from falling out?
(RG note) Thanks Dorit. My hair would fall out too if I gave it that much turpenoid and gel. Maybe you’re expecting a bit too much cleanliness. After light turpenoid, consider mild clothing soap (“Tide” is what I use on my sables) and brush out a bit on a flat surface if you have to. Rinse and shake. In acrylic I put a dash of “Mr. Clean” in my paint water.
Born teachers bursting to share
by Traute Klein, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
Born teachers are always bursting to share their discoveries and work with others. I am one of them, and I cannot keep to myself something which I believe will benefit others. My junior high Latin teacher taught me a valuable lesson which I have never forgotten, “If you can’t explain it, you really don’t understand it.” I interpret that remark as, “If you can’t teach it to others, then you really are not a master of the subject.” Much of my art work is simply experimentation to help others. For example, I spent over a year to simplify my technique to paint northern lights in watercolor. I have now taught a couple of workshops on it, the last one to a class of almost 50. The purpose of showing my own art is to motivate my students.
Trading art breeds ideas and techniques
by Ryan Wollard, Plantation, FL, USA
Just over five years ago, a group of friends with a little bit of artistic talent and a lot of charisma decided to throw a party. At the time, we were poor college students who were looking for both an artistic outlet and a sense of community. We began painting on weekends to decorate our bleak college dorm rooms/apartments. Art was created with support all around, and our styles began to flourish. Someone suggested we have a New Year’s Eve party, and trade art at the party. This was a novel idea which was well received, primarily because it meant we could dress up in our nicest outfits, sip champagne, and maybe bring home some new artwork. At the time I didn’t realize the benefits of this sort of system. By trading art, beginners were able to share both ideas and techniques. Untrained people were able to approach art in a fun, social way. Creativity has flourished. People who might have spent their free time in front of a television, have taken up the arts.
Each year the party has grown, and so has the movement known as Rossism. This year, 26 artists participated in the trade. I’m proud to be a founding member of Rossism. In a world which can seem ever more grim, it’s good to know that creativity, free thinking, and expression still have a home. Rossism has a few mottos, but my favourite is Rossism: Make Art, Trade Art, Boogie.
Pride in service and quality
by Len Sodenkamp, Boise, ID, USA
I have and still today make the bulk of my living in the home repair and remodel industry. My life partner Elaine and I have operated our business for 8 years. Last year we did over 2000 jobs. There are between 20 and 30 independent craftspeople working through us at any given time. If I sound prideful, well yes I am. Pride in service and quality workmanship is the reason we are successful. The best craftspeople we have are not focused on money, but rather the opportunity to build, remodel or repair something. They love to work with their hands and have pride in a job well done. It is my opinion that pride in the trades has diminished. Society today has lost respect for service people.
Determine guarantee period
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia
In pictures we think about eternity or an appropriate logical period. For example, we predict for our tapestries about minimal 300 years life guarantee if exposed in a bright room. Tapestries were taken from the Egyptian pyramids in excellent state. Each artist must determine his predictable guarantee period. And each art material manufacturer must indicate period of stability for each specific material at standard condition of exposing.
Plagiarizers not all Chinese
by Wendy Thompson, Sheridan, OR, USA
I have spent the last year getting my work removed from the AllPosters.com. My publisher took it as far as they were willing to, and after that I was on my own. Lawyers advised me that I was too small a fish to challenge them in court. They bought counter cards legally, changed them by matting and framing them, and sold them as posters. They didn’t even remove my copyright note or signature. I actually lowered myself to purchase two pieces of my work that they butchered, just to see what they were doing. I am appalled that others might have bought these cheap terrible pieces and shared them with the world. I kept after them, barraged them with emails, and I am down to them having only one image at this time. I don’t know how much they might have made, and if there were some way to get compensation for what they sold, I would jump on them immediately. Have you thought to have artists check the AllPosters.com website? There are many, many artists with listings similar to mine that I am quite sure they have no right to be selling.
(RG note) Thanks, Wendy. We’re inviting artists to go and have a look at AllPosters.com. It’s another huge site. On the Asian front the Arch-world website remains pleasantly crippled. The pay-off of all our effort is that further pirate sites have been discovered. There are two smaller operations run by a chinese-based company: Doupin Oil Paintings Wholesale and Doupine Watercolor. The common contact for both is: Jinsong Wang, Seth Wang. Subscriber Jean Haines reports that “the (watercolour) paintings were almost identical to mine. Amazingly well reproduced. At my request they have now removed my paintings from the site.”
oil paintings by John Kilroy, Boston, MA, USA
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