Best Varnishing Techniques for Acrylic Paintings

Updated on August 15, 2018
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who believes in the power of positive thinking. She loves sharing art tips and bringing people joy through her paintings.

To Varnish Or Not To Varnish?

Deciding whether to varnish or not is all up to the artist's desired look for the painting. Varnish changes the surface of the painting, so the finished look you are after should influence your decision.

Advantages and the Disadvantages of Varnishing Acrylic Paintings

Advantages:

  • The varnish coating offers UV protection, which helps slow the fading of the pigments.
  • With varnish, the dirt and dust can be removed easily and isn't trapped in the acrylic layer.
  • Many artist varnishes can be removed with an ammonia solution. This comes in handy if you have to clean a permanent stain of in case the varnish layer yellows with time, you can remove it and reapply it.
  • Varnishes are a great way to even out sheen and pull the whole painting together.
  • A varnished painting handles better the battering from handling and shipping.

Disadvantages:

  • Single coats of varnish that even out the entire sheen may not be the original artistic intentions, altering the artwork negatively.
  • Sometimes varnishes can be difficult to apply. Some problems being: running varnish, wilting of the artwork, visible brush strokes, formation of bubbles, etc.
  • Some varnishes are not removable. If something goes bad during shipping or on display, and the artwork gets stained, you can’t strip the stained varnish off and apply a new coat.
  • It's an extra step for the artist.

Should You Varnish Acrylic Paintings?

Acrylic paintings: Should they be varnished or not? Varnishing step-by-step. Your acrylic painting is complete. As a final step, apply the best varnishing techniques to protect your artwork, and getting it ready to hang or to be sold.
Acrylic paintings: Should they be varnished or not? Varnishing step-by-step. Your acrylic painting is complete. As a final step, apply the best varnishing techniques to protect your artwork, and getting it ready to hang or to be sold. | Source

How Varnish Protects and Improves Acrylic Paintings

Acrylics get quite flat after and opaque after they dry. Many times there are uneven areas of shine and matte, due to use of different paints, retarders or other mediums that alter the look of the finished work.

A varnish makes the painting surface more homogeneous, evening out sheen, and intensifies the colors.

Conversely, depending on the effects the artist was trying to achieve, some pieces may lose their character with a unifying varnish, so it’s ultimately the artist’s choice.

Another great advantage of applying a final coat of varnish is that it seals the porous acrylic paint surface, blocking the dirt from collecting.

Varnish Protects Acrylic Paint's Porous Surface

Acrylic paints don’t need a protective coat to be durable and water resistant. However, during the drying process, the water evaporates from the paint, leaving tiny holes, which are a gateway for dirt and dust buildup over the years.

If you hang your paintings without glass, even if you wipe down and dust your paintings regularly, some amount of dirt gets trapped on the paint surface, and over time the accumulation can discolor the artwork. A sealant makes the surface dust resistant and easier to clean.

Varnish provides also a UV protection that prevents fading and yellowing of the paint.

While varnishing is not necessary, I always choose to do it. I usually apply a second coat too, just to make the surface a little shinier and the varnishing more homogeneous.

For varnishing, use a clean, large, and flat painting brush, better if with split end bristles.

Varnishing Brush
Varnishing Brush | Source

Types of Acrylic Varnishes

Acrylic varnishes are either permanent or removable and can be applied to both flexible and rigid supports.

Varnish comes in matte, satin, gloss or high gloss finishes. Glossy varnish usually enhances the colors, while satin and matte varnishes can soften the colors; in fact, matte varnish may actually lighten darker colors.

You can mix them up and acquire your own level of shininess, or apply them in layers to obtain the wanted effect.

Video: Varnishing Acrylic Paintings - types of varnishes

Tip on Photographing Artwork:

If you plan to take photos of your artwork, do it before you varnish.

Varnishes create a shine to the surface that makes your artwork more reflective, thus it gets trickier to take a good photo.

How to varnish an acrylic painting

Timing - Allow a day or two for the acrylic paint to be completely dry, then apply the isolation layer (optional), and wait another day or more before varnishing.
If the acrylic paint is thick, like impasto, it’s recommended to wait a couple of weeks before applying the isolating layer or varnish.

Temperature - Ideally, the temperature should be between 65-75 F, and the humidity between 50- 75%. Too much humidity or cooler temperatures may cause moisture getting trapped between the varnish and paint layers, resulting in whiteness or opacity.

Application – Acrylic varnishes can be brushed or sprayed. Other methods, like sponging or rolling may originate problems, such as foaming, non-uniform coverage, releasing of particles from the applicator, etc.

Consider Applying an Isolation Coat Before Varnishing

Before applying your varnish, it is a good idea to apply an isolation coat. However, keep in mind that an isolation coat is permanent and non-removable, and may cause changes to your artwork qualities.

Reasons why it’s a good idea to have an isolating layer:

  • To prevent cloudy or frosted effect when using a matte varnish over an absorbent surface. The frostiness is due to the varnish agent being absorbed into the surface, leaving the matting agent exposed. Isolating the surface stops this unwanted effect.
  • To create a physical separation between the painted surface and the varnish. This is particularly important in case the varnish will need to be removed; it keeps the painting protected during the stripping process.

One or more coats of isolation agent may be required, depending on the level of absorbency of the surface. When applying multiple coats, leave 3-6 hours in between coats, and always wait at least one day before varnishing.

It can be applied with a brush or with an air-spray method. The latter is required in case of water-soluble or unstable paints, like pastel or watercolor.

Brush Varnish Application, Step-by-Step

  1. Wait until the paint is completely dry.
  2. Work in a dry and dust free room. Clean the painting surface from dust, particles, lint, etc.
  3. Use a clean, rinsed jar to mix your varnish with up to 25% of water – check instructions on the varnish container. Mix the varnish careful and slowly, to avoid the formation of bubbles.
  4. Use a clean, large, and flat painting brush, better if with split end bristles.
  5. Lay the painting flat while varnishing, so the varnish doesn’t run down the canvas and dry uneven. Make sure you protect the surface underneath from drippings.
  6. Dip the brush into the varnish and apply with regular and even strokes, holding the brush at an angle. Be careful not to overwork it, or it will create bubbles and dry foggy.
  7. Check the surface looking at an angle to detect areas that are not wet and shiny and go over them with more varnish.
  8. When you are done, wash the brush and the container with mild soap and rinse well.
  9. Leave the painting flat until it dries. Allow few hours for the varnish to dry; once dry, double check the surface to see if it has an even glare. You may want to apply a second coat to make it more even or shinier.

Brush Application

Apply varnish with regular and even strokes, holding the brush at an angle. Be careful not to overwork it, or it will create bubbles and dry foggy.
Apply varnish with regular and even strokes, holding the brush at an angle. Be careful not to overwork it, or it will create bubbles and dry foggy. | Source

Spray On Varnish Application, Step-by-Step

A spray on varnish is always a good option, but it’s the best choice when:

  • The painting has textured surface and brush application may result in foaming.
  • The artwork has a fragile surface and brush application may be disruptive.

    Step-by-step instructions:
  1. Spray the varnish in a well-aerated area and possibly wearing a mask.
  2. Keep the painting upright while spraying. Make sure you cover each area of the painting spraying continuously by moving in a smooth motion, alternating horizontal movements on one coat and vertical on the next. Slightly overlap the spray pattern, to ensure complete coverage.
  3. During the spray application, maintain the same distance across the surface of the painting, and move your body as well as your ark, to avoid arching the path.
  4. Apply each coat perpendicularly to the previous one. Turning the painting by 90 degrees helps to keep your pattern consistent.
  5. For best results, apply 2-3 light coats to achieve your finish, instead of one heavy coat.

Varnish Removal, Step-by-Step

Removing a varnish can possibly change and damage the appearance of the artwork, so if it really needs removal, it’s best if left to professional. However, there are times when the artist needs to do the work.

Instructions:

  1. Check your varnish package to see what kind of remover you need to use. The most common is a solution of household ammonia.
  2. Make sure you operate in a safe, controlled manner. Work in clean, well-ventilated area. Wear a dual filter respirator, latex gloves, and splash goggles.
  3. First, test the solvent on a small area of the painting.
  4. Get a lint-free, soft, white cloth, like a 50/50 cotton/polyester, not bigger than 2 square feet. Saturate it with the remover solution and place over an area of the varnished surface. With a plastic sheet, cover the saturated cloth to minimize evaporation.
    It’s best to work horizontally. If you are working vertically, find a way to keep the saturated cloth in place on the varnished surface.
  5. Allow the saturated cloth to lie on the painting for 2-5 minutes, then rub the cloth gently until the varnish starts to dissolve. Be careful not to apply excessive force, as this may damage the paint layers underneath.
  6. Repeat the procedure, for the entire area to be cleaned. If you see any paint color on the cloth, stop right away and allow the surface to dry.
  7. Allow the painting to dry completely before applying a fresh coat of varnish.

When a painting has a textured surface, you have to be very careful not to form foam or bubbles while brushing on the varnish; air spray application is recommended. (Painting "Perched", detail)
When a painting has a textured surface, you have to be very careful not to form foam or bubbles while brushing on the varnish; air spray application is recommended. (Painting "Perched", detail) | Source

Varnishing or Not Varnishing?

Whether an acrylic painting should be varnished or not is an old dilemma. There are acrylic artists supporting either side.

While the varnishing is not necessary, I usually do it, both to add a protective layer to my paintings, and because I really like how it makes the painted surface shine homogeneously.

It happens that, in my opinion, glossy varnish looks great and enhances my work. Ultimately it is every artist’s decision to ponder the pros and cons of varnishing and see if their work would benefit from it.

Questions & Answers

  • Can I use acrylic ink for outlines over dried heavy acrylic paint?

    Acrylic ink is a super fluid acrylic paint and is completely compatible with all other acrylics, so I would say yes, you can use acrylic ink over dried acrylic paint.

  • Can varnish be used to brighten a faded painting?

    Glossy and semi-gloss varnish recreate the look of the wet paint, as well as make the colors look deeper and a little juicier. However, varnish does not add coloration to the paint. If the painting for some reason has faded, varnishing it will not bring it back to the original look.

    If you are dealing with an old painting, I would not apply any varnish unless you are confident that 1) The surface is clean from any dust or residue; 2) The surface has no previous varnish application.

    If you are trying to restore it, I recommend talking with an expert, or you may end up making the damage worse.

  • Can I use matte varnish over a too shiny one on an acrylic painting on canvas? I'm using Liquitex products.

    Well, Liquitex varnishes can be intermixed for a customizable sheen, when still wet, that is. That makes me guess that even when dry it would not be a big deal if you re-coat with a different varnish.

    However, I have never re-varnished a painting with a different sheen coat myself, so I'm only writing my best guess.

    I would give it a try. However, if you care a lot about this particular painting, maybe contact Liquitex directly - they have a contact form on their website - and see if their experts have different suggestions.

    If you decide to re-varnish, me sure that your surface is clean from any dust, dirt, grease, or other deposit. You don't want to encapsulate those in between varnishes.

  • The instructions on my acrylic varnish say not to mix with water. Should I add water anyway?

    I recommend you read the instructions on the acrylic varnish container. If it does not say add water, then I would not add water.

© 2012 Robie Benve

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    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      19 months ago from Ohio

      Hi Penny, it sounds like a matte or a semi-gloss varnish would have been a choice that you would have liked more. Sometimes is hard to pick, and it sure is very hard for store employees to give the right recommendation. Personally, I don't have any experience on re-varnishing with a product of different shine. In theory I would think it's ok, but having no personal experience on this, I don't feel comfortable giving you a definite yes or no answer. It sounds like a question for the Krylon company. Have you tried asking the question on their website, they have an Ask Krylon section, where you can submit questions to their experts.

    • profile image

      Penny 

      19 months ago

      Hi and thank you. I'm not sure if my last question sent to you. If it did please egnor this post. What I was wondering is, if I top coated with krylon clear gloss and I find it to glossy can I cover it with a krylon matte? I've seen post that you can and was told I could when I bought the gloss but I'm nervous to try it on my painting, thank you

    • profile image

      Penny 

      19 months ago

      Thank you for your help. I have a new problem now. I did a painting for my daughter in law and varnished it yesterday. This time I used krylon gloss as recommended by an artist/employee where I buy my artist supplies. I feel that it's too glossy and has a glare when light hits it. Can I safely use a matte over it to kill the glare? I'm pretty stressed. I was told and have seen comments where people say you can always use a matte over gloss if it's too shiny. Do you know if this possible or not. My family says it looks fine, but I'm not happy. It brightly colored with some misty fog so l wanted the gloss and the pop of color. Just not quite this glossy

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      19 months ago from Ohio

      Hi Penny, The recommended way to go is to remove the old varnish and reapply. Depending on what you use, you may have to use different solvents to remove it. The appropriate solvent is usually indicated on the spray can, under "uses".

      For a shortcut, if you used an acrylic coating, a new coating could probably stick to it with no problems, and you could adjust the shine that way. However, after one year the surface has already started collecting dust particles and dirt, so I would first make sure I get that surface cleaned well before applying a second coat of varnish. You don't want to trap dirt particles in the layers and compromise color and stability of the paint. Hope this helps..

    • profile image

      Penny 

      19 months ago

      Hi, I did a painting a about a year ago as a gift for someone. I'm always nervous to topcoat, but know how well it protects my pieces. We debated on the shine and I ended up using a Matt. It didn't dull the colors. It looked pretty much the same as before topcoating, with a very slight sheen. But now I'm wishing maybe I had chosen a glossier spray. Can I apply a gloss spray over my lightly Matt coated painting. It's been over a year since I sprayed it and the matt had a slight sheen to it? Thanks Penny

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      4 years ago from Ohio

      Hi CherylsArt, I have to admit that I have learned about the isolation layer from professional training, but I have never used it myself. I thought it would be fair to mention it for those that want to go that way. :) thanks!

    • CherylsArt profile image

      Cheryl Paton 

      4 years ago from West Virginia

      The isolation layer is new to me.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      5 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Mary,

      I did some outdoor painting years ago, and I used the outdoor craft acrylics, which also had their own varnish. I can't say if it was weather resistant because it was on the cement step outside our door and it faded by friction before it got damaged by the sun! Not a long-lasting masterpiece! lol

      Thanks a lot for your comment and voting up etc. :)

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      5 years ago from Florida

      Interesting Hub. The only time I use acrylic paint in on outside projects like art work on a fence. I also make woodcrafts that stay outside. I used varnish a couple of times till I realized that in the Florida heat and sunshine, the varnish crackles and turns yellow.

      I've only used oils on canvas.

      Voted UP, etc.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      5 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Lori, thanks so much for your great feedback. Happy painting! :)

    • By Lori profile image

      By Lori 

      5 years ago from USA

      I paint with acrylics and didn't know most of this ! I love the little bird in the top painting.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Hi pamella, I usually use Liquitex heavy body or Golden acrylics, but I like the Golden better.

      For the bird - thanks for the compliments - I mixed the paint with modeling paste to create some texture, and I used a spray gloss varnish by Grumbacher. If I brush on the varnish I prefer a polymer varnish.

      Thanks for your comment. :)

    • profile image

      pamella 

      6 years ago

      Great article. I left acrylic paints just for the reason they dry so matte. I am really getting tired of waiting for my oil paint to dry, and was thinking of going back to acrylic. What brand of acrylic paint did you use on your beautiful bird? And what brand of varnish did you use?

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 

      6 years ago from Somewhere near the center of Texas

      I always wondered why some acrylic paintings look more like oil paintings. This may be a clue. Thank you.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Summerberrie, I'm glad you found it interesting. :) Thank you!

    • profile image

      summerberrie 

      6 years ago

      Robie Benve, this hub includes some wonderful information and tips on varnishing pictures. Great detail!

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      @Eliza, being messy can be lots of fun, especially if you do it with a puppy's energy and cheerfulness. Good for you! :)

      @Margie, I appreciate your comment and feedback, thanks!

      @Marcy, You sure can apply the varnish long after, just make sure there is no dust and dirt on the surface. But wait, why do it on old stuff when you can restart painting and produce some (I'm sure) amazing artwork today? Thanks for stopping by and commenting. :)

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 

      6 years ago from Planet Earth

      I wish I'd had this information when I painted a few things years ago (and I should start painting again, right?). Can you apply these protections long after the fact? I haven't produced anything as great as your picture at the top, but my descendants might want a keepsake or something one day!

      Great hub - voted up, useful and interesting!

    • Mmargie1966 profile image

      Mmargie1966 

      6 years ago from Gainesville, GA

      Great step by step instructions to accomplish the desired look. Voted up and interesting!

    • ElizaDoole profile image

      Lisa McKnight 

      6 years ago from London

      Yeah Robie that is exactly my problem. Messy puppy is me.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      ElizaDoole, acrylic are not that bad, c'mon. ;) The tricky part is that they dry quickly, so you have to put them on the right spot, or it'll be difficult to take off, especially from clothes. That can definitely be messy business. Thanks for your nice comment. :)

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      europewalker, I feel your pain. The most difficult part for me is to take my time and varnish slowly and carefully, to avoid bubbles and brush strokes. I appreciate you spending time reading/commenting. Thanks. :)

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Thank you Peggy and alliemac for your kind comments and for sharing my hub on your social networks, it's truly appreciated. :)

    • ElizaDoole profile image

      Lisa McKnight 

      6 years ago from London

      I really like your bird painting. I admire anyone who can paint. Acrylic seems like a messy business but you make it sound very logical and clear. Great information thanks. Voted up.

    • europewalker profile image

      europewalker 

      6 years ago

      Good tips, there have been times when my paintings looked ruined with visible bubbles and brush strokes. Quite frustrating! Useful hub.

    • alliemacb profile image

      alliemacb 

      6 years ago from Scotland

      This is a really useful hub and the information is so easy to follow. Since my father retired, he's been dabbling in painting so I will definitelypass this on to him. Voted up, useful and shared on Pinterest.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      What an interesting article. It has been a while since I have hauled out my paints and created anything on canvas. Thanks for telling us about the pros and cons of varnishing acrylic paintings. Voted up, interesting and useful and will SHARE with my followers.

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