A Quick Guide to Varnishing Paintings

Varnishing your painting will help protect your work from dust and give it an even final appearance, whether that’s glossy, satin or matte. Dust will settle on the varnish which can be removed and re applied over the years.

When can I varnish?

You can apply varnish to acrylic and oil paintings because the paint will create a barrier to the surface. However, if the paint has been absorbed by the surface than varnishing is not recommended as it can cause damage when it needs to be removed.

Varnishes don’t work well with watercolour, gouache or drawings as the varnish will be absorbed by the surface. It could then cause discolouration and blur finer details. Instead, these should be displayed behind glass.

Which Varnish should I use?

Dammar is one of the most popular varnishes and one of the oldest, traditionally used for oil paintings.  This gives a high gloss finish and can be removed with distilled turpentine.

Gloss varnish will also give a shiny finish but will need a stronger solvent to remove it.

Matt is a more modern varnish and can be removed more easily. It can also be mixed with gloss varnish to get varying degrees of shine.

For most of the above options, you can find liquid or aerosol versions. Aerosol varnishes are useful for textured works as they can be applied as thin layers and remove the risk of damaging expressive brushwork.

Top tips

  • Make sure the work is completely dry before applying any varnish.
  • Take care you’re working in a dust free area, as you don’t want anything to stick to the varnish while it dries.
  • Use a flat, wide brush and keep one specifically for varnishing artwork so it isn’t contaminated with any paint.
  • Keep work flat so you get an even coating of varnish.
  • Make sure to wipe the brush on the side of a container to avoid any drips.
  • Use long, even strokes to achieve a smooth finish and look out for any bubbles that may have formed.
  • Apply one to three coats of varnish rather than one thick coat. With each successive coat brush the varnish on at a different angle.
  • Once you’ve finished applying the varnish leave to dry for 24 hours in a clean area. You can also protect your work with a plastic film suspended above to avoid dust settling while it dries.