Is it necessary to varnish your paintings? ? Is it complicated and filled with risk and more trouble than it's worth? There are a bunch of yes and no answers there already. Over time I have worked out what works for me. What is bright, shiny and true and what is a bunch of shellac (see what I did there?) Simple and practical methods that have not let me down.
In this article and video I am going to show you what works for me. Let us get to it then.
✅ To Varnish of Not to Varnish?
Short answer - you bet! Here are a few reasons why you should varnish your paintings:
We have all seen how a smooth stone is transformed when you pour water over it. The stone gets darker and all the beautiful color and pattern is revealed. Especially on dark stones. The same applies to paintings. Colors are enhanced. Especially the darks such as shadows. This makes the depth of a painting look amazing too.
I often see paintings in galleries, markets and so on that are dry looking. The artists no longer notice this, but if only they could see the missed opportunity. A coat of varnish will make that painting substantially better. Could this tip the hand of a potential collector?
✅ Protection in a Dirty World
Who knows how we survive in this dusty, smog filled world. Given time your painting gets covered with dust, grime and nasty insect leavings. Yuck! This stuff sticks to unvarnished paintings. But with a protective layer it is easy to dust, wipe off and clean marks. Nuff said.
⏲ How Long Before Varnishing?
This topic gets technicians frothy at the mouth. Six months is given as conventional wisdom. The truth is you can varnish when a painting is dry. This can take three to four weeks for a typical oil painting. In my region where it is warm and dry a typical painting is dry within four weeks. At least dry enough for a coat of retouch varnish.
If you have built up thick oil paint over weeks of frenzied impasto sessions that would have Van Gogh clutching his paint tubes with protective concern then months of drying may be right for that painting.
If the paint is dry on the outside, it could still be wet on the inside. Impasto layers may be slightly spongy as the lower layers are not fully dry yet. But the painting may still be able to get a light layer of retouch varnish. However avoid heavy varnishes like damar varnish.
Also if your painting is made up of fatty layers of paint be careful. This means you used a lot of mediums that could delay drying time considerably. This is the real problem - what you add to the paint makes a big difference. Rather not add anything if you can help it and your paint will dry fairly quickly.
Of course no real worries about acrylics. They dry super quick compared to oils. Still, heavy body acrylics in thick layers need to be given a week or so to dry.
❓ What Varnish to Use?
Another topic made complicated. Read an artist’s manual and you will find recipes and ingredients dating back to the middle ages. Cooking up your own varnish does not make you smart. Eccentric perhaps.
This is what I have found works best for me. I login to my favorite art supplies store online. Order a few bottles of retouch varnish and after a few days a nice person delivers the varnish to me. I then get out a clean, soft brush. My dry oils paintings are lying flat on a table top. I pour the retouch varnish carefully onto each painting.
Then I spread the varnish lightly over the entire painting’s surface. Make sure there are no dry spots left over. Also no puddles of varnish. The painting is place flat in a safe spot to dry slowly. Not in the sun and not in a drafty part of the house. After an hour or so the painting is sufficiently dry to be place on a drying stand to complete drying fully.
After a few weeks I may repeat the process depending on the painting’s appearance. Paintings with dark areas may benefit from another layer to bring out the depth in shadows.
That is it really.
I have tried a number of varnishes over the years. Damar varnish is too glossy for my liking. Retouch is the best fit for me.
Why Retouch Varnish
Simple really. It is thin enough to allow the painting to breathe and therefore complete drying if there are layers that are not totally dry. You can, if you want, paint over retouch varnish without your paint de-laminating later. Finally the varnish is not too shiny and dries pretty quickly too.
What About Acrylic Paintings?
Yes I varnish them too. You get varnishes for acrylics and they are usually some sort of water based concoction. Often when applying these varnishes the liquid will have a milky look before drying clear. Spread the varnish thinly and evenly and make sure you do not leave spots uncovered.
My little secret? I find that retouch varnish for oils works fine on fully dried acrylic paintings too. Try this at your own risk, okay. No backsies! Always test on scrap paintings before you try any varnish on your masterpiece.
✅ Brush or Spray?
You do get interesting spray varnishes these days. Krylon have a range of clever sprays in gloss or matte for different requirements. Ghiant is another brand that is promising. I am trying out their water based sprays so look out for more on that in another post.
Sprays have advantages. They are quick to use and dry super fast. No brushes to fuss over. On the downside they are expensive, require some finesse to avoid over spraying and the toxic fumes are awful. However Ghiant’s water based sprays claim to have 90% less solvents. More on that next week.
In short I do have a couple spray cans on hand for when I need a quick drying varnish in an emergency.
My preferred method is to use a brush. Why? Because it is fun and gets the job done properly. No wastage. Plus I get to see the painting transform slowly before my eyes. I love it.
When complete I wash the brush in odorless turpentine and then the job is done. Try and set aside a day for doing several paintings. Make sure the room is well ventilated. I prefer to leave my studio afterwards for a few hours so that fumes dissipate properly. Who knows what that stuff does to you? ?
Watch the video for more information. Now you know that varnishing paintings is good for your paintings, your business and possibly your soul too. Shine on.
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