It had been a while since we reviewed a product on the blog. I asked my boss, Linda Wehrli for a topic. She recommended reporting on Varnish. We hope you enjoy our findings and find them useful.

Have you ever noticed how some paintings have a beautiful glossy finish while others are more matte? That shine isn’t from the paint, itself – it comes from a clear transparent hard protective finish or film made of resin, oil, and solvents. It’s varnish!

Varnish has little or no color and has no added pigment as opposed to paint or wood stain which contains pigment. It protects the painting from dirt and dust and evens out the painting’s final appearance, making it equally glossy or matte. By the refraction of light, varnish also intensifies the appearance of pigments on the painting surface. This is known as “saturation.”

Varnish, Pastimes

Before and after varnishing “Section” by Zoey Zoric 16″X20″ oil on panel


Before you go out and buy varnish, please heed this warning:
Not all painting mediums are suited for varnish.
• Acrylic and oil paintings can be varnished.
• Watercolor and Gouache cannot be varnished.
Why? Because they absorb the varnish which causes discoloration.

Although varnishes are traditionally clear, they can be toned or altered with the addition of pigments and other materials. Toned varnishes are useful for restoring the balance of a painting that has changed with age.

Not all varnishes are alike. Their solutions create films that vary in terms of gloss, protective ability, flexibility, and durability. When you’re ready to varnish a painting, it’s important to note that there are three different kinds: matte, gloss, and satin.

1. Matte varnish gives a very flat appearance. It does not reflect any light and makes the colors appear duller. Artists use matte varnishing to soften the appearance of colors of their paintings. You can even lighten the dark portions of the painting with different matting agents. How cool is that?!

2. Gloss varnish gives a shiny finish. It not only reflects a lot of light, adding glare to the artwork but also deepens and saturates the colors to give a more dramatic edge. This gives a lot of depth to the paintings and makes them appear to be realistic, which is why it is preferred by representational painters.

3. Satin varnish is a mix of matte and gloss varnish. (I didn’t know that!) In addition to reducing the amount of light reflected on the surface, certain brands of satin varnish can vary in giving the depth effect to the paintings. It also absorbs in colors and makes them appear to be duller, just like in the matte finish.

Varnish companies recommend artists experiment with each kind to see what they prefer.


Varnish, Pastimes Varnish, Pastimes


So when did this Varnish thing first start being used? It actually has been around since ancient times! The benefits of using a clear resin as a final coating were first discovered as waxes found on the surfaces of ancient wall paintings. By the early Renaissance, a variety of materials had been developed for use as painting varnishes, ranging from egg white to resin.  Tree resins (mastic and dammar), fossil resins (copal), and even insect excretions called shellac (gross!) eventually became the types of materials frequently chosen as varnishes. I haven’t tried Varnish yet, but you can be sure I’ll be avoiding that shellac…


Varnish, Pastimes


So how long does the Varnish layer last? Unfortunately, natural varnishes tend to darken and discolor with time, so removal and replacement are necessary. However, the removal of a varnish layer requires great skill and knowledge and should only be undertaken by a trained painting conservator.

Varnish, Pastimes

Portrait of a lady with a dog 1590s, Lavinia Fontana 1552-1614 (Rebecca Gregg Conservation midpoint through a varnish removal)

To varnish or not to varnish, that is the question. It basically comes down to personal preference. Many of the Impressionists such as Pissaro and Monet preferred not to varnish any of their works. They didn’t like the visual effect and felt the highly glossed surface was ostentatious. In addition to preferring a matte look, they also feared varnishes would discolor their paintings.

It’s interesting to note that the Impressionists instead worked on a more absorbent gesso ground. The gesso ground would soak up the oil from the paint and leave a matte appearance on the surface. No matte varnish needed!

Here are some common Pros and Cons.
First the Cons:

One common reason artists choose not to varnish is that the final result may not be what they had intended. The evened-out result of varnishing gives a certain sheen that might not be the desired outcome. An artist also needs to keep the degree of sheen difference in his mind before applying the varnish to a painting. In cases of minor variation between the matte and glossy finishing of the painting, varnishing does even out the entire surface very effectively; but when the differences are very obvious, then varnishing might emphasize the flaws instead of hiding them. (Whoops!)

A second reason is that varnishing is time-consuming and difficult. It’s definitely not like applying topcoat to a manicure! The process of perfecting the varnishing requires a lot of time since an artist should try it out on a couple of sacrificial pieces before deciding which appearance suits his intentions the most. For an absolute beginner, the application of a varnishing coat can be a very hectic and difficult process.


Varnish, Pastimes

More scary news. Varnish can permanently alter the artwork if not applied at the right time. While a thin application of oil paints might take up to two months to dry, thicker oil paintings take at least half a year to two years. Displaying a painting at some workshop or exhibition at short notice makes it impossible to varnish the work given the amount of time needed just for the drying process. Many a time, artists tend to varnish their touch dry paintings which are still wet from the inside.

Varnishing before the paint is thoroughly dry makes the varnish coat permanent(can’t be removed), making it next to impossible to clean the dust and dirt effectively. When the oil paint finally dries, it contracts, cracking the varnish layer, giving an extremely unfinished and parched appearance.Now the Pros:

Varnishing a painting has aesthetically long-lasting results. Another positive reason to varnish is for UV protection. Ultraviolet rays can lead to permanent damage to artwork. The oil or acrylic paintings that are specially created for professional use or for museums tend to fade and lose their original color and this causes a permanent deterioration. Although varnishes do serve the purpose of preservation, the artist needs to decide whether the extra step is necessary or not.

Pastimes, Varnish

Before and after varnish.


Maybe someday I’ll experiment with varnishes! When I do, I’ll be sure to blog about it.

If you’ve tried varnishing a final painting, would you please consider sharing your experience in the comment section, below? Thanks for considering.

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