View Full Version : To Varnish or Not to Varnish

08-16-2008, 10:07 PM
Hi there,

I am relatively new to acrylic painting and am wondering if most people varnish their paintings?

I'm using Daniel Smith Paints on Dick Blick Premiere Gallery stretched canvases.

I am participating in my first art fair next week to see if I can sell some and am not sure if I need varnish as a last step. None of my books on acrylics really say much about it.

I did a search on varnish, but couldn't find anything very helpful.

Thanks, Kira

08-16-2008, 10:31 PM
I do varnish, after my painting is complete I put on an isolation coat of thinned soft gel (gloss) 2:1 with water.

Then about a week after that dries I varnish. I use a spray varnish, I know some folks use a brush on varnish.

Lady Carol
08-16-2008, 10:56 PM
Varnish, you should varnish :D

The reason being is that it does protect the painting longterm. I also put an isolation coat. Mine is glazing medium (two coats) and then varnish (two coats).

08-16-2008, 10:59 PM
Forgive me for sounding ignorant, but the isolation coat does what exactly?

Thanks for your responses - very helpful!

08-16-2008, 11:07 PM
The isolation coat separates your painting from the varnish.

The idea being if, for some reason, in the future, the varnish needs to be removed to clean the painting the isolation coat will protect your art.

08-16-2008, 11:18 PM
Thanks for that explanation. There's so much to learn! :)

08-16-2008, 11:22 PM
In school they taught that varnish is entirely optional with acrylics. After all, acrylics are a plastic coat. I do put on a coat of UV protection. Then I decide the look i want. The varnish does make the colors look slightly brighter and adds a little depth. Sometimes i want that, sometimes i don't.

08-16-2008, 11:46 PM
I varnish but no Isolation coat......If VanGough didnt need one I dont either....LOL!!!

08-17-2008, 01:03 AM

It is generally recommended that you varnish acrylic paintings. Because of the way that acrylic "cures", it will always be somewhat "sticky" (even if only at a microscopic level), which means that over time an unvarnished acrylic painting is likely to attract (and hold on to) dust that will be very difficult to clean. The varnish provides physical protection of the painting as well as, if you use the right kind of varnish, some UV-ray protection. It also provides a different kind of surface that won't hold dust so much and will be easier to clean.

If you use Golden paints, Golden recommends that, after your painting has completely dried, you apply an "isolation coat" of their Soft Gel (Glossy) diluted 2:1 with water. The isolation coat provides a barrier between the paint and the varnish and it also helps to even out the sheen of the painting. Should you become famous ;-) or should your paintings ever require some conservation, the isolation coat will protect the painting when conservators remove the varnish (using an ammonia mixture, I think).

[As a side tip, I found it hard to reliably dilute soft gel 2:1 by *volume*, but a Golden rep suggested doing it by *weight*, so I bought a cheap "Escali" digital scale from Amazon and it works great; it's very easy now to dilute the soft gel properly and I can keep little recipes written down of how much to mix to coat paintings of a certain size.]

After the isolation coat has dried for at least 24 hours, you can apply a varnish. I use the Golden Polymer Varnish with UVLS (ultraviolet light stabilizers), usually the glossy version, and apply it with a super-soft varnishing brush. You have to also dilute this with water (I don't have the ratio handy right now, but I think you add about 30-40% water (again, I do this now by weight, which seems to be close enough)).

Note that although the varnish "dries" in several hours, it's recommended that you let it thoroughly dry for at least several days before transporting the painting.

Lots of technical detail on varnishing, at least using Golden acrylics products, can be found here:


Hope that helps!

08-17-2008, 01:41 AM
So, how much of the Golden info is to sell product and how much is real? I really, really like Golden products, but I am still skeptical. I have acrylic paintings 30 years old that have not obviously changed. Sigh, sometimes I feel like the art companies just try to sell us more and more stuff.

08-17-2008, 02:43 AM
From what I've read here and there on the net and in some books, the issue is not so much the "tackiness" of dried acrylics, but its microscopic porousity. As the water (and stabalizers, and antibacterial additives, etc) evaporate, Microscopic pores are left. These little holes, over time, gather dirt and dust. This dirt is then difficult, if not impossible, to clean without damage to the painting.

Conservators also recommend varnishing acrylic paintings. They go a step beyond that and recommend that the painter use a "removable" varnish, not the "permanent" stuff. And the isolating coat serves two purposes. First, it allows you to have a sheen (gloss, satin, or matte) that is uniform. Secondly, and more important from a conservation and refinishing view, the isolation coat helps to prevent damage to the painted surface if and when it is necessary to remove the varnish.

How far this goes to being information that has been used by the paint manufacturers to furthur sales, I don't know. Nor do I know if the information that I have accumulated and mentioned above is actually 100% factual. I have personaly started to varnish my stuff. I wait a few weeks (or months) for th epaint to be dry and stable, then do 2 coats of varnish. Generally I mix gloss and matte to get a nice satin varnishing (I mix them to get my satin on the glossy side...others may just use satin varnish) for the painting.

If you are going to an art show next week, I would wait to varnish the works until afterwards. Others may disagree with me, and that's okay. If, at the art fair, someone wishes to purchase one of your paintings, you can tell them they aren't varnished, but you can sell it as-is or varnish it after the art fair for them.

That's my view on it, some will agree, some will disagree, and others won't care :D


08-17-2008, 04:14 AM
Most times I don't varnish. If I do I use a matte spray varnish.

08-17-2008, 10:23 PM
I varnish also, using the Golden Soft Gel Gloss as an isolation coat. I have been measuring it with level teaspoons or tablespoons--sort of like measuring soft butter. It does even out the finish and almost always make the picture glossier than I normally like. However, by the time I follow it with the Golden Satin Polymer Varnish, I get a final finish that is not too glossy and not too matt.

08-17-2008, 11:16 PM
I don't varnish I just use a clear coat of acrylic on mine, usually matt finish to avoid any shine. but as it's stated the dust can still stick over time unless it's protected in a frame. I had that happen to one of mine that was unprotected with glass, I think for those in the future I will varnish just for that purpose.

08-18-2008, 12:48 AM
It is so nice to have a discussion where people have different opinions but express them kindly in an informative way. Those of you who use an isolation coat, what do you use? Some of you have mentioned the varnish you use, but some haven't. Tell us brand and formula if you are willing..

08-18-2008, 10:13 AM
It is so nice to have a discussion where people have different opinions but express them kindly in an informative way. Those of you who use an isolation coat, what do you use? Some of you have mentioned the varnish you use, but some haven't. Tell us brand and formula if you are willing..

It is nice to have a civil discussion, it seems rare that a heated disucssion erupts on the Acrylics board (I haven't been to many others so I can't speak to them) my isolation coat is the 2:1 soft gel (gloss) from golden (I use the gel anyway and have lots on hand so why not?)

and I use Winsor & Newton removable artist's picture varnish (it's a spray varnish) in matte and gloss, so I can choose what kind of finish I want.

08-18-2008, 11:45 AM
I understand if you are going to frame it with matting underglass you dont need to varnish it but it would help to maintain its longevity.
If it is not under glass or on wrap canvas and not framed you Definately need to protect it and varnish it.
I use a mix of 1/4Grumbacher Gloss Medium and varnish to 3/4 of Liquitex Matt Medium, then there is only a touch of a gloss and wont reflect light when hung, which is distracting to any painting, this advice given by a local artist of over 15 yrs and art teacher.

08-18-2008, 11:55 AM
I use an acrylic varnish as it is called by Lascaux. It is acrylic but dries harder than acrylic medium or gel (according to Lascaux) it also offers some UV protection. You can paint on top of it if you let it dry completeley. It comes in Gloss, Satin or matt. You can also mix the different finishes to your own taste. I tend to mix something like 1 gloss to 3 matt. Being acrylic you can thin it with water.

08-19-2008, 04:38 AM
For my isolation coat, I simply apply a gloss gel. I don't mix with anything, and apply one thin, but not TOO thin, coat. After letting it dry for a few days, I then mix a batch of "Liquitex Gloss Varnish, Flexible Surface" and Liquitex Matte (same product, different sheen) in a roughly 1:1.5 mix (gloss to matte). I change the ratio up a bit, depending on how "satin" I want it, but I keep it close to 1:1.

The varnish is a two coat thing, as per manuf. instructions, and they are "permanent". I have a fair amount left, and haven't purchased any removable varnish, but plan to when I'm out of this stuff.

I don't get any brush strokes, but the varnish is thin enough that I could just spray it through my airbrush...but only if the canvas is no larger than a 8x10. Anything else is just to big to do that with! I'm going to stay with brush-on varnish, out of personal choice, but would like some comments on the spray-varnish(es) that people use.


ps: In the event that no one has noticed, I'm a Liquitex person - at least right now. I plan to try many more brands and see how I feel about them, but until I do, I like Liquitex. Thus, MOST (but not all) my paint, mediums (media?), etc are from the same people. I have some Galleria mediums, and 1 from Tri-Art, but I don't really see much difference except in product line. Gloss gel seems to me to be gloss gel. Any comments?

08-19-2008, 09:55 AM
I just use a spray varnish as I like a little shine on it....not much, just a little and I tried the paint on and as careful as I tried to be, it puddled :(

Roger Evans
08-19-2008, 10:24 AM
I never varnish. If I was using oils I would but, since acrylics are plastic anyway, it seems kind of pointless to put another plastic layer on top of an existing plastic layer. Once I feel like the painting is completed, I see little reason to risk ruining the surface (and there is a risk) by applying another layer of something redundant. I understand it can change the values and intensity of the paints but I'm currently not dissatisfied with the results I'm getting without varnish so, for now, I'm a no-varnish man.


08-19-2008, 10:56 AM
I use a brush on it makes the paintings pop and more alive. Very much like an oil painting. It also helps against mold if the painting will be hung in a humid area. I even spray a light coat in the back of mine to insure against it.


08-19-2008, 12:44 PM
I never varnish. If I was using oils I would but, since acrylics are plastic anyway, it seems kind of pointless to put another plastic layer on top of an existing plastic layer. Once I feel like the painting is completed, I see little reason to risk ruining the surface (and there is a risk) by applying another layer of something redundant.

Hi Roger,

I know it seems like it's all the same, and with acrylic it seems like "plastic" means it's impermeable and solid, but, at least according to conservators and the manufacturers, there really is something to varnishing the painting and it's not redundant.

Varnishes can provide UV protection; they can even out the sheen of the painting; they can provide some protection from scratches. But probably the most important reason to varnish an acrylic painting is to make it possible to clean the painting easily, since the varnish layers won't attract and hold dust at a microscopic layer like ordinary acrylic will. It won't be apparent right away, but (at least so I've read) over many years you might find that your unvarnished acrylic paintings have attracted much dust that you won't be able to clean off.

Anyway, that's the theory as I understand it...


08-19-2008, 05:40 PM
The reason I started varnishing in the first place is to even out the sheen of my painting. Some of the paints I had used on "Melissa's Mountains" came out glossy, a few came out matte, and one or two came out satin-ish. Of course, it may have had something to do with using two or three brands and both artist and student paints in the same painting:D

And, after having a painting that I wasn't happy with sitting on my easel for a few weeks, I noticed the dust on it. (There is a large black border area, supposed to be faux marble.) It didn't wipe off as easily as I had hoped, so I used a damp rag to GENTLY clean it. Using a varnish reduces the problem of dust, and eased cleaning. Granted, the dust is easier to see on a black area, and makes it more apparent. So, since I had gotten some varnish for the uneven-gloss/matte/satin-finish-paint-that-my-wife-INSISTED-be-"protected" painting, I figured I'd just varnish them from now on.

Having said that, I must repeat my mantra of "To each his own." I have reason(s) to do it, others have reason(s) NOT to do it. Funny little world, isn't it?


(Oh, and the "wife wants the painting you did for her to be protected from fading, the elements, etc" argument is probably the most important factor one can consider in the varnish argument. She didn't buy my statement that I could just put another layer of clear over it...she INSISTED I get some UV protection for it.)

08-19-2008, 07:56 PM
I've thoroughly enjoyed reading this thread and of course have to insert my 2 cents worth! I have some acrylic paintings that are over 30 years old and were not varnished and they've definitely collected dust that can never be removed completely. These paintings are not that valuable but I'd hate to see the stuff I'm doing now to look like that in 30 years. It's definitely a very good thing to varnish. I'm currently using the Blick brand matte varnish and I'm quite happy with it. I apply two coats with a brush going in two directions(vertical then horizontal) without an isolation coat which does sound like good advice by the way.

08-24-2008, 05:25 PM
Ok, I'm confused. I looked at the Golden soft gel and on the front of the bottle is says not to use it as an isolation coat.

08-24-2008, 06:01 PM
I'm reading the front of my soft gel (gloss) container and it says " Mix (2:1) with water for use as an isolation coat."

are you sure you have the same product (Soft Gel (Gloss))?

08-25-2008, 12:45 PM
I got so frustrated, I didn't buy anything, lol. I guess I would have to search online for these products.

08-25-2008, 01:00 PM
O.K. I am no expert but from what I have read, the "isolation" coat (soft gel or varnish) should be a permanent layer. So if you use varnish, it is the permanent non-removable type. It then becomes a permanent part of the painting. For the reasons stated above.

The final coat (usually varnish) that you put on last on top of everthing else has to be "removable".

If it's not it defeats the purpose of having it for cleaning purposes.

So make sure you get "removable" varnish for the final coat.

Just my 2 cents.

James :)

08-25-2008, 02:38 PM
The Golden Soft Gel (Gloss) for the isolation coat is available from Dick Blick at
http://www.dickblick.com/zz006/28/ (Item # 3010)

The Golden Acrylic Polymer Varnish with UVLS (removable with ammonia) that I use is available at
http://www.dickblick.com/zz006/28d/ (Item #7710)

Also, FWIW, I was just varnishing a few paintings this morning. I used the cheap "Escali" scale I bought at Amazon to weigh the varnish and the water that I used: By mixing 1.5 oz of the varnish with 0.5 oz of distilled water, I got a very nice solution that was easy to brush on and which dried evenly. This mixture made enough to coat three 16x20 inch paintings with a bit extra to spare (you always want to have extra, (a) so you don't run out (!) and (b) so you don't get bubbles in your varnish as you try to pick up the very last bit in your mixing bowl).

08-25-2008, 05:22 PM
The isolation coat separates your painting from the varnish.

The idea being if, for some reason, in the future, the varnish needs to be removed to clean the painting the isolation coat will protect your art.

In addition to what AMuse says, it helps the varnish apply evenly, especially if you're using an absorbent or semi-absorbent support.