Why Artists Varnish Their Work (And Why Some Artists Don't)

This entry was posted on June 19, 2019 by Shilpi Roy.

If you have recently explored the world of acrylic or an oil painting, 'varnishing' is a term that you must have come across quite often. So what, precisely is varnishing and what all is its usefulness? Do we even need to varnish our paintings?

varnish varnishing an oil painting

The very term 'Varnish' refers to a transparent and protective film, the primary purpose of which is preservation. After spending a whole lot of days in creating a masterpiece, there steps in the major dilemma for an artist, which is whether or not to proceed to the next step. How and what varnishing coat needs to be done is a concern so crucial that it can either exemplify or ruin your artwork. And this is where we step in to bring home some clarity.

Here, we explore (In Detail) the intricacies of the reasons why some artists prefer to varnish their artwork while why the others don't. Sharing our expert tips and the points to keep in mind before coating, we'll also throw some light on a couple of types of varnishes and the surface that best suits them.

Firstly, Can you varnished all the types of finished painting surfaces?

Well, the answer is yes as well as no. You can but should you? Acrylic and oil paintings can and should be varnished for preservation and aesthetically appealing outcomes. You cannot varnish watercolor or gouache paintings and drawings as effectively. For starters, these paints have a tendency to imbibe the varnish and this shall lead to discoloration and permanent alteration in the color scheme of your artwork. Also, if you are looking for a removable varnish, an isolation coat before applying another varnishing layer works well with acrylic paints. Varnishing on a fully dried oil painting surface is also removable while there is no way to remove varnish from gouache and watercolor paintings.

Reasons why Artists varnish their work

• The Ultimate UV ray 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 flare and this causes a permanent deterioration. The major reason for this is that the paints have a tendency to imbibe light as time passes by, a procedure commonly known as photochemical damage. UV rays have an extremely short wavelength and fade the artwork. This is where a varnish coat can act as a layer for UV protection. All the varnishes have Ultra Violet Light Stabilizers that prevent the painting. Removable varnishes also make the cleaning process of the painting quite easy.

The Ultimate UV ray protection

Varnishing a painting also makes it less susceptible to any serious permanent damage while being transported. Over time, paintings also tend to become scratched and dull. Varnishing can protect the paintings in more than one ways.

• Protection against dirt, dust, and atmospheric pressure: Further, with a varnishing coat, dirt and dust shall settle down on the varnish and shall not be absorbed by the painting layer. In such a case, the varnishing can be removed anytime the painting seems to be yellowing and losing its color, and another removable layer can be applied. This will restore the original glory of the painting and preserve it for another century or so.

Restoring Painting

Originally, removable varnishes had the primary purpose of preservation of the artwork against UV rays, dust, dirt, smoke, atmospheric pressure and a change of temperature. This non-porous layer provides beauty as well as protection to the paintings. But it is a total discretion of the artist whether or not to go for this extra, lengthy step. If a painting is made just for a short term usage, it is best for an artist to not varnish it or to use 'non-removable' varnishes that give the finishing touch. Most of the professional artwork or the ones that the future generations shall refer to, (in acrylic paintings) need an isolation coat before other coats of varnish. This provides a removable layer of protection that preserves the artwork for a very long period. Such coats can be removed (using ammonia) without causing any damage to the painting in case of any stain or damage caused to the layer. We'd be discussing the process at length ahead.

• To unify the entire painting : There are a lot of times when the completed artwork does not come together aesthetically. This happens when either the quality of the surface is a little bit uneven or the painting is glossy in some parts while has a matte finish in the others. There exist some acrylic pigments that have a more lustrous finish than the others. Also, the sheen of an acrylic painting depends on the amount of water added to the colors. Different mediums of painting as well as distinct gels give a varied finishing. Varnish can help to unite the entire painting into one solid artwork. In order to unify the entire aspect of the painting, certain points need to be kept in mind. One needs to decide on whether or not to use an isolation coat and make the varnish permanent.

To unify the entire painting

• To deepen the effect of colors : The paintings often lose saturation in their darker and deeper values. This is a regular phenomenon. Oil colors tend to dry giving a variety of depth depending on the quality of the surface. Also, acrylic paints give a duller finished look when they dry. Many artists use some acrylic binder that is glossy in nature to attain a satin (and not flat) finishing but this is not enough. An additional layer of glossy varnish always helps to give a professional edge to the painting and this makes it more aesthetically appealing. Furthermore, finding the right varnish (gloss/ matte or satin) is an extremely personal choice.
To attain a high-quality look, a varnish also ought to be very clear so that the color scheme of the painting remains unaltered.

To deepen the effect of colors

Types of Varnishes and their uses

There are 3 types of varnishes: Matte, gloss, and Satin. There is no hard and fast rule for the choice between these varnishes and artists can opt for either of them keeping the desired final touch in mind. Moreover, we also need to consider the environment in which a person is viewing the painting. For example, it is difficult to observe glossy surfaces in a dimly lit room. Given below is some information on the use of various kinds of varnishing:

a) Matte: Matte varnishing give a very flat appearance to the artwork. This type of varnish does not reflect any light and makes the colors appear to be duller. Many artists use matte varnishing to soften the appearance of colors of their paintings. Most of the times abstract painters prefer matte surface for similar reasons. In order to lighten the dark portions of the painting, different matting agents can be used for the desired outcomes.

b) Gloss Varnishing: gives an extremely opposite result as compared to matte finishing. Gloss Varnishing 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, hence being preferred by representational painters.

c) Satin Varnishing : is midway between gloss and matte finish. Besides reducing the amount of light reflected on the surface, certain brands of satin varnishing can vary in giving the depth effect to the paintings. Satin varnishing also sinks in colors and makes them appear to be duller, just like in the matte finish.
An artist can also experiment by mixing different varnishes to attain the final outcome as per his/her desires. In order to change the ultimate look, you can also apply one kind of varnish on the type of another. Try out different styles on your sacrificial pieces to conclude what shall suit you the best!

Reasons why Artists do not varnish their work

• The final result might not be as intended : The evened-out result of varnishing gives a certain sheen that might not suit the intentions of the artist. There are times when a single coat of varnishing that renders a unified sheen doesn't add on to the aesthetic value of the painting and changes it negatively. An artist also needs to keep the degree of sheen difference in his mind before smoothening the surface. In cases of minor variation between the matte and glossy finishing of your 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. This outcome is, obviously not preferred by any artist. Why go through such a lengthy and extra procedure just to get an imperfect look? 'Oiling out' is a better process in cases as such.

The final result might not be as intended

• Time-consuming and difficult : The process of perfecting varnishing needs a lot of time since an artist ought to try it out on a couple of sacrificial pieces before concluding what appearance suits his intentions the most. For an absolute beginner, the application of a varnishing coat is a very hectic and difficult process. Firstly, the painting ought to be completely dried. Secondly, while the completion of painting takes a lot of time and effort, there are instances when issues such as the running of varnish, the appearance of brush stroke marks, wilting of the painting, formation of bubbles, etc can ruin the entire artwork. An additional step of painting an isolation coat is necessary to preserve the painting and make the varnish removable. This, in turn, makes the process more exasperating and time-consuming.

Time consuming and difficult

• Can alter the artwork permanently if not applied at the right time : An artist needs to completely dry his acrylic or oil painting before varnishing it. While a thin application of oil paints might take up to 2 months to dry, thicker oil paintings take at least half a year to 2 years. Displaying an artwork at some workshop or exhibition at a short notice makes it impossible 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.
This tends to make the varnish coat permanent and non-removable, making it next to impossible to clean the dust and dirt effectively. Furthermore, when the oil paint dries, it contracts and this would make the varnish layer crack, giving an extremely unfinished and parched appearance. When using matte varnish, many a time the artist is unable to mix the matting agent correctly. This can give a milky finishing to the artwork and the darker values that give depth are affected the most. Some varnishes are non-removable and any scratch or yellowing of the painting, in turn, causes a permanent negative alteration of the artwork that the artist did not desire for.

• Lack of knowledge about the types of varnish that can complement the artwork : For an absolute beginner, the lack of knowledge of varnishes can prove to be rather lethal. We need to keep in mind that acrylic paintings need an isolation coat to get a removable varnish finishing while oil paintings do not need the isolation coat. This is because the oil varnishing coat can easily be removed by using the solvents. While traditional hard varnishes on oil paintings can give a very refined and glossy look, they are often vulnerable to yellowing and cracking, and can be hard to remove over time. Traditional soft varnishes like dammar and mastic on oil painting can be easily removed without affecting the oil painting layer but they tend to get brittle and might cause the artwork to crack if the canvas is hit.

Some essential pointers to keep in mind

Acrylic paints dry out softer than the oil paints and hence they attract a lot of dust and dirt. This is one of the major reasons why artists choose to varnish their acrylic paintings either with removable or with non-removable varnish. For acrylic paintings, in case of thick paint, give a couple of weeks to dry out the paints before applying the isolation coat (if going for a removable varnish). Once the isolation coat completely dries (which shall not take much time), proceed with another coat. You can either brush or spray the coating. While many artists use sponge or rolls for applying the varnish, these often lead to the formation of bubbles, uneven coverage, etc.

While dealing with varnishing oil paintings, you shall come across both traditional as well as synthetic oil varnishes. Traditional natural varnishes include Dammar, Amber, Copal as well as Mastic. These are pretty difficult to apply and can render a tacky, yellowish look in the long run. The upcoming synthetic varnishes offer an upper hand over the traditional ones as they give a clean first application and remain transparent over time. Unlike the traditional varnishes, these do not go brittle or go yellow and are very flexible. These include Gamvar, MSA and Alkyd synthetic resins. The last two varnishes give a very resilient coat and should be applied after 8 to 12 months.

Gamvar varnish gives a very quick finishing as it can be applied to the paintings when they are touch dry and not fully cured. It is also easy to remove without damaging the artwork.

Remember, the more the number of coats of varnish, the deeper and more vibrant shall be the effect. A spray varnish simply takes 10 minutes to dry out. Depending on the required sheen, you can add further coats to your artwork. Always make sure to absolutely dry out the previous coats before applying the new ones.

Always work in an area that is dust-free. This will prevent any dirt from sticking to your painting before or while applying the varnish.

You should also keep the temperature and humidity in mind while applying the varnish. A very cold or an extremely humid atmosphere can trap moisture between the painting layer and the varnish coat, damaging the color scheme of the artwork or making it look opaque.

Dry clean your painting with a soft and clean brush or a plain cloth before varnishing. You do not want any dust particle to get trapped in your varnishing layer.

Use a flat, soft and wide, compact brush for the procedure. This gives a continuous finishing to your painting.

Try to place your work on a horizontal (and not vertical) surface while applying the coat with a brush. If you place it vertically, the varnish might run down and drip. In the case of spray varnishes, place your work vertically for a perfect result. You must also avoid touching the varnish before it dries, as this might leave fingerprint marks on the finishing.

Varnishes are dissolved in a solvent before being applied. You must always carry out a sensitivity test for your solvent before proceeding with the final process. This is a very crucial step as it determines whether or not your painting responds to the solvent in which the varnish shall be dissolved. This can be done by moistening a Q-Tip or a tissue paper with the solvent you are planning to use, and running it along the extreme edge of your painting. If the colors are not lifted from your canvas, then the solvent can be used.

Instead of applying a single, thick coat, you must go for a couple of thin coats of the varnish. This helps to even out the entire surface very effectively without giving a tacky and obscure appearance.

While varnishing, your aim should be to leave no brush stroke marks. To do this, apply long strokes evenly and work from left to right. You must overlap every stroke a little.

In case of spray varnishes, you need to keep the nozzle more than 30 cms away from the canvas and also, constantly check for any blockages. Spray cans need to be shaken a lot before every use to ensure a smooth touch.

If you are unsure of having left a certain region, it is best to let the varnish dry out and re-varnish the areas that were left out. Coating wet resin into a semi-dry one can leave a cloudy finishing and no artist would like that. Remember, the very purpose of varnish is to create a protective, clean, and see-through sheath.

If you are planning to take a picture of your painting, make sure to do so before varnishing. This shall prevent any extra light being reflected on the surface and shall really bring out the original appeal of your artwork

So, to varnish or to not varnish?

The entire process of applying the varnishing coat after waiting for the right time and deciding on the number of coats to be applied becomes too tiring. So is the effort even worth it? The answer totally depends on the artist and the purpose of his or her artwork. Although varnishes do serve the purpose of preservation, the artist needs to decide whether the extra step is necessary or not. Many of them chose not to varnish for several reasons as mentioned above and their choice is totally justified.
Paintings do not just share their aesthetical value but also reflect a lot of emotions through the artist's personal touch. There exist several reasons as to why a painting can emphasize on the characteristics of the subjects more clearly than a photograph can and many art portals, such as mavenart.com work relentlessly to prove the same by converting a picture to a hand-made oil painting. This adds a lot of personality to the original subjects and the ultimate artwork is close to perfection with the help of professionals who decide the quality and quantity of the varnish to be applied.

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