Oil Painting Varnish

Varnishing an oil painting restores the saturated appearance of the oil colours and provides a protective layer, making the oil painting durable. But how does the artist varnish an oil painting properly?


Care of Oil Paintings


Oil painting varnishes serve several essential purposes for oil painting care. These are:
The varnish provides a hard, protective layer against knocks and scratches
It protects the painting from dust and damp.
  • A coat of varnish restores an oil painting’s original “wet” look, making the colours appear vibrant and fresh.
  • Retouching varnish can be used as a temporary protective layer if the painting is not quite dry, should it be required at short notice for art exhibitions.
The Best Varnish for Oil Painting


There are several different types of oil painting varnishes on the market, each serving a different purpose. The two main types are organic and synthetic. The older types, such as mastic varnish and dammar varnish are made from organic resins. Some purists prefer the older varnishes for their unique effects such as picture cracking varnish to make a painting look antique. But the artist must take care to gain some knowledge of oil painting varnishes, as the older types do tend to darken with age.

Synthetic varnishes have been developed in recent years, which offer certain advantages over the older types in that they do not darken and are easy to apply. In either case, the varnish should serve the oil painting for twenty years before it requires a fresh coat.


Guide to Oil Painting Varnishes


Different varnishes give different finishes. Like household varnish, gloss, matt or satin can be selected according to the type of artwork completed. Traditionally, artists varnish abstract work with matt varnish; portraits, animals and other oil paintings with detail will be emphasised with a gloss finish, but satin is a good alternative is gloss is not to taste.
Recently completed oil paintings for exhibition will benefit from a coat of artist's retouching varnish, or spraying varnish,
Varnishes for watermixable oils have also been developed. Varnish can be applied from a spray if the artist wishes to avoid brush marks.




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How to Varnish Oil Paintings

A traditional oil painting requires at least four to six months to dry properly. Thick oil paint such as impasto may require more. A good indicator is to apply a little pressure onto the thickest layer of oil. The paint must have the resistance of rock before it is ready for varnishing.


 Alkyd oil paints dry rapidly, requiring a week or so before varnishing. The danger of varnishing before this time is that the oil paint will be picked up by the varnish brush and taint the painting. Some pigments dry much quicker than others. Burnt umber dries rapidly, lemon yellow and titanium takes much longer.


Oil Varnishing Tips


When the painting is thoroughly dry, it should be cleaned of dust and dirt. Using a dust buster or vacuum cleaner will prevent static. The room and varnishing equipment must also be free from dust.


Two thin layers of varnish are better than one thick layer, so it is wise to apply the varnish in a thin even layer.

  • The varnishing brush must be soft, clean and around 0.25 to 0.5 inches wide. A little artist’s varnish should be poured into a wide-mouthed jar. It is important not to ladle the varnish on, or it will result in an uneven layer.
  • The varnish should be briskly brushed out in different directions. The varnish soon becomes tacky, so it is important to keep the brush moving.
  • Areas missed will become obvious if the painting is held up to eye level against a window or lamp.
  • The painting should be allowed to dry lying flat for at least twenty four hours.
  • The varnishing brush should be cleaned immediately in warm soapy water
  • Before applying the second coat of varnish, ensure the first is thoroughly dry.

Care of Oil Paintings


Varnishing oil paintings serves to provide a protective layer against dirt and dust, and also restores the painting to its original wet look. The painting must be dry and clean prior to applying the varnish. Proper application with a soft varnishing brush will give optimum results.


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© Rachel Shirley 2010