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In Episode 5 we talked about priming or preparing your surface for painting. Today I thought it would be a good idea to talk about the opposite — how to varnish an acrylic painting. Today’s podcast applies to acrylic painting only – oil painting has different rules. I’ve been varnishing a lot of paintings over the last few weeks to mail out to clients – it’s not my favorite part of being an artist, but it is a super important part of making art that lasts.

There are some common misconceptions about varnishing acrylic paintings and the information that’s out there isn’t always clear to beginners – so I’m going to clear that up today.

Here’s our agenda for this episode:

  1. The 2 major categories of varnish: removable and permanent
  2. The 3 major types of finish: gloss, satin, and matte
  3. Spray (aerosol) varnish vs Brush-on varnish
  4. The varnish type I recommend (after my own trial and error)
  5. How to apply varnish properly

Spoiler alert! Here’s a link to my favorite varnish:    *I am not paid to recommend any products. I get no commissions or any benefits. The products I talk about are the actual products I have tested and use in my own art practice.

Episode Transcript

Hello, and welcome back to the Self Taught Artists Podcast. I’m Lauren Kristine, your host. A couple of weeks ago, we talked about priming or preparing your surface for painting. Today, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about the complete opposite! How to finish your painting and how to varnish an acrylic painting. Now, please note today’s podcast applies to acrylic painting only. Oil Painting has different rules. And frankly, I am not an expert on oil painting. I’ve been varnishing a lot of paintings over the last few weeks to mail out to different clients. And while it is not my favorite part of being an artist, it is a very important part of making art that really lasts.

The number one job of varnish is to protect the colors on your painting from fading, dust, and the elements. And varnish is not to be overlooked when you’re painting. Varnish is the third piece of the art equation, you have gesso as the base layer, which gives a strong foundation to build upon. Next, you have your paint in the middle. And on top of that is the coat of varnish. When you get all three of these layers, the longevity and professional quality of your art goes way up. Here are the six things accomplished by varnishing:

Number one, it changes the surface finish. Number two, it provides a more unified finish to different areas of your painting, giving a clean unified look. Number three, it increases color saturation and color intensity. Number four, it protects the paint surface, especially from dust and the elements. Number five, it allows for ease of cleaning. And number six, it gives protection from UV radiation and the sun.

There are some common misconceptions about varnishing, and the information out there is not always clear to beginners. So I’m hoping I can clear all of that up today and answer any questions that you may have all about varnishing. So here’s our agenda: First, we’re going to talk about the two major categories of varnish, removable and permanent. We’ll then talk about the three different types of finish (That is gloss, satin, or matte finish). We’ll talk about spray varnishes versus brush on varnishes next, and then we’ll finish it up by me telling you what kind of varnish type I recommend after my own trial and error. That’s a long agenda, so let’s go ahead and jump right in.

When shopping for a varnish, there are two major categories, removable and permanent. The permanent ones are non removable, just as you would think. Once it’s applied, it is there for good. This becomes an issue later only if you become super famous, and conservators need to clean your work and preserve it. Now, we’re not talking in your lifetime. This would be 100+ years in the future. All varnish will yellow over time. So conservators periodically change the varnish on pieces of art as that happens. Again, it’s not something you have to worry about anytime soon, or even in your life.

On the other hand, removable varnishes are exactly what they sound like: an outer protective layer for your painting that can later be removed with certain chemicals by conservators. When you apply removable varnish, you need to do an extra step called an isolation coat. That’s an extra transparent layer that physically separates the underlying layer of paint from the varnish. When conservators remove varnish from a painting, they use chemicals and it can be a risky process. If you apply too many chemicals, you can lift away some of the painting below and they don’t want that to happen. An isolation coat is there in the middle as a protective barrier to keep this problem from happening. If you decide to go this route with a removable varnish, golden sells an isolation one layer product now that you can buy, but you can also just use the Golden soft gloss gel medium thinned with water. When you’re shopping for varnish, sometimes it’s not clear if a varnish is removable or permanent. When you’re shopping the Liquitex line if it says Soluvar, that means that it is removable varnish. If it just is a bottle of say Liquitex Professional Gloss Varnish, that is a permanent varnish. If you’re looking at the Golden line of varnishes, they typically label the ones that are removable. I know in the Golden line, the MSA varnish is typically removable, and even their polymer varnish is typically removable as well. Read those labels and they should tell you whether they are removable or not. And if you’re in doubt, go ahead and Google it. You want to make sure you get this right because if you have a removable varnish, you definitely want to put on an isolation coat. Okay, so now you know about the two major categories of varnish, permanent and removable. So let’s talk about the finish.

As you paint, you may notice that some of your paint colors have a more glossy finish, while others seem very matte when they dry. This will actually vary by color and brand of paint. Varnish evens the finish out and makes the sheen consistent across the whole piece. So you no longer have this color by color sheen differentiation. There are three different finishes for the varnish: gloss, satin, and matte. The choice here is really up to you and your personal preference. But there are a few technical things you should know before you choose.

When a gloss sheen is on a pigment, it actually looks richer and more saturated. Gloss varnishes will pop out your colors a bit more and bring them to life. Gloss also is known for making your blacks look like true blacks. To put it simply, gloss varnish provides color intensity that you just cannot get elsewhere. Gloss varnishes are the most transparent of all varnishes and so that translates to the easiest to work with.

You are less likely to have a varnish horror story with a gloss varnish than you are with matte. Why is that you ask? Well, that’s because matte varnish has no shine to it. And the matte finish is actually the result of what’s called a matting agent. Matting agents are usually white. So even though the varnish dries clear, it is not 100% transparent. You have to be very careful when applying matte varnish. And you cannot overwork it or else it can get cloudy and it can actually ruin your painting. Matte varnish can be great for a painting that will be under intense lights. As sometimes a gloss sheen can be too shiny under bright lights and cause reflections.

Perhaps you cannot decide between a gloss and matte varnish? Well if you’re in that camp, then satin might be the perfect sheen for you. Satin is a mixture of both gloss and matte varnish. There is some matting agent added into the varnish but there’s not as much as in the pure matte finish. Satin has a really nice look that is somewhere in the middle. It’s not too matte, but it’s not too glossy.

Once you’ve decided whether you want to do removable or permanent varnish and you’ve picked the sheen that you are after, well, the next decision you have to make is whether you want to do a spray-on varnish. Or if you want to do a brush-on liquid varnish. Either will work just fine. I would say I’d suggest a spray varnish if you work with pastels or anything where you’re worried about smudging. Also, I find spray varnishes dry faster than brush-on varnish as long as it’s applied in thin coats. Brush-on varnish will give you more control over the direction and thickness of the varnish, which is a good thing. And even better, brush-on varnish tends to be more cost effective.However, brush on varnish comes with the risks of overworking it or leaving brush hairs behind.

As for the sheen that I prefer? Well, that’s easy. So far I have really gravitated toward gloss varnish, the color intensity is amazing. And I can’t actually get it any other way. Gloss really does make the colors of the painting just pop off the canvas, and it makes the whole painting come together really nicely. The first pieces I ever made, I actually varnished them with an aerosol spray matte varnish. And when I did that, they just didn’t look done to me. They looked really flat, and I thought they didn’t look as sophisticated. As a result, I have been glossing up my paintings ever since. And while this is really a matter of personal preference, so I wouldn’t get too caught up on what I like. It’s really about what you like as an artist. I’d say play around and see what appeals to you.

That’s really just because I think that the matting agent in it will make it a more stressful application process for me. I have heard some really heartbreaking stories of artists that apply varnish and things go wrong in that finishing process. I’d say that usually happens when you’re overworking the matting agent, or not waiting for your painting to dry thoroughly before applying varnish in the first place. These issues are avoidable. I don’t want to completely discourage you from matte varnish or satin varnish, but just approach it with caution. How about that?

I’ve had 100% success with gloss varnish so far, it really is such an easy process with the transparent nature of gloss varnish. I do really thin coats and I do about three to four coats, but follow all the directions on the bottle. That’s really important. As long as I follow all the directions that they give me, I’ve had no issues. And while it’s no secret that I love, love, love Golden brand paints, for varnish I am a Liquitex girl. I think the Liquitex mediums and varnishes are fabulous, especially their permanent line of professional varnishes.

When I first started out, I watched some YouTube videos and I watched an artist that I really like. Turns out she used a product by Liquitex professional called gloss medium and varnish. As a result, I bought that exact same product. It was a two in one product. That sounded great to me and my budget at the time because I could use it both as gloss medium to extend my paints and make them open and workable for a longer period of time, but then at the end of my painting, I could also use it as varnish on top. The downside is it actually dried a bit tacky, and I really didn’t know what I didn’t know at the time. But now I know better. That two-in-one product is not the way to go. Since then, Liquitex has actually renamed this product to just be Liquitex professional gloss medium, and that’s because it is a much better gloss medium than it is a varnish. I don’t recommend it as a varnish. What I do recommend for you is the Liquitex Professional gloss varnish. I feel really comfortable recommending the whole line of Liquitex professional varnishes as I’ve had great experiences so far. And a lot of my artists friends use this stuff too. I use the brush-on version because I can control it far better than a spray and it is more budget friendly. The manufacturers can just fit a lot more of the product in a bottle of varnish versus an aerosol can. There’s just not that much room for product inside of an aerosol can. You’ll find that a bottle of varnish actually goes a really long way and you don’t need that much to get started.

The Liquitex gloss varnish is not tacky and it’s very thin, actually. And it’s it flows very easily, which makes it super easy to brush on. I use a large one inch or two inch synthetic brush to brush it on my canvases in very thin coats. Again, make sure you follow all the directions on your bottle of varnish. Because different brands can do things differently. I love that with the Liquitex for example, I don’t have to thin it with water or do anything special – it self levels. I’ve never had an issue with air bubbles forming or anything really. It’s highly recommended.

Do spring for the good stuff. As I said, a little four or eight ounce bottle goes a very long way. And the varnish is a super important step for the longevity of your art. You don’t want to use cheap varnish and then have the painting fade, due to not being protected from the elements and UV rays. And you especially don’t want it to start yellowing on you. Liquitex products have done a great job with my art. And I feel extremely confident selling them to clients and of course displaying them in my home. That’s a lot of really technical information. And we are almost done with this episode.

I want to leave you with one final reminder, a very, very important reminder. If you take anything away from this podcast today, do not rush the varnishing process! You have worked so hard on your painting, you’ve persevered, you fixed all the issues in your painting and it looks awesome. So do not rush through the varnishing and risk messing everything up. Because if you do, and the varnish clouds, there is nothing you can do about it. That would be tragic. So take your time when you’re letting your paints dry in the first place. Have it dry for a couple of days. Then apply varnish in thin coats. Let it dry thoroughly between coats. And of course, let the finished varnish coats dry before you ship out your painting or handle it in any way. It’s just not worth it. I’ve seen a lot of artists get into quite a panic because they promised fast shipping times and then they realize they have not yet varnished their piece. Don’t get into this problem. Don’t rush. Do it right, every time.

Today we talked all about varnishing as the third part of the art equation. But have you listened to my earlier episode all about priming substrates? That is the first piece of the art equation, gessoing your canvas or painting surface. First you gesso, then you paint, then you varnish. That’s the equation for how you make professional quality archival work. So do yourself a favor and go check out episode number five, all about priming, and gessoing your substrate.

That is it for today’s episode. Thank you so much for tuning in. Please give me a review and a rating in your podcast app. It really helps me reach more self taught creatives out there. Sometimes it really does feel like I’m talking into a black box with this podcasting thing.So your reviews and your DMS on Instagram mean so much to me. Keep them coming! You can find me on Instagram at LaurenKristineArt or on my website at You’ll find both of those links in the show notes today. Make sure you hit the subscribe button so you don’t miss an episode. Until next time my friends! Happy Creating!

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