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When To Varnish an Oil Painting + Instructions & Products

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Oil paintings often take longer to complete than water-based paintings, and after putting days (if not weeks!) of time and energy into a painting, it’s important to make sure that it’s adequately protected against the elements and general wear and tear.

Varnishing is a final step in the painting process that can not only keep your oil painting looking like new but can also enhance its colors and add a little shine.

When should I varnish my oil painting? Once your oil painting is finished and completely dry, it is safe to apply varnish, though it isn’t necessary to do so for all paintings. Oil paints can take much longer than water-based paints to dry, so it’s important to be absolutely certain that the paint is totally dry before varnishing.

In this article, you will learn the advantages and disadvantages of varnishing an oil painting, as well as types of varnish, the step-by-step process of applying varnish, and recommended brands of varnish. 

In a rush? Here’s a quick look at the most recommended varnishes for oil paintings.

Winsor & Newton Professional Dammar Varnish, 75ml (2.5-oz) Bottle
  • Good item for making many types of arts and crafts projects
  • They are ideal for home decor projects, holiday ornaments and decorations, or handmade gifts that...
Gamblin Gamvar Picture Varnish - 8.5oz Bottle
  • Synthetic resin varnish
  • Similar to Damar natural varnish
Winsor & Newton Professional Artists' Aerosols, Picture Varnish, Gloss, 400ml
  • Recommended for adding Depth and luster to paintings
  • Gloss picture varnish is compatible with oils, alkyds and acrylics
Grumbacher Damar Matte Varnish Spray For Oil Painting, 11.25 oz Can
  • Protective coating for oil paintings from dirt, moisture and scuffing
  • It brings out the beauty of colors with an even, colorless matte finish; Made in USA

Oil Paintings and Varnish: What To Know

The most important thing to know when varnishing an oil painting is that it shouldn’t be done until the painting is 100% dry.

Should I Varnish My Oil Painting?

If you love your colors as they are, or if you plan on painting over your oil painting at some point in the future, it might be a good idea to skip the varnishing process.

Otherwise, adding varnish to your oil painting can help to protect it from dust, fading, and, depending on the varnish, yellowing and cracking.

Advantages of Varnishing an Oil Painting

  • Varnish protects oil paintings from dust, smoke, and debris.
  • Varnish can help to retain the brilliance of oil paint colors.
  • Some varnishes have UV resistance and can help protect paintings from fading.

Drawbacks of Varnishing an Oil Painting

  • Some artists dislike the effect of the varnish on the colors of their paintings.
  • Varnish can add an unwanted glossy finish that can be too reflective for certain styles.
  • If you ever wish to paint over the oil painting, you will first have to remove the varnish.

When To Varnish an Oil Painting

Wait until the oil painting is totally dry. For thin layers of paint, this could take 2-3 days.

For bodies of work with thicker layers of paint, such as those created with the impasto technique, drying time can take weeks.

Types of Varnish for Oil Paintings

Varnishes come in either spray or brush on varieties. Traditional varnishes (such as Copal, Dammar, Mastic, or Amber) contain natural resins.

Modern synthetic versions (such as Gamvar, MSA, and Alkyd Synthetic Resins) are often designed to resist yellowing. 

Varnishes can also come in hard or soft varieties.

Hard varnishes, such as Amber and Copal, give your painting a high-gloss appearance when dry. These types of varnish do have a tendency to yellow and crack, and are quite difficult to remove.

Soft varnishes, such as Dammar and Mastic, can be dissolved in solvents and removed from the painting if needed. 

MSA and Alkyd Synthetic Resins can only be applied to the painting 8-12 months after the painting has been finished.

Gamvar can be applied once the painting is dry to the touch, but it only comes in a liquid variety.

How To Apply Varnish to an Oil Painting

  1. For liquid varnish, use a wide brush with smooth bristles to avoid leaving brush marks. For spray varnish, hold the spray 8-12 inches away from the painting, and work from left to right. 
  2. Keep the painting flat on a table while working. Working vertically can cause the varnish to run.
  3. Apply varnish in thin, even layers.
  4. Allow strokes to overlap slightly, but avoid going over layers while the varnish is still wet. If you miss a spot, wait for the varnish to dry entirely before applying another coat.
  5. Allow the varnish to dry in a dust-free area. Some artists use a protective plastic film to tent their work while it dries.
  6. Let varnish dry for at least 24 hours between layers.

Best Brush for Varnishing an Oil Painting

The best brushes for varnishing are the ones made specifically for varnishing. They are designed to apply consistent, even coats with soft, wide bristles.

Any brush with similar qualities that is kept clean and only used for varnishing will work well, however.

How Many Coats of Varnish To Apply

You can apply between 1-3 coats of varnish, depending on the thickness and texture of the underlying paint and the desired effect.

Best Oil Painting Varnish

Whether you’re looking to emulate the masters and use a more traditional varnish or you prefer the variety of finishes that modern varnishes offer, it’s wise to choose a varnish that has been designed for use on oil paintings.

Winsor & Newton Dammar Varnish

Winsor & Newton Professional Dammar Varnish, 75ml (2.5-oz) Bottle
  • Good item for making many types of arts and crafts projects
  • They are ideal for home decor projects, holiday ornaments and decorations, or handmade gifts that...

This liquid varnish comes in sizes from 75 to 500 milliliters and has a high-gloss finish. Some artists use this varnish as a medium as well.

Gamblin Gamvar Picture Varnish

Gamblin Gamvar Picture Varnish - 8.5oz Bottle
  • Synthetic resin varnish
  • Similar to Damar natural varnish

This Gamvar varnish is similar to Dammar varnish, but it is made of natural resins. This varnish has a gloss finish that will really make your finished painting gleam.

Best Oil Painting Varnish Spray

If your painting surface is fairly flat and even or exceptionally large, a varnish spray might be your best bet. 

Winsor & Newton Professional Spray

Winsor & Newton Professional Artists' Aerosols, Picture Varnish, Gloss, 400ml
  • Recommended for adding Depth and luster to paintings
  • Gloss picture varnish is compatible with oils, alkyds and acrylics

Winsor and Newton’s Professional Sprays come in a wide range of finishes, including High Gloss, Gloss, Satin, and Matte.

Many varnishes come in only the gloss variety, so this is an excellent option for anyone looking to specify their finish. 

Grumbacher Damar Spray Varnish

Grumbacher Damar Matte Varnish Spray For Oil Painting, 11.25 oz Can
  • Protective coating for oil paintings from dirt, moisture and scuffing
  • It brings out the beauty of colors with an even, colorless matte finish; Made in USA

This varnish spray is a great choice if you’re looking for a more temporary matte finish as Damar can be removed with the use of solvents. 

Related Questions: 

Can I Use Linseed Oil as Varnish?

Linseed oil is not designed for use as a varnish.
Applying a layer of linseed oil to the painting after completion but before applying varnish is known as oiling out, and can restore the colors of the painting as well as aid in smoothing out any discordant blends.

What Happens If You Varnish an Oil Painting Too Soon?

If you apply varnish before the oil paint is totally dry, it will inhibit the paint from drying and can lead to bubbling.
Remember that even if an oil painting feels dry to the touch, the layers underneath may still be wet.

Final Thoughts

Whether you choose to varnish your oil painting or not depends on what kind of finish you wish for your painting to have as well as whether you will want to paint over the painting at some point in the future.

Applying varnish is a good idea if you want to provide a layer of protection to your work or even out the sheen of your colors. 

Choosing between traditional and modern synthetic varnishes really comes down to a matter of personal preference, although the modern versions do offer a wider array of options. 

Be sure to allow your painting to dry completely before applying varnish, and wait for each layer of varnish to dry before adding any additional layers.

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