Varnishing: Best Practices

Learn the best practices for applying varnishes on your traditional oil paintings

Topic List

General Comments


To be fully-developed in the near future. 

MITRA on Varnishes: This excellent article covers a number of related topics: the ideal properties of a final surface coating, the pros and cons of varnishing, and practical advice on applying varnishes.

Applying Varnish

To be fully-developed in the near future.

Virgil’s tips: 

I sometimes use my Paasche VL-5 airbrush to apply varnish, but most of the time I just brush it on with the painting lying flat.

Gloss varnish serves best. The degree of “glossiness” or “matteness” can be controlled by the way it’s applied. Brush it on with the painting lying flat, using a wide hog-bristle brush, then go over it with another wide hog-bristle brush that’s dry, to thin the coat and reduce the gloss. Do this again and again with more dry brushes until the gloss has been reduced to your liking. This is better, in my opinion, than using a varnish with a flatting agent in it. Satin and matte varnishes are cloudy to some degree, and often the flatting agent gets distributed unevenly on the painting, which detracts from the image.

I once used a PreVal spray kit to spray on my varnish of choice when I had to fly to Washington DC to varnish a portrait there, lacking my airbrush and compressor. The PreVal kit consists of a can of propellant and a jar in which to place whatever liquid you want to spray.

Technical Notes: 

Additional recommendationsf from Natural Pigments on reducing the gloss in varnish:
1.Dilute the varnish with additional solvent before using.
2.Apply a thin coating. The thinner the coating, the lower the gloss.
3.Brush the varnish as it dries. When the varnish is starting to set up, if you continue to brush it then you will microscopically roughen the surface and it will be less glossy.
4.Spray apply the varnish.


Removing Varnish

amvar is very easy to remove if you want to repaint part of the painting. Use cotton wool (cotton) wrapped around a skewer, moistened with odorless mineral spirits, and roll the cotton over the area where the varnish needs to be removed. Replace the cotton frequently, until no more varnish is getting on it. If you do this carefully, you might be able to get by without having to remove the varnish from the whole painting. Once the varnish is off, wait to begin repainting until all the solvent has evaporated, perhaps a day or two.

Search Traditional Oil Painting

Try searching for a specific term on our website. Some examples: safflower oil, burnt sienna, varnishing.