Oil painting is one of the oldest known forms of painting in history, dating back to the 7th century. But oil painting, while beautiful and incredibly rewarding, is also a time-consuming and difficult process. Today, many artists enjoy using varnish to protect and improve the color depth of their paintings, but if done improperly it can have disastrous results.
Oil paintings take up to six months to dry, and varnishing them early could entirely destroy your painting. Varnish will trap undried paints (allowing them to drip), cause bubbles and cracks due to its solvents, and ultimately ruin your hard work if applied improperly or too soon.
What Are The Pros & Cons Of Using Varnish?
While varnish is an incredibly useful tool that will bring out more vibrant colors and protect your painting from scratches, it’s important to know how to properly use it. If applied too early or improperly, you risk doing far more damage to your painting than is justified by its benefits. So why would artists risk ruining their hard work?
Varnish is a clear, transparent coating applied to furniture and art as an aesthetically pleasing protective layer. Many artists use it on their oil paintings to add further depth to their work, and protect them from dust and scratching. But what are the actual benefits?
- Protection – Varnish offers a nearly imperceptible barrier between your painting and the outside world. It allows you to move and clean your painting without worrying about damaging the art itself. It also prevents dust and grime from attaching to the paint. Beyond its non-porous nature, you can easily remove and reapply varnish to clean off a dirty painting.
- Appearance – In short, varnish makes it easier to apply an outer coat or “surface quality” to a painting than oil does. By properly applying your varnish, you create a high sheen or matte appearance to your painting that you can be easily change if needed. It also makes it easier to create a unified appearance due to the different needs of varied pigments.
As stated above, if you apply varnish improperly (or too soon) to an oil painting, the results could be disastrous. If the paints aren’t able to fully dry, or exterior conditions such as humidity and heat amplify, your painting could end up damaged. Here are the biggest concerns with applying varnish too early to your oil painting:
- Mixing of Varnish and Paint – If you apply varnish to an undried oil painting, you run the risk of the varnish and paint mixing. This basically means that the two materials could become one, altering the colors and shapes in the underlying artwork. This is obviously less than ideal, as you worked hard to create your masterpiece.
- Physical Damage – You know how varnish is supposed to protect your painting? Applying it too early can cause the solvents in the varnish to cause physical damage to the paints. This could result in cracking, creasing, or bubbling of the paint if applied improperly. In addition, if it is exposed to high humidity or heat, moisture can form between the varnish and paint.
- Paint Mobility – This is an artist’s worst nightmare. You finally finish your work, apply the varnish and go to bed. Upon waking up the next day, you see that all of the oil paint has moved, completely ruining your work! If oil paint isn’t dried properly, the varnish could literally trap it in a liquid state, allowing it to move as it pleases, instead of where you placed it.
Traditional Vs. Modern Varnish
If you’re unsure of what to look for in a varnish, fear not! In short, choosing a modern varnish with mild solvents will provide the fastest and best long-term treatment for your paintings, oil or otherwise.
Traditional varnishes use natural resins, which apply a high gloss, long-term protective layer. Their downside, however, is that they’re relatively unstable, and can turn yellow from any UV exposure. Because of these factors, they will need reapplication regularly.
In contrast, you can apply modern synthetic varnish to “touch-dry” paint (1-2 months for oil paint) without hassle. In addition, they won’t age as poorly in UV light. However, they generally tend to be less glossy, applying a matte finish to their painting. Personally, I prefer synthetic varnish, but many people enjoy the look and feel of traditional varnish – it’s ultimately up to the user.
Commonly Asked Questions
Q: How soon is too soon to apply varnish to an oil painting?
A: While it depends on the painting and varnish, never apply varnish to a painting that is still wet to the touch. Wait for it to dry and follow the manufacturer’s guide – some varnishes can go on much earlier than others. Most oil paintings take at least 3 months to fully dry, often closer to 6 months.
Q: What’s the best varnish for oil paintings?
A: While this is an incredibly subjective question, there are three main brands that most artists will recommend. Gamblin, Winsor, Newton, and Krylon are the most commonly recommended varnishes for use with oil paint. They range in application from spray to brush-on.
Q: What is an “oil out” in painting?
A: An “oil out” is the process of treating a dried paint with natural oil. While not an alternative to varnish, it offers many similar benefits. By applying linseed oil (or something similar) to a dried paint with a soft cloth, you get a better look. The layer of oil re-saturates your paints and makes old paint more receptive to new layers, giving the painting a more vibrant look.