The logic of Final Varnish

January 10, 2006

Dear Rodney,

"Final varnish" is the liquid, protective coat that goes onto
oils and acrylics. In a way it's the equivalent of fixative on
pastels or glass on watercolours. Varnishes need to remain
clear, and they need to be removable. Among manufacturers who
publish advice and troubleshoot for artists, the application
and removal of varnish is at the top of their FAQs. Every
single day, someone writes and asks me about it too.

There's a great variety of products. All have their
strengths--some have weaknesses. My advice is to find a brand
you like, study the written material related to it, know how to
remove the stuff when necessary, and stick to it. To say which
one would be best for you would be stating my particular needs
and preferences, and not yours. Having said that, "Golden"
materials are hard to beat and there's evidence that their
ultraviolet light blockers (UVLS) do retard fading. Since high
school, I've also been using Winsor and Newton acrylics. I
remember brushing on the final varnish with one of my dad's
angled sign sables. Lately, I've bumped into a few of the early
ones, and they're as bright as new pins.

Oil varnishes have improved since those dark ages. The Gamblin
range, for example, has a product called Gamvar. It's based on
research at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It
works for oil, alkyd and acrylic, has a dedicated remover, and
is packaged with plenty of info.

When applying the final varnish, be careful to make sure the
painting is sufficiently cured. Varnishes must not combine with
the media below--a condition I call "glomming." An overnight
wait after an "isolation coat" (medium alone) seems to be okay
for acrylics, but oils can take weeks or months depending on
the type and mixture of the oil media. When I want to go back
into (Golden) acrylics and work on something that I've already
varnished, I've traditionally removed the varnish with "sudsy"
household ammonia. I do it outdoors, even in the rain. I dump
it on, rub it around with a rag, and flush it off with the
garden hose. As I use lots of medium in the first place,
there's never any damage. The logic of final varnish is that
it's a sort of "shrink wrap." I often do my shrink-wrapping
when I've built up a collection. It's the final act and I love
to see my paintings drying by the studio door--getting ready to
begin their precarious travels out and about in the greater
Best regards,


PS: "Given the current state of conservation science, we feel
the use of an isolation coat prior to final varnishing provides
the best long-term protection." (Golden tech support pages)
Esoterica: In the current clickback I've asked Andrew to give
you some links to those online pages where manufacturers
explain the nuances of their varnishing products. Your
favourites are probably listed. With the advent of the Internet
this info is readily available and generally up-to-date.
Questions of "gloss" or "matte" are personal and seem to go in
and out of fashion. These days things that glitter and shine
are more popular than the quiet and reserved, and this may be a
comment on our times. Apart from that, "shiny" is easier to
keep clean.