Why Do Artists Varnish Their Paintings

Why Do Artists Varnish Their Paintings?
Contributed by Priyanka Chandrakar

You just completed your painting, and now it is time to admire the beauty you created. But, wait! Did you forget something? Is it the varnish? Well, not all artists varnish their paintings, but most do. But, why is it important? How does it help your painting’s quality? Before we understand this, let us first understand what varnish is.

Varnish: What is it?

You must have seen artists on YouTube or even live artists apply a transparent, clear liquid after the painting is done. This is varnish. It helps form a hard and protective film/coating on top of the painting to protect it from dirt, dust, moisture, and so on.

In the market, you can find different types of varnishes such as:

  • Acrylic varnish
  • Spirit varnish
  • Polyurethane varnish
  • Oil varnish
  • Exterior varnish
  • Yacht varnish

Most artists tend to use acrylic varnishes that come in matte and glossy textures. Depending on how you want your painting to look, you can choose either.

Now that you know the varnish basics let us understand how varnishing impacts your painting.

Top 3 Reasons Artists Use Varnish For Their Paintings

1-To Saturate (Deepen) The Colors:

If you tend to use oil colors to create your paintings, you might not need varnish for this purpose. However, artists that use acrylic can benefit from the use of varnish. Acrylic paintings tend to become dull after they dry out completely. The colors might not look as bright as they did when the colors were wet.

Although some manufacturers have started selling acrylic binders with a gloss base, varnishing is still the preferred choice. Even if these binders give your painting a satin appearance, varnish can help enhance the colors more.

2-Create A Uniform Matte/Gloss/Satin Sheen:

Certain acrylic pigments tend to dry shinier as compared to others. Moreover, the amount of water you add to the coloring process can also determine the sheen of the final output. If you are an artist who uses gels and mediums to color, it can also factor into the final sheen.

With so many factors in place, the final output would be a painting with patches of varying sheens. This isn’t something any artist would want in their painting.

So, can varnish help in this case?

Yes! Absolutely, a varnish can be your go-to option to create an even sheen for the painting. However, it depends on the varnish you choose. If you use a matte variant, it tends to seem transparent, but it isn’t 100 percent so. You might still see some milky-white tint throughout the painting. So, if you do, it is preferred that you go for gloss varnishes as they are 100 percent transparent or satin.

3-Protect The Painting From Atmospheric Effects:

Acrylic paint is a soft pigment. So, if you have painted a thick coating of the same, you can manage to squeeze or push it with ease. So, you need to protect your work from atmospheric effects such as dirt, dust, moisture, etc. Varnishes serve as a protective barrier.

You can use water-based varnishes that provide perfect protection from these elements. They are cleanup friendly, convenient, and don’t produce a strong smell. However, they can be harder to brush on larger paintings as they dry out too quickly.

Moreover, they tend to be milky white and have a foaming tendency. So, you need to allow it time to settle prior to application. Water-based varnishes also require thinning before usage. The ratio to be followed here is 3:1, with 3 parts being varnish and 1 part being distilled water.

Make sure you use distilled water so as to avoid any yellowing from minerals or chemicals present in the water.

You can also use solvent-based varnishes that dry out to become tough while still having a flexible layer. Moreover, MSA varnishes are easy to apply and dry out clear. This self-levelling varnish is hands-down superior when compared to water-based varnishes. The only issue with MSA varnishes is the need for thinning. You cannot thin it with water. Rather, you need to use full-strength mineral spirits.

They can also have a strong smell, and the cleanup can be messy. So, using it at home can be a bit impractical.


With these benefits in mind, you can provide your painting with a unique and fantastic look. Make sure you practice the use of varnishes in a test patch before applying it to your painting to ensure it dries out the way you want it to. Finally, do not forget to let your painting dry completely before applying the varnish!