Varnishing Tips for Oil Paintings – Retouch vs Permanent Varnish

Many artists are mystified by the varnishing process, and there is much debate over the subject.

But most agree, varnish should be used to protect paintings from pollution in the atmosphere, UV rays and scratches. Another factor is as oil paintings dry, the dark colors have a tendency to ‘sink’. Varnish brings out the rich colors and the brilliance they had when you first applied them.

Here’s the problem, it can take 6 months to a year or longer for an oil painting to completely dry. So, what does the artist do for those dry-to-the-touch paintings that are commissioned art, done in a hurry, or ready for a gallery opening and in need of some ‘varnish’?

I use the temporary varnish, otherwise known as Retouch Varnish, because it dries quicker and is a great medium to use for those ‘uncured paintings’ that need a finished look before they are completely dry.

Temporary/Retouch Varnish - why & how:

  • Retouch varnish can be applied to paint which is “hand-dry”.
  • The thin retouch varnish layer allows the paint to continue its deep drying thus avoiding cracking.
  • Temporary varnish can be easily taken off of a painting before the final permanent varnish.
  • I have always temporary because I usually sell my paintings before they sit around in my studio for 6 months!
  • Retouch varnish is also excellent at reviving dull spots when you come back to a dry painting and want to blend dry and new wet oil colors together.
  • Ideally, you want a clean, dry room with a large surface to lay your painting down to varnish it.
  • Spraying can make it easy for an even coverage.
  • Retouch Varnish is effective as a spray because there is less of a chance of smearing any semi-dry paint. If a color is not completely dry the turpentine in the retouch varnish can loosen the paint if applied with a brush.
  • That said, I don’t like spray fumes and prefer to ’brush’ the varnish on using a foam-sponge brush for easy clean-up.
  • Brushing makes a thicker coat but may take more time to dry.
  • Retouching varnish doesn’t have the quality that a finishing varnish has. A finishing varnish makes your painting look better.
  • If the painting sells before the finished painting has cured for 6 months (4 – 5 months if thinly painted), use a temporary/retouch varnish.
  • The new owner/collector of the painting can take it to a art curator for a final varnish after the painting has cured.

Permanent varnish:

  • This is a much more complicated subject.
  • The final varnish is best applied with a brush because it provides a more even protection for the painting.
  • There are many varnishes from high-gloss to dull, from yellowish to clear, ones that have longer lifespans, others that can be easily removed and others that can’t.
  • You can buy pre-made varnishes or make them yourself.
  • Two coats should be used for the final varnish.
  • Allow each layer of varnish to dry overnight.
  • Apply the varnish with a soft brush on a horizontal painting.
  • Use even strokes in a single direction for each layer.
  • The new owner/collector of the painting can take it to a art curator for a final varnish after the painting has cured.
  • Check out, ”The Artist’s Book of Materials and Techniques” by Ralph Mayer with 28 pages full of varnish facts.

Tips for both Temporary/Retouch or Permanent Varnish:

  • Use a lint-free rag to gently wipe all dust and hairs from your dry-to-the-touch painting.
  • Work in a dust-free area.
  • Keep your pet friends out of the area during varnishing time!
  • Varnish your painting in one sitting – If not, the painting will have a line where the wet varnish meets the dry varnish.
  • Make even parallel strokes using equal amounts of varnish on all parts of the painting.
  • The varnish should be dry in a day or two.
  • As the varnish dries, a chemical process takes place in which the resin releases a vapour which is harmful to your health, so provide good ventilation to your workplace!
  • A thinly applied varnish will look better and more professional.

Personally, I use retouch varnish on my paintings. As I explained before, my paintings generally leave my studio and go to their new homes around the country before the end of the 6 month curing period.

*Please comment if you have any other thoughts or suggestions that can help others. Permanent varnishing tips would be extra helpful! Thanks to my Twitter friend and fellow artist Nadine Robbins for sharing some of her varnishing suggestions that were included in this article. ~Lori

About Lori McNee

Lori McNee is a professional artist who specializes in still life, and landscape oil paintings. She is an exhibiting member of Oil Painters of America, Plein Air Painters of Idaho, serves on the Plein Air Mag Board of Advisors, and is an Artist Ambassador to Arches/Canson/Royal Talens. As the owner of FineArtTips.com, Lori blogs about fine art tips, marketing, and social media advice for the aspiring and professional artist. As a social media influencer, Lori ranks as one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women on Twitter, has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and named a #TwitterPowerhouse by The Huffington Post. She is a keynote speaker, has been a talk show host for Plum TV, writes for F+W Media publications including Artist’s Magazine, Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market, Photographer’s Market. Also, Zero to 100,000: Social Media Tips & Tricks for Small Businesses.

Comments

  1. Hi Lori,
    I like your version better :) Some of can write and some can’t LOL
    Thanks for all the extra info. Very important for painters.

    • Nadine…you had some great ideas that just needed to be flushed out a bit – that’s all! Thanks again for sharing and I hope you will again soon.
      Best – Lori

  2. Hi Lori, Fab artwork and website. Thanks for all the great tips, and keep those videos coming.

    Since I read that you use water soluble oils, do you still wait the traditional 6 mo before you varnish? I thought the timing was much shorter…but i don’t know.

    Thanks
    Joanie

    • Thanks for the question Joanie!

      Yes, water soluble oils do dry quicker than traditional oils. I would still wait at least four months to varnish these paintings. Nevertheless, I still use the re-touch on my paintings. As I mentioned in the article, my paintings usually leave my studio before the permanent varnish could be applied.

      I will be posting another video tomorrow…hope you like it.

      Cheers-
      Lori

  3. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the fantastic work Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  4. Hey Lori, quick question on the re-touch varnish? Does the re-touch need to be removed before applying the final varnish six months later? Or can the final varnish just be applied on top of the re-touch. I have a commission that I’m just finishing up and this article was extremely helpful!

    • Hi Miranda – glad you found this article useful. No, you do not have to worry about removing the re-touch varnish before applying the final varnish. Just make sure the painting has had time to fully cure before applying the final varnish (usually 4-6 mos depending on your humidity).
      Good luck with your commission.

      Lori :-)

  5. Prefect! That’s what I’ll do. Thanks again Lori!

  6. Thanks for the info Lori. I’ve been dealing with dull dry spots on my paintings and it’s been driving me crazy! Thanks for the run down on the varnishing!

    • Thanks for letting me know this article helped you. Is this Mariam??? We have met in Jackson before at your beautiful gallery. It is fun to see you stop by my blog for a visit. Hope to see you again soon.
      Best – Lori

  7. Lee Ekland says:

    Hi Lori,
    I’m switching from acrylics to oils and appreciate your thoughtful instructions on varnishing.

    I enjoy your paintings and your gift for teaching~
    Blessings from California,
    Lee

    • Hi Lee, I made the switch from acrylics to oils and never looked back. They offer me more flexability with the technique I have developed. I am sure you will enjoy learning how to use oils. Thanks for the visit and the kind remarks.
      My best – Lori

  8. “I love the smell of damar in the morning!” (but I try not to inhale)
    Appreciate the article, Lori. I too, use only the thinner retouch varnish so that it doesn’t intefere with curing. Because of my thick impasto passages, brushing the varnish on can be awkward, so I’m usually using a spray.
    Even if I kept a painting long enough, I would still rather have a thinner coat of varnish as provided by spraying retouching varnish. A thicker coat can yellow with age and it doesn’t provide much more protection, anyway.

    • Hi Curtis…
      Retouch varnish really works well for me. I usually do not keep my paintings around long enough for the paintings to cure for the final varnish anyway. If the collector wants a final varnish, he/she can take it to a curator who specializes in reparing and caring for paintings.
      Thanks for your comment!
      Lori :-)

  9. Hi Lori, I love your work, and as an emerging and struggling artist I admire the success of your career. Thanks for the varnishing information. Having been an acrylic painter for many years, my recent switch to oil paints has me jumping for joy at the quality of this medium, and stumbling around mystified at the chemistry involved to do a painting correctly. My current problem is with retouch varnish. I’ve done several paintings with Windsor/Newton alkyd oils that have been sold already. The paintings are only about 3 weeks dry. I put a coat of retouch varnish on each of them, and 4 days later they’re still sticky to the touch and total dust magnets. Is this normal? Should I just ship them as-is and tell the clients to clean them with a damp cloth or something?

    Thanks for your help Lori!
    Chris

    • I just happened to see your question and just happened to be reading about alkyds last night. You may want to look up the info in “The Oil Painting Book” by Bill Creevy. He states that alkyds dry to a sheen across the color range. So you do not really have to varnish them. See page 152 in the book. Hope this helps in the future.

  10. Eileen Horan says:

    Hi Lori
    I havve a terrible problem. I used a retouch varnish on a one month old oil on canvas painting. It looks awful, streaky and spotty. I love the painting. I did this a month ago and thought it would dry ok. How can I get that retouch off with out ruining the painting worse? Also, is there a good book on varnishing oil paintings? I can’t seem to get it right. Eileen

    • Hi Eileen, sorry for the belated reply…I am just now catching up on comments. Was the painting dry to the touch before you applied the retouch? It needs to be… Yes, retouch can look spotty at times and that can easily be solved by applying another coat. Keep the brush moving until you achieve the desired sheen. I have never tried removing it myself. Most retouch varnish is thought to be made from dammar, which would mean you’ll probably have to use turpentine. If you don’t have any turps then try mineral spirits but it may not be strong enough to properly dissolve it. If your retouch varnish is made from a modern synthetic resin, mineral spirits should work. You can try a small corner first and see what happens. Also, try laying down a solvent soaked cloth on the painting and see if that helps….needless to say, this will not be a fun project!

      Good luck-
      Lori

  11. Hi Lori,

    I can’t seem to find a definitive answer to my retouch vanrish issue. My initial painting is finished and dry to touch. Now I want to add a layer of retouch varnish. Then I want to add a thin layer of transparent paint on top of that. I don’t want to remove the retouch varnish after. I just want to finish it with regular varnish. I keep reading about removing the retouch but just want to verify that it’s ok to varnish on top of the retouch. Will this be ok and will anything yellow?

    • Hello Pat,

      Retouch varnish is for retouching paintings! Yes, you can paint directly over the retouch varnish with new paint. That is the purpose of retouch. Do not remove it… It should not yellow.

      I hope this helps! Good luck.
      Lori

  12. julia wescott says:

    Dear Lori … Just discovered your wonderful website. Maybe I missed it, but can Retouch Varnish be used on a painting that has both liquid acrylics, and then oils on top of the dried acrylic? i.e.- can it be used for a combo of acrylic & oils. Probably not to be used for watercolor, right? Thanks, Julie

  13. Lori, I have a very old, oil landscape painting. I am guessing the painting is about 100 years old, as it is painted on cloth and is very fragile. Over the years some of the paint has flaked away and I have retouched the areas successfully, with my own oils. This is however a recurring problem. The flakes are small and are occurring mostly near the lower edge of the painting. I would like to know if there is a safe method of applying varnish or a type of finish to protect the painting once I retouch it again? Any ideas? Thanks!

    • Hello Kelly, I would suggest taking the old painting to a local museum or art restorator. I would not feel comfortable advising you on such a special painting. I hope this helps…

  14. I use retouching varnish for the same reasons as you do but there are certain areas that usually make the varnish split and they are always the darker areas where blues and black have been used. To overcome this I lightly paint on a thin film of pure turp and let hat evaporate. It helps but not always. It’s quite a problem and I’m thinking that it is something to do with the medium in the paint. I only use ‘old Holland’ and the medium is stand oil and pure turps.

    • Hello Philippa, I really appreciate your extra varnishing tip. Retouch is not a utopia, and I will try your turp suggestion next time I have a similar problem. Thanks!

  15. Very helpful. Thanks. Do you have any comments on using water based varathane over oil paintings? Is the retouch varnish water based or does it require paint thinner to clean the brushes?

    thanks

    • Hello Scott,

      Mixing water and oil is always tricky. Oil products can be painted on top of some waterbased products, but not the other way around. Water-based products will not adhere properly to oil paintings. I hope this helps.

  16. Kay Eaton says:

    Hi Lori, Thank you for the information! I have a question that I hope you can answer. I did a painting that I decided to make a minor change to a few weeks after I thought I had finished it. The revised section has a matte finish to it, as opposed to more sheen in the rest of the painting. I used the same paints from the same tubes, but apparently it set up differently in the revision. Will a spray on retouch varnish resolve this problem, or am I risking ruining the painting further?

    • Hi Kay, This is a common occurrence with painting in sections. I find that the sprays don’t cover evenly. Try brushing it on with a sponge brush. Cover the whole painting with an even coat…good luck!

  17. Michele O'Neil says:

    Hello Lori,
    What do you do if your retouch varnish pools in one spot?
    thanks, Michele

  18. Hello Lori,
    I hope you can help with my question.
    In 2000 I have painted a few large canvases using a to much Linseed oil.
    The paintings never dry and are sticky. Any idea how to save the paintings?

    • Wow, Virginia. I am not sure about that one. I would suggest calling a museum curator or someone who restores paintings. They will know the best way to save your painting. I hope this helps a little. Good luck!

  19. Helpful information! I also paint with water soluble paints. I am getting ready to ship for a show and it has been only 3 months that my stuff has had to dry. I was unaware that I can use retouch on this type of paint. So, a light layer on top and then how long do I wait? Also, have you ever used safflower oil on top for an even sheen? I mistakenly thought that I was using varnish and it was safflower oil. It dried beautifully and quickly. What do you know about this?
    thanks,
    Laura Tovar Dietrick

    • Hi Laura, thanks for the comment. Safflower oil will help with the sinking colors, but it is not a final varnish. The retouch can be painted upon once it is dried to the touch. I hope this helps!

  20. Bev Gambrel says:

    I used retouch varnish for the first time and it left the painting more glossy than I expected. What can I do to dull it down?

    • Hello Bev, yes it does add a sheen. As you brush it on, keep brushing it. That will dull it down. Otherwise, you can use a thin coat of cold wax medium on the top. Buff it lightly. I hope this helps!

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