Varnishing: spray it or brush it?

Varnishing used to be one of my most dreaded art tasks. But this weekend, varnishing a sunflower painting that’s just been sold (pictured below) and a dancer painting that I’m getting ready to add to my online collection, I realised that I’ve finally moved past the fear.

Textured sunflower painting in art studio

Previously, It was the dread of ruining a perfectly decent creation that put me off. But I’ve figured out what works for me and am much more confident that varnishing is a gain rather than a risk.

So far, I’ve only had one DISASTER. A little Welsh sheep study that I coated in varnish and then tripped over and added a layer of sock fluff to. Not much you can do to extract tiny bits of fuzz from sticky varnish.

Sheep in landscape painting propped against a wooden artist mannequin

My TOP TIP for varnishing is to dry brush your painting well before you start. You’d be surprised how much dark dust suddenly materialises when you apply the varnish. Essential that you brush your creations thoroughly first and get rid of those hidden specks. Always. And particularly if you are varnishing a light painting. 

Different artists seem to favour different kinds of BRUSHES for varnishing. I generally tend to use a medium-sized soft brush. Firstly, it’s less likely to leave visible bristle stripes. Secondly, it’s much gentler on my textured creations than a harder brush. The flexibility is important if you’re getting into delicate textures. 

No matter what kind of brush you opt for, make sure it’s not going to moult bristles into your varnish. And if it does, extract them immediately and even out the area.

Typical varnishing wisdom is to apply and smooth your varnish in a single DIRECTION. I’m less fastidious about this one than I used to be. Lots of my textured paintings require a bit more multidirectional attention to ensure that the varnish is evenly applied. And I’ve discovered that if you don’t apply too much too quickly, it’s much easier to get an even coating. 

I’ve tended to use pouring matt varnish for my acrylic creations. Recently, I tried a gloss spray varnish. Definitely easier and I was pleasantly surprised how quickly the gloss gave the painting an instant glow. But it’s hard to know if you’ve applied it consistently enough. It’s easier, for sure, but I did miss the certainty I get from pour and brush where you know exactly what you’ve covered. But I didn’t need to worry about washing varnish out of brushes with the spray so that’s a bonus point for efficiency. If you are using brushes, make sure you wash them well as soon as you’ve applied each coat.

For most creations, I apply 2 or 3 coats of varnish. It’s important to let each coat dry and cure well. Yes, varnishing needs to be done in a well-ventilated space. But, do make sure you’re not leaving things to dry where the breeze might blow unwanted particles onto a fresh coat.

Brand-wise, I’ve used both Liquitex (pour) and Winsor Newton (spray) varnishes. Happy to recommend both. 

Hope this blog has been useful. If you’ve got varnishing tips of your own, I’d love to hear them.

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