5 Pro Steps to Protect Acrylic Paintings on Canvas

how to protect acrylic paintings on canva

When we create something art as part of memories, hobby of for sale we should think about protection. Art is something we need to take care of and make sure it will last years and years to bring joy and inspiration.

The most common way to protect acrylic painting on canvas is varnishing. But it is not the best protective option. To ensure the best protection for your painting, consider 5 steps: primed canvas, isolation coat, varnishing, UV-protected sheet with framing and proper maintaining. Proper maintenance and storage is vital for acrylic painting protection.

It is easier to protect your painting than fix cracking and peeling off or yellowing later. Use my tips for protective finish application and maintenance of your acrylic paintings. I also included the list of recommended product for each step.

Many posts on the Internet make protection equal varnishing but it is not fully true. The protection of the painting doesn’t begin and end with varnishing. Varnishing is only one of the element of good protection. Moreover, there is a better alternative to varnishing, but bloggers don’t really mention it. Feel free to read and use all the recommendations.

In this article:

This article may contain affiliate links to Amazon and Blick Art Supplies store. This means no extra cost for you, but it is the way you can support my blog, because I will receive a tiny commission. Thank you!

5 effective steps to protect acrylic paintings on canvas

You can easily protect your acrylic painting on canvas for years following these 5 steps:

  1. Prime your canvas before painting with gesso or use pre-primed canvas
  2. Apply isolation coat once your painting is done
  3. Varnish your painting after isolation coat is dried or choose good protective finish
  4. Additionally you can always put your painting under glass or plastic and frame it to protect it. This is step is not mandatory but depends on your preferences and choice.
  5. Properly maintain and store your acrylic painting to protect it from temperature, sunlight, humidity, mold, airflow and cracking.

Do not use hairsprays as protection. Hairsprays composition doesn’t contain anything protective for acrylics but can easily take away paint.

How to protect acrylic paintings on canvas

Step 1 – Prime canvas to protect future painting

The most common way for beginners is just to buy a pre-primed canvas. They can be bright white or black. It is the easiest way, because you can directly start painting.

If you’re using raw canvas, consider priming it with gesso. Gesso – is the most used primer. Gesso will help to smooth the canvas, but most importantly – the gesso increase paint adhesion which means no cracking and proper painting protection.

Priming canvas with gesso is extremely easy. You buy gesso at art store or online (I use Golden Gesso), take a separate wide brush and apply gesso in 1-3 layers based on how smooth is the surface.

Some artists make homemade gesso to protect canvas, in my Gesso guide I share recipes, how-to and recommended gesso.

Step 2 – Apply isolation coat to protect painting before varnishing

As we know, varnish became a synonym of protection. But the thing is, you need to remove and replace varnish when it becomes yellow and extremely dusty.

The reason why it is important for protection, it is when you’re removing varnish you can accidentally damage the painting without any option to save it.

To properly apply varnish and protect your painting, you should first apply isolation coat that create a barrier between painting and varnish. This way you can remove varnish when it is necessary without any side effects.

You can buy directly a jar of Isolation coat, like Golden (they have 5 different options). There are some tricks about application of isolation coat, feel free to read the related post.

Step 3 – Varnishing or protective finish to protect painting from dust and environment

This section talks about 2 alternatives: old and still popular method – varnishing, and modern way to protect paintings – protective finishes.

Old school – Varnishing

Varnishing helps seal the surface and create a non-porous surface (dust and dirt tend to be collected in micropores).

It collects all dust and yellowing and when you remove varnish and replace it, the painting looks like freshly finished. A proper varnish will increase color saturation and create finished look. To learn about 6 main functions of the varnish, check this post

To smooth surfaces choose brush application, but if your surface has texture, opt for spray varnishes like Grumbacher spray varnish.

If you choose permanent varnish, you won’t be able to remove it, and dust or yellowing that it gain over time.

Thinning would be the case with solvent-based varnishes. I don’t like to make things complex so I stick to water-based Golden Polymer removable varnish.

How to varnish an acrylic painting:

Time needed: 30 min and 24hrs at least for drying

Supplies needed: separate flat large brush, clean container, varnish of your choice

  • Apply an isolation coating first. Let it dry 1-2 days.
  • Make sure the surface is clean. Wipe the painting with a lint-free cloth.
  • Prepare the workplace: get a flat, large, clean brush – use separate brush which you don’t use for painting. Thin the varnish if the brand recommend it. Get a clean jar or container and fill it with a bit more varnish to make sure you have enough.
  • Place the painting horizontally on a flat and dust-free room.
  • Apply the first coat of varnish. Work quickly, don’t press on the brush, move from the top to the bottom and from one side to another. Don’t go back over not dried varnish
  • Let it dry (24hrs) and apply up to 3 coats.
  • Check the surface from an angle to make sure there is no uncovered areas.

The full process of how to varnish an acrylic painting with brush, with spray and how to remove varnish is explained here.

Protective finishes

On the other side, there are protective finishes. Varnish is also a protective finish, but some modern artists find it outdated. It is partly true because historically varnishes were used to seal oil paintings and they contained alkyd resin, oil, and solvents.

In fact, varnish is a tricky thing. It can get milky when dried and you will need to remove it immediately, it tends to yellow over time and it scares beginners and some Pros…

Yes, nowadays manufacturers use high-quality ingredients for varnishes but there are still some good alternatives.

To protect your acrylic painting you need a protective finish to be:

  • Water-based (oil based won’t work for acrylics!)
  • Non-yellowing
  • Glossy finish (or matte or satin if you prefer). Here is the explanation what the difference.
  • Self-leveling – it means it can create even non-porous surface
  • No brush strokes

 MinWax Polycrylic Protective Finish – is one of the best protective alternatives to traditional varnish.

  • not yellowing over time
  • protect from color running, discoloring or hazing
  • comes in matte, satin, semi-gloss and gloss
    • spray (which means no brush strokes) or for brush application
How to protect acrylic painting with MinWax Protective finish:

Supplies: Protective finish, foam brush

  1. Wait until your painting is fully cured. The manufacturer suggests to wait 30 days.
  2. Work in well-aired, dust-free room. Place your painting horizontally.
  3. Poor a small amount in one corner on the painting
  4. Using foam brush move from this corner, without almost any pressure, to cover all the painting with the finish
  5. Check if the whole painting is evenly covered.
  6. Clean the brush in warm water, let it dry, and wait at least 2 hrs to apply second coat. You need 2-4 coats.

AS for me, it seems much easier and nice to deal with than varnish and you don’t have to worry about yellowing or replacing it over years.

Step 4 – Glass or Plastic

Glass – is a very solid, hard and transparent material to protect painting.

Glass protects painting in many ways:

  • from touching
  • from dust collecting (we remember that acrylics are very likely to collect dust and dirt)

But glass doesn’t protect acrylic paint from UV radiation and eventual fading. Also, check your glass before using because glass tends to have greenish tint or being a little bit milky which will alter the clarity of painting and make it less enjoyable.

UV-protected plastic sheets have reflective properties, protect from dust and touching, but also is half weight of glass and much less fragile!

It also allows more light through surface. Acrylic UV sheets can transmit up to 92% of visible light while mineral glass transmits only 80-90%, depending on the manufacturer.

Sheets can be thin or thick, check before buying.

I would choose UV-protected sheets, as for me it’s a modern and easy solution.

If you are looking for some, try Amazon search “Protective Picture Framing Acrylic Sheet“, it will look like this and have different sizes available:

How to protect acrylic paintings on canvas

Framing acrylic painting will protect not only the surface but all sides from dust and environment changes like temperature, humidity or air flow.

Today, the most popular choice for framing a painting is the box frame (or ‘tray’ frame, ‘shadowbox’ frame or ‘floating’ frame). 

Step 5 – Properly maintain and store paintings to protect them

It is crucial how you will “treat” your painting after it’s done and even after it is varnished. Wrong maintenance will damaged even varnished painting over time.

Please, follow these simple guidelines to protect and maintain acrylic paintings on canvas:

1 – Cleaning

Gently dust your acrylic painting with a feather duster. Move from side to side evenly to be sure you clean the entire surface. The feather duster is gentle enough and it won’t damage your acrylic painting.

Alternatives to a feather duster: large sable brush, or contact and pay professional art cleaner

Never use water or cleaning solution to clean acrylic paintings!

2 – No touching

Avoid touching acrylic paintings with your fingers and don’t let other people and children do it.

Our skin constantly produces oils and they can damage your acrylic pain over time, and even result in discoloring.

3 – Proper environment

The best environment for painting storage:

Temperature: 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit (18 – 24 C).
Humidity: 50%
Well-aired room

What to avoid in order to protect acrylic painting:

  • bright sunlight – sun damages paint and make it fade over time.
  • dry or high humidity room – everything below 40% and above 56% can destroy your painting. Humidity causes warping, cracking.
  • heat or freezing – it causes cracking or peeling off.
  • air blowing directly on the paintings

Tips for right environment:

  • place or hang acrylic painting on the wall with less sunlight
  • use hygrometer to check the level of humidity in your house or atelier. I found one for $5 on Amazon, but sometimes thermometers also have this option.
  • use a dehumidifier if your place is more than 50% humid or a humidifier for a super dry space. Don’t place it next to the painting.
  • store paintings in a cool, dark room.
  • if you’re storing all your acrylic paintings together, put a clean board or something non-absorbent between paintings.
  • if you can’t fix something and it is a very precious work, don’t experiment, contact a professional.

4 – Remove and replace varnish if needed

If you use removable varnish, you will notice over time that it yellows and collects dust. Art cleaners recommend to replace varnish every 50 years, but if you feel like your painting needs it now, just do it. Here is the step-by-step process.

Removing and replacing helps your painting last longer.

Why we need to protect acrylic paintings

I think this is quite obvious that if we like art we should keep it and make it last longer. Masterpieces in museums and private collections are highly valuable and maintained, but every our work is precious too. And we can protect it almost for free from damage and leave it for our grandchildren or sell it without worrying about its quality over years.

Acrylic paint is very popular among beginners and professional artists: it dries quickly, has lots of nice properties and techniques, so everyone can find original style. I do all my paintings with acrylics, even if I was taught how to paint with oil.

But nothing is perfect in the Universe and acrylics have some downsides.

1 – To protect painting from dust

The major is that even being dried, it is “soft”, very easily collect dust and all kind of dirts. This is why we need varnish or other protective finishes – they seal the surface and make it easy to clean, because you can not just clean unprotected acrylic paint.

Protective finishes will create even and smooth surface which is beneficial for visual aspect, for cleaning and protection. It will eliminate all unwanted little bumps or textures.

Acrylic painting collects dust
This is how much dust can collect an acrylic painting without protective finishes. And it’s stored in clean and well aired room!

2 – To make cleaning easy

An even a protected painting can be wiped and cleaned with a duster. The acrylics can’t be cleaned with water or exposed to it, but protective coat is water-resistant.

3 – To make paintings and color saturation last longer (hundreds of years)

This is not only about painting’s lifetime, but also about keeping colors as bright as they were once you finished your work. Protective finish will increase color saturation, and a glossy finish will add extra sheen.

4 – To protect painting from extreme temperatures, UV radiation, humidity and airflows.

Shifts in temperature and humidity will significantly damage your painting and lead to warping, cracking, peeling, discoloring.

UV radiation causes fading and colors will lose their vivacity over time.

10 Best products to protect your acrylic paintings

Golden Acrylic GessoGessoArtist-grade great gesso
8 oz – 128 oz
$9.71 – $61.55
Liquitex Acrylic Gesso GessoArtist-grade gesso
4 colors available
4 oz – 128 oz
$10.99 – $69.99
Golden Isolation CoatIsolation
Softer than regular gel,
won’t hold a sharp texture but still shows brush strokes. Thinner than a regular polymer medium.
Golden Gloss UV TopcoatIsolation
Good for textured paintings.
A regular gel with added UV
Golden Polymer VarnishVarnishRemovable water-based varnish with Ultra Violet Light Stabilizers
Not recommended for use on furniture
Thin with 25% distilled water before use
Remove with ammonia
4 oz – 128 oz
$6.83 – $84.41
Golden MSA varnishVarnishMineral Spirit Acrylic Varnish with UltraViolet Light Stabilizers
Thicker viscosity than traditional varnishes
Remove with spirits
4 oz – 128 oz
$14.69 – $111.65
Liquitex VarnishVarnishUV protection, durable
NOT removable
Matte, Satin, Gloss, High Gloss
* I got some testimonials about cracks and uneven coverage using Liquitex.
$6.92 – $90.88
spray varnish
VarnishCrystal-clear when applied
Dries quickly
Has gloss finish
Removable with paint thinner or a mild solvent
11 oz
Minwax ProtectiveProtective
Gloss, satin, matte
1 quart
Water-Based Helmsman Spar UrethaneProtective
Gloss, semi-gloss, satin
Won’t amber over time
UV protection, moisture protection
1 quart