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How to Varnish an Acrylic Painting? 6 Best Varnishes Included

How to varnish an acrylic painting

The varnish is the final step for painting. It protects acrylic painting for years from all negative factors and make it just even more beautiful. But most beginners do not know tricks how to varnish an acrylic painting without ruining it.

Varnishing an acrylic painting is easy. Choose your varnish, I use Golden Polymer removable varnish. Use a separate brush or a spray, brush it over the dry painting evenly and let it dry. Make sure you applied an isolation coat before varnishing.

As I said, the process is quite simple, but there are still some precautions.

I’m going to share the exact varnishing process and varnishes I use for the past 3 years for my acrylic paintings in this post.


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What is varnishing?

How to Varnish an Acrylic Painting
I have 3 liquid varnishes of different finish

A varnish – is a clear transparent protective coat for applying on diverse surfaces to form a hard, clear, shiny surface when dry.

Varnishing an acrylic painting means covering a finished and completely dried ( ±24 hrs.) painting with special varnish (liquid resin) to protect your acrylic painting.

Any surface like canvas, paper, metal, plexiglass, or wood can be varnished.

Read also how to prepare your painting surface for acrylic paint: Is Gesso Really Necessary for Acrylic Painting? 4 Easy Homemade Gesso Recipes


Do I really need a varnish? Yes, you do and here are at least 8 reasons why you should always apply varnish over your finished acrylic painting.


How to varnish an acrylic painting

The varnish is the final step while painting. You are almost done!

In general, I use a separate flat soft brush for varnishing.

But sometimes I create a textured surface that is very difficult to evenly cover with a brush. In this case, I use spray varnish.

With spraying, it is also easier to avoid brush strokes and bubbles.

I’ll share with you both methods and also, How to remove varnish steps too.

  1. How to varnish an acrylic painting with a brush
  2. How to varnish an acrylic painting with a spray
  3. How to remove varnish from an acrylic painting
Pro tip: If you need a photo of your painting, make it before varnishing!

Always test your varnish first. 

Varnishing can have unexpected results such as a cloudy finish if you used too much varnish, wrong varnish or it can lift your paint if you didn’t let it dry.

  • Once you finished your painting, wait 1-2 days until it is fully dried. Apply an isolation coat. Wait for 24 hrs. and move on to varnishing.
  • If you are using the impasto technique, it’s recommended to wait 1-2 weeks before applying the isolating coat or varnishing.

How to varnish an acrylic painting with a brush

Use soft large brush for applying varnish, thin layers and gentle strokes.

Total Time: 2 days

Check that you’ve applied the isolation coat and it is fully dried

If no, go for it now, here is the full process. 2 isolation coats will be enough to protect acrylic layers from interacting with varnish. Do not varnish over wet paint. Allow the acrylic paint to dry for full 24 to 48 hours, yet Amsterdam brand recommends to wait up to 5 days.

As a quick note – you can mix 2:1 Golden soft gel gloss medium with water and use it as isolation coat.

This step is particularly important if you decided to use a varnish with mineral spirits!

Clean the surface

Wipe the painting with a lint-free cloth. You can also use the lint roller – works like magic.

Prepare the workplace

Choose a dust-free room. The painting should be horizontal so pick a flat surface. WHile we can do painting vertically, a vertical varnish application can lead to drips and uneven coverage.

Place it on cups or wooden sticks to make sure it will not stick to the table or floor. This way you can reach all sides. You need to have easy access to the entire surface of your canvas including the edges.

If you are using a varnish with spirits, cover the floor underneath and wear gloves and maybe a mask as the smell can be really strong.

Pick your brush

How to Varnish an Acrylic Painting brushes

It should be a separate brush that you use ONLY for varnishing. I prefer wider brush. There are some special varnish brush too, but you can just pick any smooth, good quality wide brush.

Best brush for varnishing acrylic paintings – soft wide flat brush preferably with split bristles.

Take a clean shallow container

Poor varnish in a container.
If you mix your varnish before application (like Golden polymer varnish requires thinning 3:1), mix a bit more to make sure you have enough.

Unused varnish can be good for another couple of days, after it, you will find it cloudy.

Do not shake the bottle with varnish to avoir air bubbles.

Apply the first coat of the varnish

Apply first thin coat. Work quickly with no extra pressure (to avoid foaming), move the brush at an angle from the top to the bottom Try to apply in even strokes. You can slightly overlap each stroke.
Apply first thin coat and wait until it dries for 4-5 hours.

Don’t forget the edges!

Don’t freakout if it looks milky white. Most varnishes are like that while wet, but they will dry to a clear coat.

DO NOT go back over areas you’ve just gone over.

Apply 2 and 3 coat

Then apply second layer now moving the brush from side to side. General rule is to apply very new varnish layer in strokes that are perpendicular to the previous coat. Let it dry for a minimum of 4-5 hours or overnight.

And lastly third coat and every time check that there is no hairs, insects, or anything else in a fresh coat. If found something, carefully remove it with tweezers, not with fingers!

2-3 thin coats are enough.

Check and Let it dry

Make sure there is no dust. Check the surface from an angle to make sure there is no uncovered areas or you didn’t create bubbles.
Lay the painting flat for the whole drying period, you can also cover it (not with plastic!) to prevent dust collection.
The varnish dries to touch in 30 minutes but it will be fully cured in 24 hours.

Clean brush, container, and workplace

Clean up immediately any drips and your brush. If you leave the brush dry with varnish on it you can toss it.


How to varnish an acrylic painting with a spray

winsor newton varnish
I use this spray varnish

Spraying helps to avoid brushstrokes and foaming

  1. Check that you’ve applied an isolation coat and it is fully dried and clean (wipe the painting with a lint-free cloth.)
  2. Wipe the painting with a lint-free cloth.
  3. Choose a dust-free room. The painting should be vertical (contrary to the brush application!).
  4. Shake the spray very well, it affects how even the finish will be. Check the nozzle, it should be clean
  5. Apply the spray at least 30 cm away from the surface. While spraying, often check the nozzle. The distance is important as if you get too close you will spray too much varnish and create blobs and uneven surface, that can create bubble while drying.
  6. Spray the sides.
  7. Let it dry. Make sure there is no dust. You can place the painting against the wall or cover it (not with plastic!) to prevent dust collection. The varnish dries to touch in 30 minutes. If you need another coat of varnish, wait at least 24 hours and apply it.

Personnaly, I use spray varnish only as a temporary solution as it feels like it doesn’t give that strong protection over acrylic paint and it doesn’t make it look shinier.

With spray it is also less even surface as liquid varnishes, especially mineral spirits are self-levelling like epoxy so they do create an extra smooth hard clear top coat, and sprays don’t.

As my temporary quick solution and also for works on paper I use Winsor & Newton spray varnish (not fixative, varnish) as it is light and dries super quick.


How to remove varnish from an acrylic painting

To protect your painting and remove eventual dust and yellowing you will need to remove the varnish and reapply it.

You will absolutely need an isolation coat for this and if you skipped it before, varnish removal can significantly damage the paint.

Step-by-step varnish removal:

  1. Get ammonia. It is the most common varnish removal but double-check your varnish brand instructions. Mineral spirit varnishes can be removed with Turpentine (yes, the one for oil paintings)
  2. Work in a dust-free, well-aired area.
  3. Wear latex gloves, a dual filter respirator, and splash goggles.
  4. Place your painting horizontally.
  5. Get a lint-free, soft, white cloth and saturate it with ammonia.
  6. Test the solvent on a small area of the painting.
  7. Put the cloth over the entire area of the painting. Cover the area with a plastic sheet to reduce evaporation. Leave it for 2-5 min.
  8. Rub the cloth gently until the varnish starts to dissolve.
  9. Repeat until the entire area is cleaned. Check from angles and do not forget the edges!
  10. Let the painting dry overnight.
  11. Apply the new varnish.
If you see any paint color on the cloth, stop right away and allow the surface to dry!

5 Best varnishes for acrylic painting

My personal choice is Liquitex and Winsor & Newton but Golden mediums and varnishes are historically popular among the best artists of our time.

Also Golden has a mineral spirit varnish option that can actually work on acrylic paint with proper isolation coat.

Liquitex, Golden and Winsor & Newton are best varnishes for acrylic painting.

BrandNotePrice
Golden Polymer VarnishRemovable 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 varnishMineral Spirit Acrylic Varnish with UltraViolet Light Stabilizers
Removable
Thicker viscosity than traditional varnishes
Remove with spirits
4 oz – 128 oz
$14.69 – $111.65
Liquitex VarnishUV protection, durable
NOT removable
Matte, Satin, Gloss, High Gloss
* I got some testimonials about cracks and uneven coverage using Liquitex.
$6.92 – $90.88
Liquitex SoluvarRemovable solvent-based varnish for both oil and acrylic paintings
Requires you to let your painting dry for up to 2 weeks before varnishing.
Must have isolation coat before applying it.
1-2 coats are enough
around $20 to $50
Grumbacher spray varnishCrystal-clear when applied
Dries quickly
Has gloss finish
Non-yellowing
Removable with paint thinner or a mild solvent
11 oz
$11.42
Winsor & Newton Varnish sprayI’m using this for some paintings on paper and pouring.
Dries super fast, and glossy. Very convenient to use
Do not alter the colors. Amazing value for money but doesn’t create a hard film.
$9.80

Another craft cheap option is Mod Podge. It is not a pro choice and as far as I know it is not removable but it works on pretty much any surface.

It based on glue so that’s why it is super cheap. As you can see it is also white while wet but dries to a satin finish (I would say it has very low sheen).

I used it on rocks, wood and denim and it worked. But I wouldn’t use it for painting.

how to seal acrylic paint on denim

What type of varnish to choose?

Varnishes vary based on:

  1. removal option: removable and permanent. Do not ever use permanent.
  2. finish: gloss, satin, matte, semi-gloss. The choise is responsible for shiny finish or dull.
  3. composition: water-based or solvent-based.

Brr…what to choose? I choose removable gloss or satin polymer varnish – Golden Polymer Varnish. To make your own choice, feel free to dig in:

Varnish can be removable and non-removable (permanent)

Basically, you need to remove and repeat varnishing every 50 years, because varnish collects all dust and dirt and can become yellow over time.

If you’ve chosen permanent varnish you won’t be able to remove it and save your painting for longer years. If you will still try to remove permanent varnish, you can damage your painting.

Varnish can have matte, satin, gloss, or high gloss finishes:

  • Glossy varnish slightly enhances the colors vivacity and isrecommended for dark paintings (the colors will automatically pop from the canvas surface but not in a weird way)
  • Satin varnish looks somehow semi-gloss, it is actually the most selling and used type of varnish finishes.
  • Matte varnish may make darker colors lighter.

You can choose any based on your preferences or mix them to achieve the desired effect.

If you try to apply a satin or matte varnish to a black painting, the black color will look duller. To create real dark black, use a glossy finish.

The choice of matte/gloss varnish can also rely on the lights and environment where the painting will be placed.

Remember that a glossy finish is light reflective so it can cause a glare, while a matte finish is non-reflective.

Varnish can be water or solvent-based

  • The water-based varnish is an acrylic polymer. It is the best choice for beginners (and for most pros too). It protects the painting, doesn’t have a strong smell, and dries quickly. It is the best option for acrylic paintings.

The water-based varnish can be less convenient for big canvases as it dries quickly. It’s worth saying that it is a bit milky while applying but dries clear, don’t worry!

The recommended polymer varnish is Golden Polymer Varnish. They need to be thinned at 3:1 (varnish to distilled water) before applying.

  • The solvent-based varnish or Mineral Spirit Acrylic (MSA) varnish dries harder than water-based varnish.

MSA varnishes are clear when wet, and have self-leveling qualities, it means you don’t have to worry about brush strokes. They are a little bit clear when dried than water-based.

Solvent-based varnish needs to be thinned before using with full-strength spirits. It smells pretty strong and is not easy to clean after.


homemade varnish for acrylic paintings

It is not recommended but you can make a DIY, homemade varnish for acrylics with glue and water.

Most homemade recipes online work only for wood or oil-based paints.

There are a few options though:

  • glue based (closer to what Mod Podge is): mix thouroughly 1/3 water with 2/3 white glue (PVA/Elmers)
  • making natural varnish – but the recipe and production is very complex. Yet, there is this 100% eco-friendly and natural varnish for sale.
  • if you have any clear resins – It can also be a homemade varnish.

Some recipes call for glue mixed with glycerin for acrylic varnish but I would not do that.

Glycerin is oily and it will sit on top of the painting and won’t dry.


How to varnish acrylic paintings FAQ

Can you put a varnish over an acrylic painting?

When your acrylic painting is done and completely dry you can varnish it to protect the paint layer from humidity, moisture, sunlight, dust and make it look shiny and smooth.

You can put water-based polymer varnish (acrylic varnishes) over acrylic paints and it won’t ruin them.

Yet, it is best to apply an isolation coat and let it dry before you apply varnish.

Wrong varnish however, like hard solvent-based varnishes for oil painting are not good for acrylics.

How long do you wait to varnish an acrylic painting?

You should wait 24 hours for your acrylic painting to fully dry before varnishing acrylic paintings.

How do you varnish acrylic paint at home?

Acrylic polymer varnishes are best to use at home, as they are easy to clean and to brush over acrylic painting. If your finished painting is dry, you can add a thin coat of the varnish layer, let it dry for 5 hours and then add second coat. Usually 2 or 3 coats of varnish is enough for even shiny look.

What varnish can I use on acrylic paint?

For acrylic paint you can use removable, water-based polymer varnishes applied in 2-3 thin layers.

Liquitex and Golden are the most popular brands for varnishes, while Winsor & Newton has some spray varnishes that are easy to apply but do not offer as hard protection as other brands.

Varnish ruined my painting, what can I do?

If you used removable varnish over an isolation coat you can safely remove the bad varnish from your painting.

If you did not use an isolation coat or the varnish seems to be non-removable there is little we can do.

If you have white wet varnish – it is ok, it will dry to clear finish.

If you have foggy dry varnish,  splotches, blotchy varnish, colors lifting, foaming or peeling, the application and the varnish was not right for your painting, but you can try to use varnish remover, turpentive for solvent-based varnishes or ammonia for water-based varnishes.

How to fix cloudy varnish on acrylic painting?

If you have a small cloudy area of varnish you can try olive oil or the cloudy area is rather large, I would suggest removing the varnish and reapply it.

Some crafters removed cloudy varnish spots from furniture with lemon oil or petroleum jelly but I’ve never tried that on painting.

You can also try to lightly sand the area and reapply the varnish on it.

Note that cloudy finish often happens with matte varnish.

Can I use oil based varnish over acrylic paint?

It is not recommended to use oil-based varnish over acrylic paint. Oil-based varnish can yellow, crack and peel over time, which can affect the appearance of the acrylic paint.
Any oil-based mediums can not properly dry and stay sticky on acrylic painting surface.


Conclusion

While varnishing acrylic paintings surface can help use protect the paint from UV rays, moisture, dust, smooth uneven surfaces, and gives our oil and acrylic paintings a nice sheen, varnishing is a skill that requires some time and patience to master.

As I emphasized applying an isolation coat should be on your list as well before applying varnish.

Varnished painting looks very nice and even though some artists from the past didn’t seal their paintings, I really love how paint colors pop once you add even the first coat of varnish.