Q = Can you varnish a watercolour painting?

Q = Can you varnish a watercolour painting?

A = Yes. But only for the brave and not the faint-hearted!

The purists would answer that watercolour paintings should be behind museum quality, anti-reflective, conservation UV filtered glass, and confined within a frame. And most watercolour paintings are, as this used to be the only option for exhibiting your watercolour artwork. However there are many more presentation options for watercolour artists to consider once their work has a protective varnished final layer. 

Varnishing a watercolour is becoming much more fashionable and popular today as options for substrates also become more varied and available, you are not limited by the shape or the scale of your support any more. Even canvas or gessoed wood panels prepared with a coat of Golden Absorbent Ground are now options for watercolourists. Removing the glass and releasing the painting from the confines of the frame also provides a more intimate and connected viewing experience between your painting and its audience. Mixed media artists and illustrators can also benefit by fixing their work to the paper with varnish whilst creating an interesting finish.

Varnishing your final work can be a simple One step procedure using permanent varnish aerosols in your preferred surface finish or a longer Three step process (1.Fixative layer, 2.Isolation layer and 3.Varnish layer). You just need to decide if you want a permanent varnish layer in either Matte, Satin or Gloss; or if you want the option of removing your varnish at a later date? 

The reason for removing the varnish would be to enable cleaning and replacement, with either the same varnish or to change the surface sheen. If you know your artwork will be in a public area with many airborne pollutants, chemicals, smoke, bugs, UV radiation or moisture, then being able to remove and refresh your varnish would make more sense. Domestic paintings are less likely to need a removable  varnish as the environment is less harsh in terms of airborne pollutants.

Something to consider before varnishing your watercolour.

There are some considerations to be mindful of if you are thinking about varnishing for the first time! Investigating and testing various finishes before you commit to your artwork is essential and would be a good rehearsal of the process before applying varnish to your final artwork.

  • Varnishing can permanently change the aesthetic of your artwork, surface sheen, value, colour and texture. However if done correctly this change can be minimal.
  • If you have applied too many layers this may compromise the surface texture of your paper. Rough, cold press watercolour paper could lose its texture. Always apply varnish thinly.
  • Watercolours do tend to dry lighter in value, applying a layer of varnish may deepen the dark hues and could create a more vibrant and saturated look. You can apply as many or as little varnish layers as you wish, depending on your preferred finish, satin, matte or gloss. It is all a matter of taste! But remember each layer may alter the finish.
  • If you are submitting your varnished watercolor painting into a competition, you should check the competition rules first, as some organisations may class your work as a mixed media piece rather than a watercolour! Also some galleries may not accept a watercolour piece which is not behind glass.
  • Once varnished your artwork should be protected from airborne pollutants, moisture and fading from exposure to Ultraviolet rays, and your painting will have greater longevity.
  • Any documentary photography or reproduction Art prints images of your watercolour should be undertaken before varnishing. Varnishing can create a glare.

Step One of Three or One Step method

Fixing layer.

Watercolour pigment is water soluble, watercolour paintings are fragile and can easily be damaged, watercolour paper depending on the brand can be very absorbent or  semi absorbent enabling watercolour pigment to penetrate into the fibres. The first step is to seal or fix your painting with an aerosol fixative or an aerosol varnish to provide a waterproof protective layer. This first layer will seal and adhere the pigments deeper into the paper. 

Step 1 Varnishing Watercolour Paintings

Using a brush with a water-soluble liquid varnish would re-activate the pigment and ruin your artwork. Using an archival spray such as Golden Archival Gloss Varnish Spray , Golden MSA Varnish or fixatives such as Loxley Spray Fixative , SpectraFix Degas Pastel Fixative , or Pebeo Gouache satin Varnish as a barrier will not disturb your painting. Give your painting at least three to four coats of evenly sprayed gloss varnish or fixative medium, best advice would be to stick to the recommended guidelines as per Brand instructions, this will ensure full coverage. 

Don't be tempted to over spray as even this first barrier layer will alter the sheen of your painting. If you can get a Gloss spray as your fixative layer all the better! Gloss proves the most successful as the first coat as it maintains the clarity of the colours and because Matte and Satin sprays have matting agents, this can sometimes subdue or lighten the colours or leave a clouded effect. 

Keep rotating your artwork with every layer you spray. Aim to keep an even coverage, moving consistently and not too close. Let your artwork dry between layers.

For the One Step method, once this first gloss or fixative layer has been applied and left to dry completely, read recommended time for this, some brands may differ, subsequent varnish layers can be added in your choice of finishes.

Remember this One step method is for a permanent Varnish only, this cannot be removed without potentially damaging your watercolour painting underneath. When using a varnish such as Golden MSA Varnish or Golden Archival Varnish , there is no need to fix your work first as these products will fix and varnish and will function as a tough yet flexible film over your artwork providing protection and longevity.  

Always test spray on a sample piece first, never go straight onto your artwork. This test piece will take several days to do, and rehearsing the process will make the actual varnishing less stressful. Once you have learnt and documented your own preferred process and decided on an appropriate surface finish for your art work it will be worth it! Your sample test piece should include the same colour palette you will be using on your final painting and you should test these pigments on the same substrate, this will allow you to identify any colour shifts and surface change. 

Step two of three - Isolation coat 

For the Three step method where you would like to remove the varnish at a later date, you would wait until the first barrier coat has dried, then apply an isolation coat. 

Watercolour Varnish step 2

An isolation coat is a permanent coating that goes over the painting and under the varnish. This isolation coat layer can be applied with a brush as your watercolour should be protected and fixed by the previous process. Golden Soft Gel Gloss medium or Golden Isolation coat is perfect for this application. If you are using a brushable isolation coat, slowly and thoroughly mix 2 parts Golden Soft Gel Gloss with 1 part water. Do not attempt to mix vigorously as this will cause air bubbles which could be brushed onto the painting. Wait for the mixture to settle (about an hour) before using. Brush over fixed watercolour using a soft broad brush that holds a lot of medium. 1 - 2 coats should be sufficient. Golden's Isolation coat does not need to be diluted.

Rather than a brushable isolation coat you could use a sprayable isolation coat (for use with an airbrush or other spray equipment) mix 2 parts Golden GAC 500 to 1 part Golden Airbrush Transparent Extender. 1-2 coats should be sufficient.

How to apply an isolation coat to watercolour paintings step by step, brush technique.
  • Your painting must be completely dry before application of an isolation coat. (no less than 24 hours)
  • Create a dust free and clean space in your studio.
  • Dust your painting with a clean soft brush or lint-free cloth, to dislodge any dust particles.
  • Have all your equipment at hand, clean and ready to use.
  • Check your soft synthetic brushes are clean and pigment free. It is easier to keep a dedicated isolation brush specifically for this process.
  • Choose a soft, wide, flat brush to ensure a flat finish without any brush marks.
  • Work flat on a stable table surface when applying an isolation coat with a brush.
  • If you are painting the sides of a canvas or panel, you will need to elevate your work on blocks so you don't touch the working table, this will prevent picking up any debris with your brush that may be then transferred onto your work and prevent your work sticking to the table.
  • Before applying your isolation coat, rehearse your brush strokes! Yes this sounds strange, but this will help you in the long run as you need to work quickly.
  • Before applying your isolation coat give it a gentle stir. Do not create any bubbles. Check manufacturers instructions, some isolation coats need to be diluted.
  • Decant your isolation coat into a flat shallow dish for easy access, one that fits your brush width.
  • Dip your brush into the fluid but avoid overloading it, remove excess fluid from your brush on the sides of your dish.
  • Apply the isolation coat with consistent long brush strokes, working from one side to the other, don't stop and start half way across your painting, and don't reapply the isolation coat to any areas you may have missed, work relatively quickly. Try not to create any air bubbles.
  • Two or three thin layers will work better than one very thick coat.
  • If possible shield the work from dust and flying bugs with a tent like screen, then do not move until dry.
  • Let each layer dry fully, at least 24 hours, before applying the next.

 

Step Three of Three - Varnish

This final step is where you consider what aesthetic finish you would like, Gloss, Matte or Satin. This is a very personal consideration for the final stage of your work. It may take a day or 2 for the isolation coat to dry before applying your top varnish. The application of your final varnish can be brushed on or sprayed as long as you have chosen a varnish that is removable. Spraying is the easiest option for this last process. However brush on varnishes can also be applied.

Watercolour varnish - step 3

GOLDEN MSA Varnish, GOLDEN Archival Varnish or GOLDEN Polymer Varnish may be applied over the isolation coat. If brushing 2-3 coats are recommended and 4-6 coats if spray applied. 

Please test all of these materials and applications to a test piece prior to final application to minimize issues and familiarize yourself with the materials. 

Further reading from the Golden website:

Product information sheets:

 

Artist website:

Watercolour boards suitable for watercolour and varnishing;

Varnishing your watercolour artwork does require a rigid substrate so if you have used a watercolour paper this can be mounted on a cradled wooden panel such as ARTdiscount Artists Wooden Panel. Or you can choose a watercolour art board which is already a rigid substrate like Daler Rowney Aquafine Watercolour Artboard , Langton Prestige Watercolour Board or the new Frisk Watercolour Artboards .  Wood panels do not require framing as they can go straight onto the wall!

Langton Prestige Watercolour Board 30"x22" (76x56cms)- Packs of 5

Langton Prestige is a superior-quality watercolour paper manufactured using 100% cotton, the highest quality material for papermaking. Made traditionally on a cylinder mould machine, the paper features a natural whiteness with a soft touch and distinctive texture.

  •  100% cotton, with a soft touch
  •  Traditionally made on a cylinder mould machine
  • Acid-free, with an alkali reserve to preserve finished pieces of work and protect  against discolouration
  •  Gelatinised surface for strength and resilience
  •  Natural white finish

Daler Rowney Aquafine Watercolour Artboard pads -10 sheets

Aquafina watercolour boards are durable boards laminated with Aquafine watercolour paper, perfect for watercolour, gouache or ink and ideal for watercolorists both in the studio and on the move. Suitable for masking fluid as well. Robust with a lightly textured cold pressed surface suitable for detailed work and expressive free form painting. 

  • Acid Free
  • 10 Sheets
  • A4 or A3
  • 1.4mm board
  • Cold Pressed

Reeves Water Colour Painting Boards - Packs of 5

Reeves Water Colour Painting Board is an excellent surface for use with watercolours. The paper has been pre-stretched onto board making it suitable for working with wet on wet watercolour techniques without cockling (paper creasing).

Suitable for use with Watercolours and Gouache.

Langton Watercolour Boards NOT surface Packs of 6

Mould made Langton watercolour paper on board. Artists for many years have appreciated the qualities of The Langton. The paper is colour stable, mould made and acid free. The best watercolour papers are acid free to prevent the deterioration of paint and to preserve the integrity of the paper over time.

Available in sizes: 12" x10", 14"x10" and 16"x12"

NEW Frisk Watercolour Artboards ¼ imperial Pack of 4

This Watercolour Artboard is 2000micron, acid free, containing a 300gsm NOT Watercolour paper surface, available in Quarter Imperial (28 x 38 cm / 11" x 15"). Representing fantastic value for money, you'll be impressed with the quality of our new product!

Pack of 4 Artboards

Cradled wood panels suitable for mounting watercolour paper onto;

ARTdiscount Artists Wooden Panels - Multi Packs

ARTdiscount Cradled Wooden Panels are made of a smooth, sanded Paulownia wood, reinforced to prevent warping. Sturdy and lightweight, they are perfect for both painting outdoors or in the studio. We recommend sealing with two coats of an acrylic sealer and then a coat of a gesso. Please see our recent article, 'How to seal and gesso a wooden panel' for more information on this subject.

ARTdiscount Wooden Artists panels are manufactured by a leading producer of Artists supplies with worldwide distribution. The manufacturer is FSC accredited and the timber used in the construction of these panels is sourced from sustainable forests.

  • Painting boards ideal for oil and acrylics.
  • Rigid substrate suitable for mounting work onto.
  • Smooth Surface 
  • Dimensionally stable 
  • Can hang without a frame 
  • Made from Pine & Plywood 
  • 23mm / approx. 7/8" deep
  • Perfect for screen printing or digital flatbed printing

Seawhite Unprimed Cradled Panels - Packs of 3

Cradled Wood Painting Panels

These 18-20mm deep frames are the perfect painting surface, extra-smooth birch wood allows paint to sit in place and stay vibrant. Seawhite panels are becoming the popular alternative to canvas, have you given them a try yet?

Available in sizes; A5, A4, A3, A2, A1, 15x15cm, 30x30cm, 50x50 cm.

Global Artists' Wood Painting Panel (Natural Wood)

New! Wood painting panels for most techniques in a natural wood finish. Made to specifications by well known Italian producer Belle Arti. 38mm (1.5") Deep

Applying your watercolour painting to a cradled wood panel.

You will need, large cutting mat, soft brush, clean brayer, spatula to decant the Golden Soft Gel medium, flat tray to accommodate your brush and a wood panel. A flat sharp scalpel which will lay flat to the side of the cradle to trim the excess paper away from the panel, no angled blades as you may cut into your painting too much. Clean surface and kitchen towel to clean away any leaked adhesive.     

If you created your watercolour painting on watercolour paper, you will need to adhere it to a stronger support like a board or a cradled wood panel before applying your fixative spray/gloss varnish spray,  isolation  coat and then varnishing.

Firstly you will need to find a cradled board the same size as or slightly smaller than your painting. 

Using Golden Soft Gel medium as an archival adhesive will serve in several ways, one layer applied to the surface of the wood panel will seal the wood, eliminating any impurities in the wood from damaging the painting and provide a key for the painting. A coat of Soft Gel medium applied to the back of the painting will also provide a key. Take care not to get any of the gel onto the front of your painting or the sides of the wood panel. Leave to dry.

Once both surfaces are dry, the wood panel and the back of your painting you can apply the third layer of Soft Gel medium to the panel surface and apply your painting on top. Take care whilst placing your painting onto the panel. Press out any air bubbles or air pockets trapped underneath the painting, working from the middle of your painting out to the edges. At this point take care not to press too much of the adhesive out, if there are small leaks onto the sides of the panel, wipe them off immediately with a clean cloth. These three layers of adhesive should then create a strong bond between the wooden panel and the painting. To make sure your painting stays clean you can place a clean sheet of tracing paper or similar on top then place a clean board as a weight on top of this so your  painting will dry flat and uniform. When the painting has adhered to the panel you can trim the sides of your painting carefully. This may take 24hrs or more.

Once dried and trimmed, your mounted watercolour painting is now ready for the first stage of varnishing.

Fixatives;

A colourless, non-yellowing medium for protecting charcoal, pencil, pastel, crayon, chalk drawings & paintings. For charcoal, pastel, pencil etc. Loxley fixative is used both during and after the drawing process. Apply to the work in progress to 'fix' layers and prevent smudging; allow a minute to dry then continue with the drawing. The final coat will protect the finished picture from the elements and from smudging. For Watercolour & Acrylic: Loxley fixative gives finished paintings a protective, non-gloss barrier to slow down the aging process caused by UV rays and humidity.

Winsor & Newton Artists' Fixative is perfect protection for your charcoal, pencil, pastel and chalk drawings. Simply spray an even layer over your work to prevent it from smudging or dusting. Winsor & Newton Artists' Fixative dries quickly and is completely transparent.

GOLDEN Archival Aerosol MSA Varnish provides a finish layer for fine artworks, is removable for conservation purposes, and offers excellent dirt, dust and moisture resistance in a flexible film.

It is produced with clear, 100% acrylic solution polymer and contains UltraViolet Light filters and Stabilisers (UVLS) to provide archival protection, inhibiting light damage. The unique adjustable fan spray tip allows for precise application with reduced overspray. The varnish adheres to a wide variety of surfaces and paint mediums, including acrylics, oils, alkyds, watercolours, temperas, and ink-jet prints.

Ellie Jakeman
Ellie Jakeman

I have had a strong interest in the visual and creative arts since a very early age. I completed with great success ‘A’ level Fine Art, Textile and Embroidery City and Guilds, Foundation Diploma in Fine Art, (BA hons) Degree in Embroidery and Textiles from Manchester Metropolitan University and a PGCE from the University of Huddersfield. I have taught Art and Design, Fashion and Textiles, Textile design and Fine Art print and Illustration for over 20 years. I have also instigated and program managed many projects for the local community. Before teaching I was a freelance artist and illustrator and decided 4 years ago I would return to freelance and commissioned work. I have created many domestic and commercial murals for hospitals and hospices. I work part time for Artdiscount as a content creator and product tester.


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