by Ellie Jakeman June 28, 2021 17 min read
There are many considerations you need to make before embarking on your creative journey, such as subject matter, techniques, personal style, scale, what substrate we use to paint onto, your audience or client and where the painting will be exhibited to name just a few. There are also many stages during that creative journey that the painting goes through before we are satisfied that our artistic voice has been realised. Being in the creative zone takes time, energy, prior knowledge and the right preparation does go a long way to achieving the results we want. The first few paragraphs will highlight a common mistake some may make whilst working with acrylic paint, namely, using too much water - we look at why this is a problem, outline the options you have, and what processes are needed before the very last stage of your work can be approached which is 'varnishing'.
Acrylic paint is a hard wearing and quick drying water-based painting medium with endless possibilities in terms of application. Water based means that water is a very small part of the ingredient which makes an emulsion, together with an acrylic polymer binder and pigment particles.
This small amount of water in the paint mixture is crucial and aids the drying process; when it evaporates, it pulls the pigment particles and binder together forming a close bond and a thin film on the surface first. The milled pigment particles are basically suspended in the paint emulsion until it is applied onto the substrate and until it dries. The pigment does not dissolve, it becomes trapped in the binder on whatever surface you paint onto. Acrylic paint will dry to a resilient finish and have a strong adhesion to the substrate if it has not been under-bound by over diluting.
Acrylic paint is also water-soluble, meaning it can be diluted with a very small amount of water as a solvent to extend the paint. However, the emphasis is on a small amount of water to dilute, you should never use more than 20% to 25% water to acrylic paint ratio, if diluted too much this will result in under-binding and change the integrity of the paint when dry. The acrylic polymer binder and pigment particles become too far apart whilst drying and they can not form a strong bond, this could result in your acrylic painting peeling or flaking. To prevent this, instead of using water alone, use an acrylic polymer wetting solution to dilute or thin the pigment to your desired consistency. Winsor & Newton make a professional acrylic medium flow improver that increases flow and maintains stability, once dry the paint becomes permanent and water-insoluble. There are many options regarding changing the viscosity of the acrylic paint depending on your own personal style of work.
Acrylic paint is also produced in varying viscosities, such as heavy body, soft body, and fluid acrylic for pouring (acrylic inks and acrylic paint markers are also available).
Depending on the application used, for example thick or thin impasto or flat levelling acrylic pours, acrylic paintings must be completely dry on the surface and be fully cured underneath before varnishing. This will prevent the colour lifting or any inadvertent flattening of surface peaks if you have created a more three dimensional surface.
When drying, acrylic paint forms a thin slightly flexible skin or film, it appears to be dry on top very quickly. In reality, the paint underneath will take much longer to cure, days, weeks or even months, especially when the paint has been thickly applied or has been mixed with acrylic mediums which extend the drying time; An example of acrylic mediums would be molding paste, Golden soft gel medium, textured mediums, Winsor & Newton Professional Acrylic Slow Drying Medium, Glazing mediums etc...
It also makes a difference where the acrylic painting is placed whilst drying. For best results, aim to put your painting in a dust and humid free environment, this will aid the drying time.
Once dry, the painting will appear waterproof and impenetrable. However, it is actually only water-resistant, not fully waterproof and will remain slightly porous without a varnish layer being applied. If you had a microscope, you would see that the surface of the painting has tiny pin holes and crevices, where, in some cases the bond between the pigment and acrylic polymer emulsion has not created a solid bond or a solid film. This actually means the surface of the painting could be potentially receptive and hold onto dust, dirt, airborne chemicals, and moisture which are harmful.
A varnished acrylic painting will have greater longevity, as varnishing will protect the surface from permanent damage from a number of airborne pollutants including dust, smoke and steam. It also protects from UV rays, (which could fade fugitive pigments), extremes of temperature, humidity, from being damaged/scratched during transportation, or from oils after being handled.
Varnishing also provides either a satin, matte, or gloss sheen to the surface of your artwork, unifying the surface and enhancing the colours. Sometimes paintings only finally come together when varnished, especially when some areas of the painting have dried matte and some areas have dried glossy. This happens when water dilution has not been consistent or when different glazing mediums have been used.
Whilst there are many varnishes out there on the market (and it can become very confusing), when buying varnish for acrylic paintings, your first priority would be to decide on what finish would best compliment your work; matte, satin or gloss varnish?
Creating some test examples of acrylic varnish finishes would be beneficial before committing to your beloved acrylic painting. Investigating which varnish finish is most suitable would also help you to rehearse the application process whilst deciding on the final surface aesthetic.
Aim to create a striped image with the same paints and palette you have used on your painting. Create the stripes wide enough so when you apply the varnishes over all the colours you will clearly see their distinctive finishes and you can identify any colour shifts or variations in colour saturation.
Monitor how long your painted samples take to dry completely, then add an isolation coat (only if you are going to use a removable varnish). Again monitor how long this takes to dry, then go about investigating the different varnishes. This sample will act as your go-to aid for all future paintings.
A Matte finish is non reflective as it suggests, gloss can be very reflective under interior or natural light and satin provides a soft sheen; also consider that colours can change dramatically after the varnish has been applied, some will darken whilst others will become more vibrant.
Before varnishing your painting and if you are using a removable varnish, it is advisable to apply an isolation coat first. The isolation coat has a glossy and transparent finish and will provide a level base on which to varnish onto. This permanent protective barrier seals all of the porous surface and will protect your painting if you ever need to remove or replace the layers of varnish above it. Varnish removal will involve using a solvent, which could damage the actual painting below if you do not create a permanent protective barrier. Using a gloss isolation coat, especially before applying a matte or satin varnish, will prevent a cloudy appearance from occurring in the varnish layer.
Because this barrier is a permanent layer on your acrylic painting, it is advised that you create a series of investigations to ensure your isolation coat application is compatible with your aspirations. Whichever isolation product you use, ensure you read the instructions carefully, different brands will have different instructions. Some may need diluting and some can be used straight out of the bottle.
When using Golden Soft Gel Gloss as an isolation coat, use 2 parts Soft Gel Gloss 1 part water. Wheras, Golden's Isolation Coat medium, for example does not need diluting.
Most isolation coat brands can be used on canvas, wooden panel or paper.
Another consideration before you purchase will be whether or not you want to use a solvent-based MSA (mineral spirit acrylic) varnish or a water-based polymer one. Both contain UV filters and will protect your painting, however, the MSA varnish can be used for both oil paintings and acrylic paintings, it is clear on application and will dry to a harder finish; Liquitex makes a varnish called Soluvar which is archival and removable for acrylic and oil paintings. Golden also make an MSA varnish in Matte, Satin and Gloss. If you choose to use an MSA varnish you will need to use a mineral spirit solvent for removal. When using solvent based varnishes you will need to wear a NIOSH approved respirator for protection as the fumes are toxic; your brushes will also need to be cleaned with a mineral spirit solvent. Solvent resistant gloves and protective clothing are also recommended.
A water-based varnish however is a non-toxic option and brushes can be cleaned with just soap and water; no harmful fumes and safer for the environment. Both Golden, Winsor & Newton, Daler Rowney and Liquitex make acrylic polymer water-based varnish in either a liquid or gel consistency. Some of these varnishes can appear white or semi-translucent on application. They do dry clear and transparent but the matte varnishes can lighten dark areas of the painting due to the matting agent.
Acrylic polymer varnish can also be removed with low odour solvent or turpentine.
A removable varnish will allow you to clean your painting and re-apply the varnish in the future. At this point if you wish, you may change the paintings surface appearance say from a matte varnish to a gloss or satin finish (once the original varnish has been completely removed). You must apply an isolation coat if you are going to remove your varnish so the underlying paint layer isn't damaged. The removable varnishes are just as protective as the permanent ones.
A permanent varnish does not require an isolation coat as it cannot be removed but should provide an archival level of protection. Removable and permanent varnishes come in both aerosol and liquid.
Acid-free, quick drying, clear varnish made of acrylic base. No yellowing or de-saturation. For interior and exterior use. Can be used for art, hobby, crafts and DIY. Available in gloss, semi-gloss, matte finish. Gloss level shown on donut (see top of can). Protects and fixes paint on surfaces like canvas, paper, charcoal drawing, bast fibre, wood, photos, etc. Protects against oxidation. During application, protect the object and the surrounding area from spray. Surfaces should be dry, clean of dust, oils and rust before applying the varnish.
Shake can well for 2-3 minutes upside down to take advantage of gravity. Remove the safety ring by removing the nozzle and turning the can upside down allowing it to fall out. Then re-apply the nozzle. Apply varnish in several thin layers, spraying before the previous coat is fully dry but with 2 minutes between each pass. Further coats might require a drying time of 24 hours or more depending on substrate. For optimal lifespan, always store cans with the nozzle on. NOT COMPATIBLE WITH SYNTHETIC BASE LACQUERS. Always test spray on a non-visible area to check compatibility of lacquer or paint.
All Winsor & Newton varnishes can be used on oil, alkyd, water mixable oil or acrylic paintings. Professional Acrylic Gloss, Matt or Satin Varnishes: These varnishes are uniquely formulated to be removable and contain UV resistance. The Satin Varnish gives a mid-sheen finish, in between the Matt and Gloss Varnish finishes. The Galeria Acrylic range also has its own collection of gloss, matt and satin varnishes.
The acrylic colours have great qualities of resistance to aging, the varnishing makes it possible to further improve these qualities, to unify the differences in brightness of the painting and to increase the depth of the colours. When the colour is applied in great thickness, wait 1 to 2 weeks before varnishing the work. Non-yellowing and remarkably transparent. Filling, it gives after application a perfectly stretched, flexible and indelible film, as well as a very uniform shine. Can be diluted with water. Solvent-based acrylic varnishes have the particularity of guaranteeing the possibility of restoration of the work. They are available in: - glossy: perfectly transparent, matt: rather opalescent, and satin.
Non-yellowing, particularly transparent. Perfectly stretched, flexible and indelible thermoplastic film allowing the restoration of the work. Very uniform glossy finish. Suitable for: Adult, Student, Beginner amateur, Confirmed amateur.
Ghiant H2O Water Based Varnishes give the same results as traditional aerosol-spray varnishes, but have 90% fewer solvents and 35% fewer VOCs than normal aerosol sprays. Ghiant H2O Varnishes are UV-resistant, acid-free, and will not yellow or discolour. Suitable for the protection of oil and acrylic paintings.
Frisk Varnish Aerosol
Frisk Varnish is a water-based varnish with 90% less solvents that will protect acrylic and oil paintings from dust and moister with a non yellowing protective coating and is UV resistant. Finely dispersed, will not soak through or wrinkle light materials. Perfect for all art and craft projects.
Environmentally friendly, CFC free, ideal for use in the studio, office or home.
Loxley Picture Aerosol Varnish Removable
This varnish protects your art from airborne pollutants, UV damage and fading. It dries to an even finish. It can be removed with Artists' Acrylic Varnish Remover. Choose from, Gloss, Matt or Satin. It can be applies by soft bristle brush or airbrush with some dilution. Apply in thin layers, allowing each to dry completely in between to avoid frosting.
Water-based varnishes can be cleaned up while wet using soap and water and removed from brushes or paintings when dry with Galeria Varnish Remover.
GOLDEN Polymer Varnish with UVLS (Ultra Violet Light Stabilisers) is a water-based acrylic polymer varnish formulated to provide additional protection from ultraviolet radiation. This helps delay the inevitable fading that occurs in materials that may be fugitive in nature.
Polymer Varnish is designed as a topcoat for acrylic paints and offers a removable protective surface to the relatively soft acrylic paint layer. It has a harder film than most acrylic paints, which diminishes the susceptibility of the surface to dust and dirt, and provides increased protection from scratching, marring and moisture. It has adequate flexibility to withstand normal handling conditions, including loose rolling. Do not use for oil paintings. For interior use only. The product is not recommended for use on furniture or other surfaces subject to physical contact during use.
Polymer Varnish remains soluble in alkaline solvents, such as ammonia. This means the varnish can be easily removed; taking with it any accumulated surface contamination without damaging the painting surface. The use of such a removable varnish provides a valuable tool to anyone trying to restore or clean a painting.
Polymer Varnish (Gloss) dries to a highly reflective finish. Polymer Varnish (Satin) offers moderate reflection, similar to most matte varnishes. The Matte is exceptionally flat. The different finishes can be intermixed, or used sequentially, to achieve the desired sheen. Note: Polymer Varnish (Satin) and (Matte) will lighten dark value colours, which is typical of non-gloss varnishes.
Liquitex Soluvar Matt Varnish lowers intensity and depth of colour, while reducing the surface glare when applied as a final varnish over dry acrylic or oil paint. It is a permanent, removable, final varnish for acrylic and oil paintings that protects the painting surface and allows for removal of surface dirt, without damaging the painting underneath.
Once the painting surface is clean, a new coat of Soluvar Matt Varnish may be reapplied to surface. It is self-levelling varnish so will not hold brush strokes.
Soluvar Matt Varnish dries extremely clear and is a durable archival quality varnish that is non-yellowing. This varnish dries to a non-tacky, hard, flexible surface with a water resistant finish.
Remove and thin with up to 25% of mineral spirits or turpentine. Do not use Odourless Mineral Spirits.
This product is suitable for interior and exterior use. Also available in Soluvar Gloss Varnish which may be intermixed for a variety of sheens.
Liquitex archival 100% acrylic polymer varnish are non-removable, adds a satin sheen, protects and resists dirt retention. Dries clear to a flexible, non-tacky, hard surface. Increases brightness and colour saturation. Adjusts and unifies surface sheen. Improves surface durability - ideal when shipping or exhibiting. Protects colours from UV light damage. Resists discoloration - yellowing and fogging - caused by humidity, heat and UV. Depending on the substrate it allows surface moisture to pass through and breathe. Allows for easy cleaning without fear of damaging the acrylic paint film. Has excellent levelling properties - will not hold brush marks. Semi-opaque when wet, transparent when dry. Use on flexible or rigid supports. Designed for interior and exterior use.
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. 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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