Varnishing Made Simple

Today I wanted to share some simple varnishing techniques that can quickly and easily protect a painting. Nothing earth shattering here, but if you haven’t done a lot of varnishing of finished artwork before, or simply curious about other techniques, hopefully there are some tidbits for you in this post.


  • Varnish – I use Gamblin Gamvar Picture
  • Cosmetic Wedges
  • Rubber gloves
  • Paper towels

There are various types of varnish that can be used to get a good protective coat on a finished painting, but I like this particular varnish because it’s virtually odorless and very easy to use because it doesn’t become tacky too quickly. Instead of a wide soft brush to spread the varnish around the painting, I like to use cosmetic wedges instead because a) they don’t shed hairs like a brush does, b) they’re cheap, and c) it’s easier to spread varnish. 

I’m varnishing 2 pieces, one large canvas and one small panel. I’ll focus on the larger canvas piece, but I wanted to provide the smaller panel periodically to illustrate another surface. 

Varnishing Setup

This painting, Zip’s Flowers, was finished a couple months ago and has been stored on a drying rack, largely away from dusty conditions. Even in a nicely controlled drying condition such as this, I still take the time to wipe down the painting surface to get rid of the dust. What I find works best is first sweeping the surface with a wide clean brush, preferably one that hasn’t been used before, followed by a few wipes with a Swiffer dust cloth. The idea is to ensure that there isn’t a fine coating of dust anywhere on the painting, otherwise it’ll clump up when you apply the varnish.

To apply the varnish, lay the painting flat on a covered surface with some bright light overhead. Pour some varnish directly onto the painting. I like to pour a small puddle, about the size of quarter, in the middle of the painting, then slowly spread it around using one of the cosmetic wedges. Don’t overthink this part – just pour and spread. This allows me to see how the varnish will spread and the kind of coverage I can get with a small amount to start. It’s much easier to add more varnish than it is to try and gracefully remove excess; trust me, it’s not pretty. For every one of the DIY YouTube videos demonstrating varnishing techniques out there, I assure you there are 10 deleted videos of instructors slopped in varnish and/or furious at brush hairs drowning in tacky varnish.

Add more varnish as needed to get the entire painting surface covered, but remember it’s not about thickness, just coverage. The reason I suggested having a bright light overhead is to allow you to see the reflection of the surface and thereby quickly find spots that you missed.

First Coat Complete

Another advantage of using the cosmetic wedges over a brush is the complete mindlessness involved in spreading the varnish over the surface. Again, go back to any of the DIY YouTube videos and you’ll see how obsessed they are with brushing carefully so you a) don’t end up with too many brush hairs in the varnish, and b) getting a smooth surface. By contrast, the wedges are very soft and don’t even snag on impasto areas of the painting, so you can easily manipulate the varnish around the painting. Note that you might end up with some very tiny bubbles if you’re spreading quickly or pressing down too firmly, but they will go away in a few minutes and in my experience are never an issue.

After the varnish has been applied, I return the painting to its dust-friendly rack and let it dry. The varnish I’m using dries pretty fast, but I wait another week before applying a second coat. You can see in the gallery at the end of this post the results, but to set expectations remember this is not a high gloss finish, although you can use varnishes that give a more intense finish. Ultimately I’m looking for what I like to call fresh protection for the painting, meaning the varnish recharges the hues and vibrancy of the painting which also providing a protective layer that will allow your masterpiece to last a few hundred years.

The whole process takes about 15 minutes for the initial session and it’s very simple so there’s not a lot of trial and error involved.

Have a great week!

A Stuffed Kong and Its Dog

I recently saw a question on Quora asking “when does drawing end and painting begin?”, which was a timely inquiry given a new approach I’ve been taking with some recent paintings. It’s always a bit tricky and, frankly, pretty intimidating to take on a new type of composition. For me, that tends to be something that involves shapes and/or subject matter that’s new or unfamiliar. In one of my current projects, A Stuffed Kong and Its Dog, I came to realize that while the subject of a dog toy was not a new compositional challenge, the complexity of a dog chewing and pawing something was really friggin’ hard!

My normal process, and what’s been reinforced at workshops by artists far more experienced and talented than myself, is to do a study of the subject to help get a feel for the composition (see Dances With Squirrels blog post for more on studies). I prefer sketching as opposed to small paintings, largely because I like to sketch, it’s more expedient than painting, and it’s more flexible, i.e. erasing graphite is infinitely easier than wiping out paint. Lately, however, I’ve been refining this process whereby I still do an initial sketch before starting the painting, but as I work through the project and run into challenges, I go back to the sketch and either do another or simply refine the one I was working on earlier.

In hindsight it’s frankly a brilliant idea, of which I don’t have many, because the pause from the painting a) makes me breathe as I gather my thoughts to overcome the problem, and b) let’s me return to an existing sketch and figure out how to navigate a solution based on a similar composition. What I’ve found thus far is that I often find the same problem in the original sketch, kicking myself for not having seen the problem in the first place, but I can quickly figure out how to make changes and move forward.

In A Stuffed Kong and Its Dog, you can see the original sketch being reworked (I forgot to take a picture of the original state of the sketch) when I ran into 2 problems. First, there was something fundamentally wrong with the Kong dog toy shape, which became clear when I returned to the sketch and saw that the bottom planes of the humps were misaligned. Secondly, I thought the size of the Black Lab’s right paw was too big once I painted it, but when I returned to the sketch and redrew it, I found that the size was actually fine and the issue was the related to the size of the black fur shadow gaps between the toes. Clear as mud, right?

The final painting will need a few minor refinements, but I want to let it dry before I make those updates. I’ll update this post when it’s really done. The intrigue with this piece is to make the viewer wonder what in the world is in that stuffed dog toy Kong! It was very hard to translate the focus and excitement of the dog as it diligently worked to get to the yummy treats out of this toy. While the focal point is the Kong, the supporting cast is the nose and that huge right paw, which in combination should convey the canine treat obsession.

Lastly, I’m not pleased with the sketch or the painting. The sketch is not supposed to be a finished work, and is muddled with various experiments to see what was going to work, so I’m. not flustered it. However, the finished painting, while not intended to be a refined piece of exceptional artwork, is ultimately a composition that doesn’t work well. The angle of the nose looks wrong relative to the muzzle, but it’s actually accurate as most dogs are able to bend that nose around in weird ways. That said, it doesn’t convey well in the painting. The large paw also creates visual confusion and seems out of place even though it’s proportionally accurate.

This exercise has taught me that all compositions aren’t destined for a “real painting”, but that’s why we do studies and small pieces to see how it plays out. I’ve also learned that my dog portrait skills need a lot of work, something I knew already, but this work has highlighted the gap and is proving to be quite motivating to start sketching my dogs’ faces!


“Framecro” – Fast Framing on the Cheap!

Framing artwork used to be a dreaded task, but over the years I’ve come to really enjoy it. This is especially true as we start 2020 because I recently had 4 dog related pieces accepted to an Austin art show at Art for the People gallery called Celebrities – Pet & People Portraits. Future posts this week will provide more details about the show and the inspiration behind the pieces, but I wanted to share some creative custom framing ideas I used with 2 of the pieces in the show.
One of the troubling issues with framing is the commitment, secondarily the cost and complexity. The process of “properly” framing a painting often involves sealing it inside a frame in a way that makes getting it out an ordeal. When I hang finished art in my home, I can easily get bored of the frame after a year, or simply want to change the art that’s in the frame. To solve this problem, I came up with a Velcro based solution that works great with small pieces in floater frames, whereby you affix the piece with Velcro instead of glue or some other fixative, which allows you to swap out pieces in the same frame. This is handy for your personal art at home, gallery shows or events.
The steps to frame using Velcro, a process I’ve trademarked as “framecro“, are very simple, fast, and inexpensive. Let me know if you opt to framecro any of your paintings; improvements to the process are always welcome.
  1. Most Velcro types will work, but the Command line of snap-type from 3M is what I prefer. They market it as a picture hanging velcro because it snaps together very tightly, but you can still pull it apart easily.
  2. Cut 4 twin sets of velcro rectangles, which means you have 8 total rectangles of Velcro. These should be relatively small and easily fit into the 4 corners of the frame.
  3. Affix the velcro to the corners of the frame and the corners of the back of the artwork.
  4. Align the artwork and press it onto the frame.

You’re done! If you want to swap out a piece, just pop out the existing piece of art and press in a new one that has Velcro in it’s corners.

The $250 Eraser

I wanted to share an expensive lesson I learned today in hopes that nobody reading this post will be doomed to repeat. For the artists out there, you’ll probably just laugh at this post, as you’ve surely experienced your own “eraser gate”, but if not, read on and take caution.

I’ll cut to the point and back into the details. If you leave a vinyl eraser sitting on a wooden table, it will MELT THE LACQUER FINISH!

I had been drawing in my studio and left my eraser and pencils sitting on the table afterwards. I then got distracted, for many weeks, with other painting interests and didn’t return to the drawing for awhile. When I finally got around to finishing the drawing, I grabbed the eraser and it was stuck to the table! Upon closer inspection, it had actually melted / dissolved the lacquer finish into a gooey mess all the way down to the bare wood. See the picture below to appreciate the damage.

Eraser Burn Zoomed

I finally found a furniture repair company that does house calls and luckily they were able to do a suitable spot repair, which meant that vinyl eraser ultimately cost $250. Like I said, it was a very pricey lesson.

My understanding is that erasers (most but not all) will chemically react with their surroundings over time, so you have to be careful how they’re stored. The $250 eraser I used was vinyl, similar to this one at Jerry’s Artarama, but I believe this can happen with rubber and kneaded erasers, too. My erasers are now stored in their own canvass bag or wrapped in Saran Wrap. Hopefully I’ve seen the last of eraser meltdowns.