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!

Yosemite – El Capitan

Started a new project this week, El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. This is a massive wall of rock that is a marvel to see in person. I haven’t been able to find them on the photo, but there are a number of climbers on the wall. If I hadn’t taken the picture myself I wouldn’t believe it either.

This composition is actually a study to get some key aspects of the hues and values figured out prior to doing a much larger piece. This particular effort is being done on a 12×18 canvass board, all oils, using palette knife only.

Figuring out the variations of grays, both sunlit and shaded, is proving to be an enjoyable challenge. This is a great way to really learn the subtleties of warm and cool grays.

Another session or two and this preliminary piece should be done. Still need to get the right half of the shadow area done, but it’s moving along at a faster clip now that the value scale has finally been figured out. There’s more paint on this piece than I’d like to admit.


Loire Valley Landscape

Started a new project today. I’ve sketched this one a few times already, but intend to use this as a reference point for the actual painting whereby I’m going to try to emphasize the storm clouds in the background, add some color to the foreground with flowers, and insert some actual people doing stuff in the village area to draw the viewer into the scene. This first effort will be a quick draft painting on paper to get the values and compositional elements figured out. If that goes well, I’ll parlay this into a larger piece.

Reference Photo – Loire Valley, France

Sketch on paper

Initial block-in. Focus on values and basic color scheme.

Giverny update

Focused on the water again today. Also added some ripples to give the sense of movement. It’s not great, but good enough for now. Think it’s time to make some updates to the foliage and wrap this one up.


Closeup of recent foliage updates.

Close-up of water ripples.

Back on the Canvass! Giverny Stream

Went on a short hiatus, but getting back in the swing of things. Getting ramped up on a few new projects, but knocking the rust off by revisiting an old foe – the love / hate relationship with Giverny. Original post is here.

There is a post of earlier progress on this green monster, but I’m finally starting to get my head around the challenge of reflections in moving water. See for yourself…

Water Session #1

First, tried doing variations of blue water with white highlights, which didn’t look right. Roughed in the purple flowers in the lower left front corner.

Water Session #2

Next idea was to do more greens with more aggressive use of whites/grays to give the sense of moving water. That didn’t work, but the additional work on the ferns on the right side was productive.

Water Session #3

Third swing was building up much more gradual and interlaced mix of greens and grays. This photo is poor quality and doesn’t show the water very well, but it’s actually better in reality. Next session I’ll work in more of the greys to really give the sensation of moving water under a grayish sky. Also spent time reworking the reflections of the pink flowers and yellow flowers, both of which look really good in terms of glassy look on the water.

Palette for Arches

No new painting updates today – been a busy week at work, so no play time in the studio. But in the spirit of blogging discipline I wanted to post.

To the untrained eye, this post could look like, well… vomit. But it’s actually the painful reality of painting variations of sand hues. Gotta love that ochre and gray mashup!

The base mix for the arch yellow/sand was ochre, white, a little raw umber, and a spec of cad yellow. The grey is a standard mash of equal parts ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. To move the range of yellow ochre around, I experimented with varying values of the gray mixture. Fun stuff!