The Importance of Varnishing Oil Paintings

Now that you have bought this beautiful oil painting, you will want to take measures to insure that it stays that way. One very important thing to do is make sure it has received several coats of non-yellowing varnish. Varnish is a final, clear protective layer applied to a painting after it is finished and completely dry. The artist should have already done this before selling the painting. It is an important first step in preserving the work of art so it lasts for generations to come.


western sunset oil paintingCowboy Sunset
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
24″ x 18″
Oils on gallery wrap stretched canvas

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Why varnish an oil painting?

1. Varnish saturates the colors making them pop. Varnish brings out the vibrancy of the colors and gives them that just painted look and shine. In addition, varnish helps to keep those beautiful colors from fading as the years go by.

2. Varnish creates an even sheen over the entire surface of the painting. Oil paint colors dry very differently because of the different pigments that go into making up each individual color. When completely dry, some colors appear matte, some satin and some glossy. A layer or two of varnish will even out the final appearance of the painting, giving it a consistent overall look.

3. Varnish protects the painted surface from atmospheric elements and makes the surface easier to clean. All paintings will require cleaning as time goes by; however, varnish will reduce the frequency of those cleanings and reduce the risk of any possible damage to the painting. If the painting isn’t varnished, over time dust, grime, dirt, grease, moisture and pollution in the environment will change the look of the painting. These can dull the colors, causing them to crack and chip off as the years go by.

When should a painting be varnished?

An oil painting should be allowed to dry for a minimum of 6 months. Depending on how thick the paint is applied it might even need as much as 12 months of drying time before applying varnish. It’s crucial that the oil painting is completely dry before varnish is applied, otherwise the varnish may crack. This is because varnish dries before the oil paint does. As oil paint dries it moves slightly and since the varnish is already dry it begins to crack.

If your painting has never been varnished, you will need to wait at least a year and then take it to a reputable frame shop. They maybe able to varnish the painting, however, it will most like be for a fee. Or is you know of an artist in your area who is an oil painter they may varnish the painting for you as well.

One final solution is to varnish the painting yourself, however, I wouldn’t recommend this if your painting is an extremely valuable piece of art. If you do varnish the painting yourself be sure to use varnish designed for fine art oil paintings. Be sure to follow all instructions on the label. It is not recommended that you use varnish obtained from a hardware store as this kind is to too harsh for the painting and could wind up damaging it.

Additional Reading

A Practical Guide To Caring For Your Oil Paintings