Studio Craft: Is Varnishing Necessary?

Ask the Expert: "Is it really necessary to varnish every painting? What about artists who just like a flat look?"

A: We think in most situations where a picture isto be displayed in a private home or business,varnishing is a sensible measure that protectspaint and makes cleaning and maintainingfinished art easier for the collector.

Display conditions should be taken intoconsideration when deciding whether a paintingshould be left without varnish. Most privatecollectors are not able to provide a museumstandardclimate control environment or frequentprofessional cleanings. It's a lot safer and easierto dust a varnished surface than a porous paintsurface, and a lot less complicated for aprofessional restorer to work on as well.

If a painting is left without varnish, the displaylocation should be relatively free of dust andcontaminants. Airborne residue from cooking,smoke and general dust can all be problematic to remove from an exposed paint film, so it maynot be wise to display unvarnished paintingsnear a kitchen or bar.

In spite of the practical benefits of varnishing, itcan't be denied that a glossy top-coat does alterthe appearance of some paints. Colors tend todeepen when varnished; contrast and overalltone can change. Many artists prefer the mattefinish of some types of paint, and don't want toalter this effect by varnishing. Matte or satinfinishvarnishes are a good option for painterswho don't want a "candy" gloss.

While not completely flat, matte varnishesgenerally aren't as reflective as gloss products,and are less prone to alter colors. Matte varnishis a particularly good choice when it's hard tocontrol lighting in the display environment, orany time glare is a challenge.

Matte varnishes can be applied over glossproducts of similar composition, so artistsdisappointed with a gloss finish can top-coatwith matte with no need to remove the initiallayer. (This only works with matte over gloss, notthe other way around.)

Sometimes applying varnish simply isn'tpossible. Many mixed-media pieces can't bevarnished easily, or at all depending onmaterials. Framing under glass can be a goodoption in this case. Limiting the length of time anunvarnished piece will be displayed can alsohelp preserve artwork. Placing art objects instorage at intervals is a common practice withwatercolors and prints, and it's a good strategyfor reducing exposure to any vulnerable artwork,including unvarnished pictures.

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