Experimenting With Varnishes

by Kathleen Huebener in Painting Tips


As I have said before, there are many good tutorials, articles, and videos on varnishing. I needed to see the effect directly on my artwork.

The varnish process consists of three levels.
Top layer: Final Varnish Coat
Middle layer: Isolation Coats (gloss, satin sheen, or matte) usually two or three coats
Bottom layer: actual painting

The Final Varnish Coat differs from the Isolation Coat in that it can be removed with mineral spirits. Sometimes a turpentine base final varnish is used. I can’t use turpentine, so I used one with the base of mineral spirits.

My Objectives:

1)      What effect does each specific varnish (gloss, satin sheen, and matte) as an isolation coat have directly on the acrylic painting?

2)      Which varnish would be similar to the natural look of acrylic?

3)      Which varnish would be best for photographing the painting?

4)      What effect does the Top layer (final varnish coat) have over each kind of isolation coat varnishes?

Isolation Varnish Coats
  I used for isolation coats Dick Blick’s
1-     Golden Acrylic Med Polymer Varnish Gloss

2-     Golden Acrylic Med Polymer Varnish Matte

These I mixed 4/1 ratio with water for each of the above (4 parts medium + 1 part water) as directed on the containers.

3-     For Satin Sheen: 4/1 (2 parts gloss + 2 parts matte + 1 part water)                       

Final Varnish Coat
I used Dick Blick’s Golden Acrylic Med !H MSA Varnish Satin Sheen.
I started out with my acrylic painting and divided it into four long sections for each varnish.
Results of Experiment
Isolation Coats
Effects of three isolation coats of each varnish when painted over the acrylic painting:

Gloss varnish: it reflects too much light. If it is used as the only varnish to cover an acrylic painting, it would be impossible to photograph the painting because of the glare. 

Satin Sheen Varnish: it resembles the actual reflective characteristics of an acrylic painting without any varnish applied. Thus Satin Sheen varnish is similar to the natural look of acrylic.

Matte Varnish: this varnish caused the acrylic colors to be darkened and void of life. The effect reminded me of a black hole, only allowing the minimal light to escape. One might think this would be an interesting effect for certain paintings, but matte varnish could not possibly portray the excitement and life that the original acrylics create.

Final Varnish Coat
The results were astonishing! The effects of the Satin Sheen Final Coat over gloss, satin sheen, and matte isolation coats were exactly the same! In other words, it didn’t matter what I used for the isolation coats because the final varnish coat looked the same on each type of isolation varnish.
In the future, keeping it as simple as I can, for my acrylic paintings, I will use
Golden Acrylic Med Polymer Satin Sheen Varnish for the isolation coat and
Golden Acrylic Med !H MSA Varnish Satin Sheen for the final coat.

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