FINISHING, VARNISHING AND PRESERVING YOUR PAINTINGS

 

Once all the hard work is finished, we can sit back and admire what we have created, but if we want our painting to last so others can enjoy it, some form of final protection is always necessary. We are going to examine the various ways of permanently and safely protecting your work. Apart from preserving your work, glazing or varnishing will also give a professional, finished appearance to your paintings.

WHY DO PAINTINGS NEED PROTECTING?

From the day you finish your painting it will slowly start to deteriorate. The paint will begin to oxidize, the colors will gradually fade and over time the surface will build up a layer of grime that will eventually dull the image. 

This all sounds very depressing, but to lessen the effect of this deterioration there are many things we can do.

GLAZING

For works on paper, proper archival framing is the best protection. Matts, backing boards and tapes should all be neutral pH and the painting should be sealed into the frame with tape. Over the last few years much better non-reflective glass has been developed. The latest  non-reflective glass is barely visible, unlike the earlier product that looked more like a shower screen than protection for a work of art. The downside is that the best quality non-reflective glass is very expensive.

 

Packing out the matt board allows any loose pastel or charcoal to settle, out of view, into the gap between the matt and painting. This looks much better than having it trapped between the matt and glass.

 



For mixed media or pastel works, face your painting or drawing towards the floor and tap it on the back to remove any loose particles before lightly spraying with fixative.









FIXATIVES

Pastels, charcoal, and many mixed media works should be lightly sprayed with a fixative before being framed under glass. The fixative bonds the surface particles and stops them falling and settling on the bottom edge of the matt. If you use a workable fixative it can be applied several times during the course of the painting or drawing, protecting it from marks or smudges.


Fixative is available in spray cans or bottles. If you are doing a lot of work requiring fixative, Bottled fixative and a blow spray are much cheaper than aerosol cans.











RETOUCH VARNISH

Retouch varnish is not intended as a final protective coating, but is used to hold oil paint at the same gloss and color intensity as wet paint. It helps in color matching and aids in the adhesion of subsequent layers of paint.

DAMAR VARNISH

Damar varnish is a final painting varnish made from tree resins. It tends to yellow with time and has been superseded as a final varnish by the varnishes below. It's main use now is as an additive for painting mediums.

WAX VARNISH

Wax varnish is a matt varnish based on purified beeswax. It can be applied to Oil or Acrylic paintings and is removable with mineral turps. The varnish has a waxy consistency and is rubbed on, then buffed to the required sheen with a clean cloth. Beeswax based varnish is extremely stable and non yellowing. I also like to use bees wax varnish on large watercolor paintings to avoid using glass or acrylic glazing. The wax permanently penetrates the paper surface, deepening dark tones and enhancing colors

 

Matt wax varnish has a pasty consistency and can be applied with fingers or a stiff brush. Once the varnish has been completely rubbed over the surface, it can be polished to the desired sheen with a lint free cloth.





 

The effect of Matt wax varnish can be seen in this section of a mixed media work on paper. Varnish has been applied to the left side of the vertical line through the circle. You can see how the varnish makes colors richer and dark tones deeper.






The Beeswax varnish (Matt Wax Varnish) I use is made by Art Spectrum here in Australia. It is simply bees wax and gum turpentine as far as I can gather, speaking to the chemist at Art Spectrum. Winsor and Newton also produce a similar product.


I have used several mounting methods. Smaller work (up to full sheet size) I have mounted to neutral pH foamcore using a heat sensitive adhesive sheet. This is an archival method and the adhesive can be released in a heat press. The downside is the cost and the fact that a framer with a vacuum heat press is required. I have mounted larger (4'x6') paintings on a 4mm ply backing braced with pine and coated with several coats of gesso. These are fixed down with matt acrylic varnish (or you can use neutral pH PVA glue). The most difficult part of this process is getting the painting good and flat before mounting. To do this I clean the studio floor, lay the painting face down and spray the back with water. after a few minutes I then tape the painting to the floor with gummed paper tape. The painting is left to dry and shrink tight. I then cut the tape to release the painting. I have also discovered it is easier to leave a couple of inches around the outside of the painting to allow the gummed tape to be cut off rather than the time consuming sob of soaking and peeling it off.



The first watercolor I tried the wax varnish on was left out in the open for 12 months (I forgot about it!) The difference in the waxed half and the untouched half was amazing - most of the untouched painting was washed out and faded but the waxed half was still in good condition. I have a couple of paintings here mounted on ply and waxed. They are about 15 years old and are still as they were when they were mounted.

I find it a great way to get around the problem of glass, particularly on large paintings. The braced ply can be finished like a stretched canvas and left unframed or framed like an oil or acrylic. Do some experimenting though. If you use pastel or gouache on your paintings, the wax can change the tone of some of the colors. It will also intensify the colors. I spray a fixative on my work before waxing. I use a lot of charcoal pencil and it will smear if not fixed.

Remember, once the wax varnish is applied, the painting is completely sealed and can no longer be worked on.


PARALOID VARNISH

Paraloid varnish is a non - yellowing, turps based varnish suitable as a final varnish over dry oil or acrylic paintings. This varnish dries very quickly and can be completely removed with mineral turpentine if necessary.

 

Parloid and Acrylic varnishes can be applied with a soft hake brush. Acrylic should be washed out of your brush immediately with soap and water. The parloid will need to be rinsed out in Mineral Turpentine before washing with soap and water.






ACRYLIC GLOSS AND MATT VARNISHES

Acrylic Varnishes are water based polymer varnishes suitable for a final finish on acrylic or water based mixed media works. They form a non yellowing, durable plastic skin that bonds permanently to the artwork. These varnishes can not be removed, but can be painted over with acrylic paint.

 

So there are the choices for protecting our paintings. Provided the painting is produced using reputable, artist quality materials and is hung in a suitable location it should last for generations. 

Paintings should not be hung in direct sunlight or areas of high humidity. Paintings hung on brick or stone walls prone to dampness should have a plastic sheet fixed to the back of them and some form of spacer to leave an air gap between the painting and the wall. Four small pieces of cork attached to the back of the frame with some double sided tape are an easy way to create an air gap.

 

 


Acid free backing board and matts and thorough sealing with framing tape will keep works placed under glass protected for many years.

 

 

 

 

 




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