It’s happened to all of us. You’re working on a painting, and everything is going well. The colors are perfect, the composition looks great, and you finally get the details just how you want them.
Then you go to varnish it and… disaster strikes. Panic! Varnish ruined my painting!
The varnish completely changes the look of your painting, making it either too shiny or too dull, it might look cloudy in some areas or it left big varnish splotches over the paint and ruined all of your hard work.
So what do you do? How can you fix a painting that’s been ruined by varnish? Keep reading to find out! The different types of varnish and their purposes
How to identify whether your painting has been ruined by varnish
There are some obvious signs that varnish has ruined your painting but there are also some not-so-obvious signs to the untrained eye.
In this section, we will be going through all the things you should look out for before you scream in a panic that everything is ruined!
Cloudy or dull appearance
If the varnish is applied correctly, it should not change the appearance of the painting. However, if the varnish is cloudy or dull, it can make the painting look bad.
This usually happens when the varnish is not compatible with the paint or when it has been applied too thickly.
Varnish has changed the color of your painting
The first and most obvious sign is if the varnish has changed the color of your painting. If you varnish a painting that is supposed to be white and it turns yellow, then you have a varnish problem.
This usually happens with oil-based varnishes but can also happen with water-based varnishes if they are not applied correctly.
Splatter or blotchy varnish drops on the paint surface
If you see varnish drops on the paint surface, this is called “blotchy varnish.”
It can be caused by using a varnish that is not compatible with the paint or by applying the varnish too thickly or you used a spray varnish that had an unclean spray nozzle or a faulty nozzle or lastly, the aerosol can was faulty which means that it may have spat out varnish in large blobs rather than as a mist.
Peeling or bubbling
Another sign that varnish has ruined your painting is if it is peeling or bubbling. This usually happens when the varnish has not been applied correctly or the painting has not been allowed to dry properly before being applied.
It can also happen if the painting was not cleaned properly before being varnished.
If you notice any of these signs, it is important to act quickly. The longer the varnish is left on, the more difficult it will be to remove.
How to fix a painting that has been ruined by varnish
There are a few things you can do to fix a painting that has been ruined by varnish.
The following fixes assume you have varnished either an oil painting or acrylic painting (please don’t tell me you tried to varnish a watercolor or gouache painting!).
Clean the painting
The first step is to clean the painting. This will remove any dirt or grime that may be on the surface of the painting.
You can use a soft cloth, cue tip, or a new and clean cotton make-up removal pad to gently wipe the surface of the painting.
Be careful not to scrub too hard as this could damage the paint.
Remove the varnish
Once the painting has been cleaned, you will need to remove the varnish. There are a few ways to do this and we will look at them in the section below.
Can all varnish be removed the same way?
Generally yes, but some varnishes will require different removal methods. Below we will look at the most common varnishes and how to remove them.
Resin based varnishes such as galkyd or gamvar are almost impossible to remove once they are dry as they harden to a plastic. I recommend using traditional materials when oil painting as there is a breadth of experience and knowledge to draw upon when needed.
How to remove the varnish without damaging the painting
The safest and most effective way to remove varnish from a painting is to use a varnish remover.
There are many different types of varnish removers on the market, so it is important to choose one that is specifically designed for removing varnish from paintings.
The 3 most common types of varnish you will come across are listed below, there are many others but I found the method below tends to work for most varnishes.
Remember, the longer you leave the varnish to dry the harder it will be to remove.
Varnish Type 1: Damar Varnish
To remove damar varnish, you will need to use a solvent such as white spirit or a specialized varnish remover.
Apply the solvent to a clean cloth and gently rub it over the surface of the painting.
The varnish should start to dissolve and you should be able to wipe it away with a cloth. It is important to test the solvent on a small area of the painting to make sure it will not damage the paint.
Varnish Type 2: Mastic Varnish
Mastic varnish is a clear varnish made from tree resin. It is a hard varnish and dries slowly. This varnish is often used for oil paintings.
To remove mastic varnish, you will need to use a solvent such as white spirit or a specialized varnish remover.
Apply the solvent to a clean cloth and gently rub it over the surface of the painting. The varnish should start to dissolve and you should be able to wipe it away with a cloth.
Before applying any new varnish, make sure that the painting is completely dry.
Varnish Type 3: Spray varnish
Spray varnish is a varnish that comes in a can and is applied using a spray nozzle. It is a quick and easy way to varnish a painting.
However, it can be difficult to control the amount of varnish that is applied, and if too much varnish is applied, it can ruin the painting.
Do not use turpentine or terpenoids to remove the varnish. If you are unsure, consult the varnish manufacturer’s website for assistance.
How to remove most types of varnish, what you need:
You will need some cotton balls, Q-tips, or a soft cloth.
Soak a cotton ball, Q-tip, or soft cloth in the varnish remover, and then gently dab it on the varnish. You may need to do this several times to remove all of the varnish.
If the damaged area is quite large then work at removing the varnish using a grid method so that you can track the areas cleaned and so that you do not attempt to remove varnish that is no longer there.
If the swab or Q-tip is showing signs of paint or color then the painting was most likely not dry enough to be varnished and the remover is starting to remove the paint.
If that is the case then stop removing the varnish in that spot and be more gentle removing the varnish in the other areas.
Once the varnish has been removed, you will need to clean the painting with soap and water using a small white cotton cloth.
Do this in very small quantities so as not to wet the entire painting surface or you could end up doing more damage than good.
If the varnish has ruined the paint on your painting, you may be able to fix it by repainting the affected areas. In most cases, once you have removed the varnish, the actual painted surface should be quite good.
The longer the oil painting has had to dry before varnish was applied, the higher the chance the painted surface will not have been damaged.
If the varnish has caused peeling or flaking, you can try to slowly remove it with a soft brush or tweezers and gently clean the surface as described earlier.
Let the surface dry before re-applying varnish
Before you re-apply varnish, make sure to use the right varnish for your painting and make sure you apply the varnish properly so as not to repeat the original mistake.
To avoid varnish ruining your painting, it is important to use the right type of varnish for the paint you are using.
If you are unsure, ask a professional or do some research. It is also important to make sure the paint is dry before varnishing, as this will help prevent any damage to the painted surface.
The importance of using the right type of varnish for your paintings
It is important to use the right type of varnish for your paintings. Some varnishes can actually ruin paintings if they are not used correctly.
If you are unsure about which varnish to use, it is best to ask a professional or consult a painting guide.
Tips for preventing varnish from ruining your painting in the future
– Do not apply varnish to a wet painting
– Apply varnish in thin layers
– Use the right type of varnish to start with
– If in doubt, ask a professional!
Varnish Ruined My Painting! How To Actually Fix It – Wrap up!
Applying varnish to your paintings can be a great way to protect them and make them shine. So to make sure that you don’t scream “varnish ruined my painting!” make sure you apply varnish the right way the first time.
However, it is important to use the right type of varnish and to apply it correctly in order to avoid ruining your painting.
If you are unsure about how to varnish your painting, it is best to ask a professional for help. Most suppliers of varnish products have a helpline or website that details exactly how their product is meant to be applied.
By following these tips, you can help prevent varnish from ruining your painting in the future.
If you need to remove old varnish from an old oil painting then I suggest taking a look at the article from Marjan de Visser from Restauratieatelier.com
Joseph Colella (Joe Colella) is an Editor and Writer at WastedTalentInc. As a frustrated artist with over 40 years experience making art (who moonlights as a certified Business Analyst with over 20 years of experience in tech).
While Joseph holds a Diploma in Information Technology, in true wasted talent fashion he spent years applying for various Art degrees; from the Accademia di Belle Arti (Napoli), to failing to get into the Bachelor of Arts (Fine Arts) at the University of Western Sydney.
While he jokes about his failures at gaining formal art qualifications, as a self-taught artist he has had a fruitful career in business, technology and the arts making Art his full time source of income from the age of 18 until 25.
His goal is to attend the Julian Ashton School of Art at The Rocks Sydney when he retires from full time work. Joseph’s art has been sold to private collectors all over the world from the USA, Europe and Australasia.
He is a trusted source for reliable art advice and tutorials to copyright/fair use advice and is committed to helping his readers make informed decisions about making them a better artist.