This Is What Happens If You Varnish An Oil Painting Too Early – Expert Tips

what happens if you varnish an oil painting too early

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Oil paintings are stunning, they are rich in color and vibrancy, and they are a fantastic addition to any painting collection. That being said, they do need to be varnished to protect the surface of the painting and to ensure that the color and richness do not fade. You do need to wait for a while before you varnish your oil paintings as adding varnish too soon can make removal of the varnish later impossible and can damage the painting.

What Happens if You Varnish an Oil Painting Too Early?

Oil paintings take up to 24 hours to dry and cure, and most times even longer to fully cure with thicker layers of paint or drying conditions that are not ideal. Keeping that in mind, you do not want to add varnish to your oil painting before it is fully cured.

Adding your varnish too early can do a few things. First, some varnishes do have solvents in them that can damage uncured paint, it can remove the paint from the canvas and damage the painting composition itself, and it can damage the canvas as well.

It is helpful to first take a look at what varnish does for an oil painting. Varnish creates a layer of protection for the oil painting. Oil paintings can collect dust and grime very easily which can change the overall look of the painting and can affect the coloring of the painting. Varnish is going to protect the painting so that it can be cleaned later on if need be, and so that it can remain vibrant no matter what.

If you add varnish too early the varnish does have the potential to penetrate and disturb the top layer of the painting and become part of the paint. This means that if you do need to remove the varnish later, it may be impossible to do so without changing the painting itself or potentially damaging the painting.

How Long Should You Wait?

There is a general rule that six months from the time of completion is an acceptable time to wait before adding any varnish to the painting. Though it is meant to protect, adding it too soon can cause major issues. Waiting six months gives the painting time to fully and wholly dry.

There are different stages of dryness for oil paintings, you want to wait for the hard dry to take place before you add the varnish. Hard dry means that the paint is fully cured, that it is not budging and that it is totally dry through and through. This is going to prevent the possibility of any solvent in the varnish from integrating into the paint and damaging or changing the painting in any way.

If you cannot wait the full six months and need to varnish sooner, there is a test that you can perform to determine if the paint is dry hard. It is called the fingernail test. You may want to wear gloves or use some sort of covering on the thumbnail and press the nail into the painting with slight downward pressure. You then want to take a soft cloth and buff the area to remove the nail mark, if there is one.

If you can buff the nail mark out it means that the paint is fully cured and ready to be varnished. With very thin paintings or those that do not use a ton of layers or very thick paint, you may be able to varnish before the six-month mark.

Choosing the Right Varnish

With any oil painting, the varnish that you choose is as important as the painting itself. There are a few different factors to consider when choosing varnish:

  • Transparency and color change – do you want a varnish that is fully transparent and that does not change color, or does it matter if the varnish slightly changes color over time?
  • Elasticity – some varnish does dry down very hard and does not allow for much movement, you need to look for a varnish that protects, but that remains elastic.
  • Protection – a varnish is meant to protect the painting. You want a varnish that is going to provide mechanical protection or physical protection of the painting from things like dust, grime, and other buildups.
  • Removable – you want a varnish that is going to be removable if need be. You want something gentle that contains a nonpolar solvent that is not going to damage the painting.

There are so many varnish options out there. Taking the time to find the one that is going to work for you and your painting is a must and can make a huge difference overall. Varnish is a must with oil paintings, waiting long enough to apply is going to protect your painting and allow the varnish to do its job.

This Is What Happens If You Varnish An Oil Painting Too Early – Wrap up!

So now you know what happens if you varnish an oil painting too early. Just to reiterate, applying varnish to oil paintings is important but you want to make sure that you do not do it too early. Applying varnish too early can cause damage to the painting and make it difficult or impossible to remove the varnish later on. Waiting until the paint has had time to cure is going to be your best bet and will ensure that your painting is protected.

I hope this article was helpful in understanding the consequences of varnishing an oil painting too early. It is important to allow the paint to dry completely before applying a varnish, or you may end up with a cloudy or streaky finish. The good news is that there are many different types of varnishes available on the market, so you can choose the one that best suits your needs. Have you ever tried varnishing an oil painting? If so, I would love to hear about your experience. Hit me up on Instagram or via the Contact Us page.


Cover image by Robin Higgins from Pixabay

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Joe Colella - Chief Wasted Talent
Joe Colella – Chief Wasted Talent

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