Varnishing Help

Tips and techniques to make varnishing a breeze. After all, varnishing is the easiest thing you can do to make your painting look better! This is the information we couldn’t fit on the label.

When can I varnish?

Gamvar may be brush applied when the painting is dry to the touch and firm in its thickest areas. For some oil paintings, that might take two weeks, for others, 2 months. To check if it’s dry, gently press your nail into the thickest part of your painting.

How to check if your painting is dry

How do I varnish a painting?

The best way to apply varnish to an oil or acrylic painting is shown here: Gamblin Picture Varnishes.

A single thin coat of Gamvar provides excellent protection to a painting. If you prefer a higher gloss, a second equally thin coat of Gamvar Gloss may be applied after the first coat is tack-free.

When using Gamvar Satin or Gamvar Matte, it is best to apply a single thin layer and not to apply multiple applications. Multiple coats of either Satin or Matte can dry to a patchy finish or tacky feel, as the 2nd application will reconstitute the matting agents in the first coat.

Whenever applying the varnish, brush on Gamvar very thinly. Gamvar dries purely by solvent evaporation. Thin coats easily throw off solvent and typically dry tack-free within 24 hours. The thicker the coating, the more solvent is trapped and the longer it stays tacky. (Varnish applied too thickly may retain a slightly tacky feel even after it has completely dried.)

When applying Gamvar to a heavily textured, impasto style painting, pay extra attention to areas where the varnish “pools”. We recommend using a dry brush to wick out excess varnish. Use a stack of paper towels to remove varnish from the brush throughout this process.

Do Gamvar Satin and Gamvar Matte require special application techniques?

Application of Gamvar Satin and Gamvar Matte requires mostly the same technique as shown in the Gamblin Picture Varnishes video demonstration with the following additional recommendations:

 Applying satin or matte varnish to a painting

  1. Shake the bottle well before use to ensure that matting agents are well dispersed. (Matting agents are expected to settle to the bottom of the bottle when not in use.)
  2. Apply a thin coat of varnish by using a vigorous scrubbing action with the brush. Try to cover as much of the painting with as little varnish as possible.
  3. After the scrubbing motion, feathering-out the surface of the varnish. If there is excess varnish, remove it by feathering and wiping the brush on paper towels.
  4. Switching to a soft, flat synthetic brush for feathering-out Satin and Matte Gamvar may help to create a uniform finish on paintings that have a smooth surface.

What is the best brush to varnish with?

The ideal varnish brush is the Gamvar Varnish Brush.

How do I clean my brush after varnishing?

We recommend dedicating a brush for varnishing with Gamvar. When you are done varnishing, wipe as much Gamvar from the brush on paper towels, then wash thoroughly with soap and water. The best soap we’ve found for the job is Dr. Bronner’s or Dawn.

Alternatively, you can clean your brush with Gamsol.

If residual resin is left in the bristles, the brush will dry stiff and somewhat tacky. If the varnish brush stiffens up between uses, simply allow it to soak for 5-10 minutes in Gamsol or Gamvar the next time you varnish. The Gamsol content in Gamvar will dissolve any dried varnish. Wipe the brush dry and proceed with varnishing.

Why is the varnish beading up when I varnish my painting?

Some combinations of oil paint and mediums create a “closed” surface resulting in Gamvar beading up. Also, beading up may indicate that too much varnish is being applied at once. Try to cover as much of the painting with as little varnish as possible. A vigorous scrubbing motion when applying Gamvar will help prevent it from beading up.

 What to do when varnish beads up

  1. Reduce the amount of Gamvar that is being applied to the painting. Blotting extra varnish off the brush onto a paper towel before applying is an excellent way to achieve this.
  2. Dilute the varnish with 10-20% Gamsol.
  3. Brush the varnish vigorously as it dries. Gamvar will begin to tack up in about 15 minutes. Continuing to brush after it begins to tack up may help it to adhere, but it will also reduce its level of gloss the longer you continue to brush it.

How long does it take for varnish to dry?

A single thin coat of Gamvar usually dries tack-free in 18-24 hours. Cold temperatures and, especially, high humidity can slow dry time by several hours.

My varnished painting has been drying for a week but it still feels tacky. Will it eventually dry?

If the varnished surface still feels tacky after several days, the varnish has been applied too thickly. You may notice this tacky quality in areas where Gamvar pools more heavily- like the edges of the canvas. The other determining factor has to do with the relative absorbency of the paint surface. An oil painting that appears matte will be more absorbent resulting in a varnish coat that has a lower tack feel.

If Gamvar remains tacky after several days, you may want to remove the varnish with Gamsol and reapply. See removal instructions below.

To encourage a thinner application, add 10-20% Gamsol to the varnish before applying. We recommend applying Gamvar with a flat natural-bristle brush. Soft synthetic or thick natural hair brushes deposit too much varnish making it difficult to achieve an appropriately thin coat.

How do I remove Gamvar from a painting?

Gamvar is formulated with Gamsol odorless mineral spirits, therefore it can be safely removed with Gamsol. Keep in mind that varnishes from other manufacturers may require harsher solvents.

Removing Gamvar

  1. Take a clean lint-free cotton cloth and wet a corner of it with Gamsol.
  2. Using circular strokes, dissolve a small area of the varnish at a time.
  3. Immediately wipe away the dissolved Gamvar with another dry cotton cloth.
  4. Repeat until the varnish is removed from the desired areas. Usually, there is enough of a difference in surface sheen to tell where Gamvar has been removed.
  5. A final wipe down with a fresh cloth and Gamsol may help to ensure any residual varnish is completely removed.  Allow Gamsol to evaporate completely before continuing to paint.

I’ve varnished my painting, but the surface is still uneven. What do I do now?

Uneven varnish coatings are generally due to varying rates of absorbency in the paint layers. The varnish lies on top of less absorbent areas and sinks down into more absorbent areas. We recommend a process called “oiling out” prior to using Gamvar. Oiling-out reduces the absorbency of dull paint layers, unifies the painting’s appearance and allows Gamvar to cover more evenly. If your painting already has varnish on it, remove the varnish layer prior to “oiling out.”

How to oil out an oil painting

  1. Apply a liberal coating of a 50/50 mixture of Galkyd/Gamsol
  2. Allow the medium to be absorbed into the painting for 1-2 minutes
  3. Wipe off the excess painting medium thoroughly with an absorbent, lint-free cloth
  4. Allow the oil-out to dry completely (2-3 days) before varnishing

For more information on surface quality including a video demonstration on oiling out, please visit Controlling Surface Quality: A Holistic Approach

Can I mix varnishes to achieve a custom surface?

Gamvar Gloss, Gamvar Satin and Gamvar Matte can be mixed together. Even so, each was carefully formulated in regards to resin content, viscosity and amount of matting agents (Satin and Matte) to achieve a desirable finish. You will have to experiment on your own to achieve a surface quality somewhere in between our three premixed formulas. Test out custom mixtures on small areas of your painting first and allow the test areas to dry completely before evaluating the results. When you arrive at your ideal mixture, remove the test areas with Gamsol and varnish the entire painting at once.

Can I layer different varnishes on a painting?

Multiple layers of Gamvar are fine. However, we have found that it is difficult to control the surface quality when different types of Gamvar are applied on the same painting, one on top of another.  (e.g. 1st layer Gamvar Gloss, 2nd layer Gamvar Satin) It may be best to remove the first coat and re-varnish with the preferred Gamvar formula.

Is it ok to paint over a varnish layer?

Gamvar should be removed before adding fresh paint.

A key feature of a true picture varnish is that it may be removed later to clean or restore a painting. Were you to add paint layers over Gamvar, the added paint runs the risk of removal with future cleaning or re-varnishing of the painting.

Gamvar can be safely and easily removed with Gamsol or other odorless mineral spirits. Take a clean lint-free cloth and wet a portion of it with Gamsol. Using circular motions, dissolve a small area of the varnish and immediately remove the dissolved varnish with another dry cloth. Repeat until the varnish is removed from the desired areas.

Once the additional painting is complete, allow it to dry to the touch before reapplying Gamvar (several days to 2 weeks will usually suffice unless the fresh paint is especially thick). Thinly brush Gamvar onto the newly painted areas, then blot the brush on paper towels and use it to “feather” new varnish into existing varnish. Blending from new to old varnish is important to avoid creating a glossy “halo” when varnish layers overlap too thickly.

Approximate coverage:

  • 4.2 fl oz:  80 square feet
  • 8.5 fl oz: 160 square feet
  • 16.9 fl oz: 320 square feet

Varnished with Gamvar labels:

Gamvar labels for your paintings can be downloaded here.

Labels are formatted to fit Avery template #5260.

Still have varnishing questions? Please contact us.

Gamvar Picture Varnish product details

Oil painting tips & techniques


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