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The Double Merits of the Final Varnish

by Clint Watson on 4/21/2011 8:25:26 AM


This article is by Clint Watson,  former art gallery owner/director/salesperson and founder of FineArtViews. You should follow Clint on Twitter here.


I posted this as a comment on the Reddot Blog and expanded it a bit here.


One marketing idea you can utilize is to contact your customers periodically to provide cleaning and maintenance on past pieces that they've purchased from you.  This can often lead to another sales opportunity, but you don't have to make it into one, you can let that happen naturally.  This is also a great technique for those who are unsure or shy about being too "salesy."


Back when I owned an art gallery, I used to do a similar thing with great results:  Each time someone purchased a painting I would make a note to call them back in six months.  At that time, I would let them know that their painting needed to be brought in (or picked up by me, if feasible) for the final varnish.

This re-connection often led to a series of events that ended in another art sale.

It's also a great thing to do because it's not solely for marketing purposes, although that's a fantastic side-effect.

In fact, the final varnish is critical for oil paintings and often can't even be applied for six months after the painting is completed (or even a year in some cases).  In today's fast-paced world where everyone needs results and sales today, most artists can't afford to wait the six months, let alone a year, to apply the final varnish and then ship the painting to the gallery.  So lots of paintings end up being sold without the final varnish.  (Note: the final varnish is NOT the temporary liquin retouch varnish that CAN be applied immediately to give an oil painting that glossy, varnished look - that will wear off).  [Update: I originally mis-typed and said "liquin" - that is not what I meant, do not varnish your work with liquin (see the comments below for reasons why), I had originally meant the spray retouch varnish and my years away from the gallery business had muddled the two in my mind - apologies.]

I may be telling you something you already know, but a quick story:  The varnish on an oil painting serves the same purpose as the glass on a watercolor - protection.  I became a full believer in this when one of our customers had a house fire which luckily was put out before the house burned to the ground, but it did cause a lot of smoke-damage to their extensive collection of oil paintings.  Out of desperation, they brought the paintings to the gallery - I would guess around 50 oil paintings - and the pieces looked like someone had framed 50 black canvases.

I didn't have high hopes.

We took the art to a local art restoration expert.  And amazingly, she was able to completely save every single painting.  And she told us why:  A few months earlier we had contacted this particular couple and offered to varnish all of their oil paintings.  The restoration expert told us that the varnish had saved the paintings.  All she had to do was strip the varnish off and the paintings themselves, perfectly protected, were in pristine condition.  All we had to do was apply a new coat of varnish.


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Related Posts:

The Final Varnish Technique - Part II

Don't Neglect the Back

The Back Side

Ask Stape: How Worried Should I Be About Where I Hang My Paintings?

Topics: art marketing | Clint Watson | FineArtViews 

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George De Chiara
Great idea Clint. I have a question though; if the sale is out of state, do you ask them to mail it back to you? I sell a lot of my work out of state and when I mail it to the collector I always offer to do a final varnish in 6 months if they send the painting back. So far no one has taken me up on my offer. This post got me thinking that maybe I should contact them. In your experience have collectors been willing to mail a painting back to you for varnish?


Clint Watson
George - We rarely had a customer ship the painting back. If I recall, I usually offered to pay for shipping, or to pay for them to take it to a local framer to have it done. I don't actually recall anyone out of town ever shipping a piece back, the technique definitely works better with local customers, however, it did always provide a reason to call :-), so we still got the marketing benefit :-)

George De Chiara
Thanks Clint. That's been my experience so far too. Although I think I'm going to take advantage of the excuse to contact them.

Lori Woodward
That's great that you did that in the gallery. Most of the galleries I've worked with did not contact their collectors to varnish the paintings.

Unfortunately, I am unaware of who bought my paintings from galleries for the most part. That gives me an idea to write a post about varnishing on my website/email newsletter and perhaps in the comments section below my paintings. That way, even if they buy the painting from a gallery, they'll be aware that they'll need a final varnish.

Thanks Clint! Important advice here.

Elizabeth Sartell Beamer
I so wish I had been able to take advantage of this 20 years ago when a fire destroyed my home and EVERYTHING in it. Including everything I had done while in college--I had graduated with a BA in fine arts 18 months before. Oh well, that just frees up room to put the things I've created afterwards.

Diane Overmyer
Thanks for this helpful advice. I knew paintings should wait at least six months to have a final coat of varnish applied, but I didn't know that Liquin, which I have been using on my plein air work, would wear off. I also have offered to photograph and catalog serious client's collections for insurance purposes. This creates another good avenue for further contact.

Bruce Morrison
I've done this for years now; it is a good way to reconnect! I never charge for the work or materials either, but have not ever had anyone ship paintings back.

I appreciated hearing the "restoration" issue - had not ever given that thought!

Thank you!

Roberta j Martin
This is all very good information... Thanks !

Keith Bond
Liquin is NOT recommended to use as a temporary varnish or for oiling out a dry painting. I spoke with someone in the technical department of Winsor and Newton about 8 or 10 years ago and learned why. I can't remember the technical specifics on it now. I'll try to research it and write an article if I find the info.

Reason would suggest that if you could glaze with liquin and a small amount of oil paint, you could also glaze without the paint thus using it to oil out or as a temp varnish.

But, this is not the case. Again, I can't remember the specifics, but I believe it has to do the bond created with the inclusion of the oil. Straight liquin isn't good for the painting.

I know this is a bit off topic from the main point of the article (which is great, by the way), but you brought it up, Clint :)

jack white
One word of warning to those using Liquin as a final varnish. As Liquin ages it will begin to turn amber. Your painting will end up with a warm glow, your blues will turn green and the yellows dull. NEVER use Liquin for a final varnish on originals or giclees. I've been there and done that. Not a good result. In a year or so your giclees with look like you used tobacco juice for varnish.

If we waited six months to ship our painting we would be in the food stamp line on month five. We use Grumbacher re-touch varnish to bring the colors together and ship the paintings while they are wet.

We have not shipped a dry painting for Mikki in over twenty years. I have a way to box them wet.

With some of my major portraits I did give them a visit and put on a final coat. You are right, six months is okay but a year is better. Oils dry very slow under the surface, so if you paint thick a year might not be long enough.

Great topic. jack

Keith Bond
I found the info I was looking for and wrote an article to be published next week about the dangers of using Liquin as a varnish. Although I could put it here, I think it will reach a broader audience as a separate article. Watch for it Monday.

Clint Watson
Keith, Jack - I think I made a bad mistake in the article - now that you point it out, I don't think I meant liquin....I think I meant retouch varnish, which is temporary right?

What most artists we delt with did was apply retouch varnish immediately, usually just a very light spray application and then later, down the road, a real final varnish was applied by us at the gallery (I think our guys used Demar).

Diane Overmyer
This information is SO valuable! I learned about Liquin from a college art professor, who used it on his paintings. So of course I never dreamed that it might actually show signs of ageing like Jack described.

Now I have a question for anyone who might truly know. How does one remove Liquin or varnish without also running the risk of damaging the paint beneath it? I always assumed or perhaps had been told, to use mineral spirits. But now I am wondering if that is actually the correct method. I have never attempted something like that, but I would like to at least know the proper solvent to use.

jack white
You were right, because a lot of artists do use Liquin. But the majority of those of us painting in oils to do use a re-touch varnish. Few get to keep their originals long enough for the final varnish.

Having the art shipped back cost too much. We use FedEX Ground, which is the cheapest we can find. UPS is brutal on art. FedEx is way too expensive.

Diane, Liquin can be removed. I'd contact Winsor-Newton and get their advice for removal. They will give you the answer.


Donald Fox
Clint's suggestion to recontact patrons for final varnishing of paintings is very smart marketing. Most well-trained artists are aware of the importance of proper materials and techniques for longevity of the work and safety of the artist. Several excellent texts cover appropriate information including varnishes - see Ralph Mayer or Mark David Gottsegen.

Removing varnish is inadvisable for anyone who has never done so even if using an appropriate solvent. Conservators, just like artists, spend years learning their craft, which has grown increasingly complex and challenging as materials change and as artists become more experimental, often combining materials that shouldn't be combined. Conservators always advise caution and urge never to do anything to an artwork that cannot be undone.

Lori Woodward
Donald, I agree about recontacting our collectors to let them know about the final varnish, but when I've sold through galleries, I don't learn the names or contact info of my collectors. Many galleries guard their collector list and do not share with the artists.

Perhaps gallerists should offer this information when they sell a painting.

Marian Fortunati
Great reminder, Clint.
I really didn't know, however, that the varnish might protect a painting from smoke damage.

Too bad I didn't know this... One of my clients had a painting of mine in his place of business and when the business went up in flames the painting was ruined. I actually never asked him if it was BURNED or just ruined because of smoke damage. Well, I'll put it in my store of useful information (and hope I never have to use it again.)

Sharon Weaver
I always try to contact the buyer after 8 months to apply the finish varnish and it is a great excuse to connect with collectors. But I find the discussion about Liquin very interesting. I had some in my garage in the original container and took it out a year later and it was this dark amber color. After that I stopped using it completely for anything. Many artists I know use it but when I tell them it changes color they don't believe me. Thanks for confirming my suspicions.

jack white
Sharon, Liquin is okay to use. I've got 30 year old painting that still look the same. Like salt a pinch is fine, but a handful is too much. We use Liquin as a medium with moderation.
If not exposed to the sunlight or light Liquin will become dark. But a dab mixed in your paint will be fine. jack

Donna Robillard
I have learned so much valuable info in the article and in the discussions. I, also, was not aware that Liquin should not be used as a final coat. I had been told that it could be. Since it does yellow over time, should it even be used at all? You know, like for glazing or for helping paint dry faster? Is Grumbacher Retouch Varnish a spray or brush-on? Also, what is the best varnish to use for the final?

jack white
Donna, Liquin is safe to use, but not for varnishing your work. Over time the Liquin will grow dark amber. I've used it for over 30 years and the art is still fine.

Grumbacher spray retouch varnish. Beat me with a pepper stick for not saying spray. Again don't over spray or it will run. jack

Sharon Weaver
I don't use Liquin and don't ever intend to use it but I know many artists do. I am just not sure why since it is known to change color. Jack, you say you can use a little but how much is a little and how much is too much. You certainly shouldn't use it for glazing or what about your initial value sketch that is under the thicker oil paints. It may eventually show through. With other options why bother. Too risky for me.

Clint Watson
Donald - you're 100 percent right - don't try to remove varnish yourself (I guess if it's your own work, you can decide if you want to risk it). When I owned a gallery we were very qualified to apply varnish but if it had to be removed we turned the job over to a professional art conservator.

Clint Watson
Yes, I want to re-iterate - I mistyped what I meant in the article - I was talking about retouch varnish - liquin is a different animal and, as Jack said, most artists tell me it's something to be used as something that helps the medium during the process of painting - it's beyond me since I'm not a painter.

I'm going to add a note to the original article for anyone who reads this later.

Phyllis Tarlow
Wow, Clint. Not only was your article very informative, but so was everyone else's comments. I've read that Gamblin's Galkyd medium could be used as a retouch varnish by thinning it 50/50 with mineral spirits. Does anyone know about that? I had been using Galkyd Lite and wiping it off within a minute so that it left a very thin coating. Now I don't know if any of those ideas are good ones. I guess I'll try the Grumbacher Retouch Varnish spray on my next painting in need of a light coat of retouch.

One of the reasons that I've preferred a painted on coating is that in bad or cold weather, I don't want to use a spray indoors.

Besides the opportunity to reestablish contact, hearing about how a coat of varnish saved the day after a fire, I sure can see why it would be a good thing to notify my clients about applying a final coat. I've occasionally done that but haven't been consistent about getting in touch.

Thanks, everyone.

Diane Overmyer
Still more good information! Donald thanks for your comments. My comment may not have seemed very educated but I have been told so many different things from different "professionals", (plus the fact that there are so many different products out there) that it makes it all a bit overwhelming at times. Now that I am working full-time as an artist, I have more time to devote to doing some research on my own, so I will be checking out the authors you recommended. Also I found a lot of great information on the Gamblin website and I am sure that all of the major paint companies have a lot of educational materials on their sites.

I will say that retouch varnish is definitely also something that my other professors recommended, but I painted with the professor who used the Liquin, so of course I started using it too. One other quick note about Liquin, I do love to use it simply because of the effects I can get with it, but it is not something that should be used unless it is in a well-ventilated space or outdoors (read the warning on the label). I personally like it for plein air painting because it also helps to dry the paint faster, without drying out the shine. One last thing, I just have to say that it is nice to know that Clint is human! !)

jack white
Sharon. Look at Mikki's blogs. She shows step by step of her making paintings. A new painting every two or three days. She has images of her using Liquin.

We put a puddle of Liquin on our glass pallet. The clear glass is over a white board. This allows us to see the true color of the paint.

The Liquin puddle is about the size of a half dolllar. Push your painting knife into the Liquin and the amount at the end of the blade is about right to mix with your paints. Just the tip of the blade. We use Liquin to speed up the drying so the gallery folks don't get oils on their clothes when they are un-boxing a wet painting.

We sketch the design on the canvas with odorless thinner. If you will go back through Mikki's blog archives, all of this is covered over and over. She tells the brushes she is using, decribes the mahl stick and why she is using a certain color. Her blogs are like free art lessons.

We spray the Retouch varnish in our garage. WARNING do not over spray of the varnish will run. jack

Esther J. Williams
Instead of Liquin, which I have never used, I use Galkyd Lite for that glossy look, but I incorporate it into the actual painting application with my oil paints. As I am mixing my color on the palette I dip my palette knife into the Galkyd Lite just as you would dip into a little linseed oil. Only a few drops will have a great affect in creating a nice gloss as the oil dries on the painting. I went to a demonstration by Gamblin who manufactures the medium. It will not yellow. I also apply a retouch coat of Gamvar in the end after a month of drying. Gamvar can be diluted for a retouch varnish with Gamsol. For the final varnish coat, Gamvar is used full strength in six months. It is becoming used by conservators in museums as it will not yellow like a dammar gum varnish will. Great products that I swear by. Go to their website at and click on the oil painting materials page to see their mediums, varnishes and solvent products with descriptions and advice how to use.

Just a tip, do not overuse the Galkyd Lite in your oil color puddles on the palette, it will be too runny and not dry easily. Like chemistry, you need to use measured amounts and be consistent so the oil paint all dries the same time on the painting.

Thanks for the heads up on smoke damage to paintings and the importance of protecting them with the final six month varnish.

Jo Allebach
Wow! What a great article and the comments ... everyone has been so helpful. I am an acrylic artist. I have begun to take oil painting workshops. The information I gained here is invaluable to this very new oil artist. Thank you all.


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