How to Varnish an Acrylic or Oil Painting

A painting with varnish

Housing Works Thrift Shop/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Varnish is more than simply a layer to protect your painting from pollution in the atmosphere and abrasion. It will also bring out the colors to the brilliance they had when you applied them.

What You Need

  • Flat bristle brush
  • Matt or gloss varnish


  1. Ensure your painting is completely dry. Allow several months for an oil painting to dry properly. Depending on the thickness of the paint, this could be up to nine months.
  2. Clean the painting so it's free from dust, dirt, and grease. Lay the painting flat, then dampen a bit of cotton wool with clean water.
  3. Dry the painting with another bit of cotton wool. With your fingers, gently remove any cotton fibers that have been caught in the paint.
  4. Leave your painting to dry for several hours or overnight. Lean it against a wall, facing inward.
  5. Use a flat bristle brush to apply the varnish. If you don't want your painting to be too shiny, use a matt varnish rather than a gloss one.
  6. With the painting flat, work from the top to the bottom, applying the varnish in parallel strokes from one edge of the painting to the other. Always work in the same direction.
  7. When the first coat of varnish is dry, apply a second coat at right angles to the first. This will give you a good, even finish.
  8. Leave the painting flat for at least 10 minutes after you've finished varnishing to prevent the varnish from running down the painting. Then prop it up against a wall to dry, facing inward.
  9. To test whether the varnish is dry, touch the edge of the painting to see if it's still tacky. It should dry within a day or two, depending on the weather.

Tips for Best Results

  • Always varnish the whole of the painting in one sitting. If you do only a part and this has started to dry before you do the rest, you'll end up with a line where the first bit ends.
  • Try to have the same amount of varnish on the brush for each stroke so you put equal amounts of varnish on all parts of the painting.
  • Work in a dust-free environment, otherwise dust particles will get stuck in the wet varnish. Keep cats out too; being so inquisitive, you could end up with paw prints in your new varnish.
  • If you're too impatient to wait several months for your oil painting to dry so you can varnish it, you should consider using acrylics.