Mark Golden on Paint

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Varnishing Watercolors???

7 May, 2007 (08:09) | Plastic Arts

Over the last year we’ve received more and more requests from artists about putting our MSA varnish on top of their watercolor. The concept is simple; to be able to, in effect, seal the watercolor and to hold the pigment and binder in place with a much greater adhesive force onto the paper. Our MSA is formulated with an Ultra Violet filter and what is called a Hindered Amine Light stabilizer (HAL)s, which work together to reduce the amount of UV radiation as well as destructive force of the UV.

The concept is sound and the product does easily penetrate the very porous watercolor and help its adhesion to the paper while providing protection. My concern isn’t over the soundness of this technically as much as the questions it raises for artists using this technique to avoid having glass covering the work.

Once this mineral spirits acrylic varnish is applied, it becomes, for all intents and purposes, a permanent addition to the work. The acrylic has now saturated the pigment, gum and paper of the watercolor (depending upon the application technique and amount used). To a watercolorist, this is now a mixed media piece. This technique also requires considerable practice to assure that the varnish is not changing the aesthetics of the surface. It is probably the most difficult part of the painting process, to apply a varnish without some surface changes.

By not using glass though, the painted surface, varnish and paper are now subjected to direct contact with the environment, with the potential of being damaged by pollution, cigarette smoke, finger prints as well as pests. The damage caused by this contact is potentially much more difficult to remove.

For me though, the most important issues involve the gain and loss in this likely irreversible process. The artist gains greater adhesion of the pigments to the paper as well as offering the viewer a direct contact with the work. The loss is in the feel of a well made natural paper and the potential that the varnish changes the overall surface quality of a beautiful watercolor. I realize that this technique can reduce the overall expense of having a glass cover for the work, but this should not be the governing value here. The ultimate choice is up to each artist, but it is essential that the artist makes this choice with an understanding of its consequences.




Comment from Sarah Sands
Time: May 9, 2007, 7:57 am

Building off of Mark’s comments wanted to share a couple of interesting – albeit brief – mentions of varnishing watercolors in the past and its role:

“Thomas Gainsborough’s Varnished Watercolor Technique, by Jonathan P. Derow, Master Drawings, Vol. 26, no. 3, Autumn 1988, pp 259-271.

A discussion and examination undertaken at the Fogg Art Museum of Gainsborough’s unusual watercolor technique in the 1770’s. Similar watercolors in other collections were also examined. The author acknowledges Marjorie Cohn and other conservators for helping with the article, which includes many photomicrographs as well as technical information of interest to conservators.”

“…As a brief aside, it is important to differentiate between the historical application of a transparent substance for purely protective reasons and the practice of varnishing popular prints and watercolors to make them resemble more costly oil paintings, with which watercolors were competing for sale. Another reason for varnishing was to avoid the high price of glass, a trend that can be traced back to Oliver Cromwell’s duty imposed on glass in 1645 (Mason 1992). Despite sharing the same unfortunate consequences in terms of conservation, this practice has entirely different motivations and a fascinating history of its own (Lambert 1987; Mason 1992). Likewise, a distinction must be made for the common practice of varnishing maps to render them waterproof and more resilient when rolling and unrolling (Petrokova 1992).

Sarah Sands
Technical Support
Golden Artist Colors

Comment from Meg Koziar
Time: May 9, 2007, 9:37 am

I learned a lesson when varnishing a watercolor on canvas.
I used a workable fixative first, but had the canvas (18×24) resting on the carport floor, and didn’t get enough fixative on the lower part. When I applied the varnish with a brush it picked up the pigment from the watercolor in the lower portion (which had the darker colors) and spread them over the area. I donated the piece, as I considered it unsalable, but I like the effect of making the colors more saturated, and the recipients didn’t even notice it was damaged.

Comment from Mark Golden
Time: May 9, 2007, 12:13 pm

Meg, what kind of varnish were you using?

Comment from Ginger Pena
Time: May 11, 2007, 8:28 am

I have never varnished a watercolor on paper, but in the last 2 years, I have turned to painting with watercolors on watercolor canvas, which I varnish. For me, the benefits of varnishing are immense. I like seeing the work without glass over it, and I love being able to use the plein air frames that oil painters use, and without the cost of mats, glass and the additional size these add to the frame, I am saving money while still adding to perceived value.

Like Meg, I first protect the canvas with a spray fixative or a spray of clear polyurethane or enamel, then use a bush-on varnish with UV protectors in it. I use a matte picture varnish from Daniel Smith. I may try the golden brand next time, since Mark says it also has the UV protectors. I think one could also use acylic matte medium, but I haven’t tried that yet.

Most watercolor societies will not accept a varnished watercolor into their shows, so that is one drawback of utilizing varnish. Personally, I would never varnish a watercolor on paper for the sole purpose of avoiding glass, because I don’t think paper is durable enough to frame directly. For those who want to avoid glass, try watercolor canvas or textured clay board.

Comment from Dori Ohlson
Time: May 14, 2007, 12:37 pm

I have been using the Golden Varnish (with UV protection) in a spray can with success – I don’t have a problem with calling my work mixed media, if necessary. My question (for Golden) is – Can I buy the varnish in a large quantity that I can use with my own spray equipment (to save on cost – the spray can only does about 2 paintings and gets quite costly).
Thanks for the help.
Don Ohlson

Comment from Mark Golden
Time: May 15, 2007, 7:51 am

Ginger, If at all possible try using a clear acrylic for the first fixing coats. I’d really want the Urethane evaluated for changes over time before I’d make that recommendation. If you have information on some of those products, we’d be happy to evaluate them.

Also stay away from Matte Medium as an isolating or top coat material. I realize that many artists love the look of this material as it seems to disappear into many different surfaces, especially fabric or paper. For a sizing material, the Fluid matte medium is a better alternative. Not as matte but, an incredibly clean product.

Your idea of sealing the surface before applying a matte varnish is excellent. This is probably one of the greatest errors artists make is trying to seal a very absorbent paint with a very matte varnish. All too often the liquid portion of the varnish is quickly wicked into the absorbent surface leaving a powdery residue of the matting solids. An unsealed or partially sealed surface can result in white spotting or worse, a permanent cloudy mist over a work. We typically recommend sealing with a clear, gloss product before applying a matte. In the case of watercolor, this may not always be possible, so a careful application of our Satin varnish may a better alternative.

The surface will change no matter what you do! So… the best advice is still to test your products before working directly on your finished piece! Thanks so much for sharing. I’m sure with time many of the watercolor groups will open the door for these works, as they’ve done with work done in acrylic or other watermedia. I was so grateful when Sarah shared the historical references for varnishing watercolor. I guess nothing new under the sun…
Regards, Mark

Comment from Mark Golden
Time: May 15, 2007, 8:03 am

Dori, thanks so much for the question. Our MSA varnish with UVLS is almost a direct replacement for the spray product in the can. The biggest difference is that the liquid product MUST be thinned for brushing or spraying.

Here’s the info on using the MSA with UVLS (including thinning directions)

When using our Archival Varnish here are the technical notes on application

If you’d rather a conversation with a human, please give Mike Townsend a call in our Tech Department and he’ll give you all the details on how to dilute this product for proper spraying. He’s the spraying guru here.

Regards, Mark

Comment from Roy Lerner
Time: June 29, 2007, 3:40 pm

Hi Mark, this is Eric down at Roy Lerner’s studio. We’ve finally taken your advice and found some UVLS varnish for the flourescent paints. I’d have sent you an email, but I think we misplaced your address (could you send it to us at some point?). Anyway, I mixed a few test spots with flourescent red paint by itself, the red mixed unevenly with high solid gel, and the red mixed unevenly with light molding paste to cover most of the different ways that Roy applies the acrylics. For test purposes, I just used a foam brush with the acrylic polymer UVLS varnish, with a 20% water mixture on half of the mixes and left the other half untreated. We’re going to be putting them out in the sunlight (when it’s not a torrential downpour) to see what some of the effects are and whether or not the test application was sufficient. How long do you think it will take to see results? Also, we applied the UVLS when the paint was cured on the outside, but not completely dry all the way through. Will this have an impact on the effectiveness of the UVLS, and will the UVLS prevent or hinder the release of water from the still-curing paint? Is it better to be using the polymer varnish or the MSA varnish on the acrylic?

Aside from that, we have also brought out a huge amount of old unstretched paintings, mostly on very heavy, usually bare canvas. Some of these paintings date back to the 70’s, and the canvas is covered in black mold. We’re not sure what the best way to treat it is. Roy remembers using BHT for a similar problem a long time ago, but we don’t think that was for getting the mold off, but rather to help keep it from coming back. We’re a little afraid of what to use to clean it off since there are a variety of the original Golden paints as well as others on the oldest paintings, and we’re not sure what might get damaged in the cleaning process.

Thank you, hope all is well.

Comment from Mark Golden
Time: July 5, 2007, 1:08 pm

Hi Eric and Roy! Sounds like a good test for the material. You’re correct in thinking that it would be better to have the materials completely dry before applying the varnish, but for your test purposes it won’t matter much.

The MSA is a tighter film than the Polymer Varnish, so it will typically offer greater protection. I can’t imagine applying a varnish with a foam brush on Roy’s work. I think 4 or 5 spray coats would be a much better solution, even if you only want to spot varnish just the fluorescent passages.

I’ll have to get some expert help for you and dealing with the black mold. Give a call to tech support and we’ll try to get you set up. (800) 959 6543. All our best! Mark

Comment from Cindy
Time: August 6, 2007, 2:54 pm

Hi Mark,
I use a wash of watercolor on a paper (frankfurt cream) and then use amber shellac mixed with denatured alcohol. Once it’s dry I use it for my drawing surface.

According to my teacher, the shellac/alcohol mixture allows the pencils to work on the paper. This is for a figure drawing class.

Any ideas of how similar the finish on the MSA varnish would be compared to the shellac?

Oh, BTW been playing with the graphite acrylic and it’s so much fun!

Comment from Mark Golden
Time: August 8, 2007, 4:33 pm

Hi Cindy, I’m not sure how this would work with our various MSA finishes, but we’ll give it a try and report. I love questions that stump us. Keeps things wonderfully fresh here! Regards, Mark

Comment from peter
Time: September 3, 2007, 2:48 pm

I’m confused
“Also stay away from Matte Medium as an isolating or top coat material. For a sizing material, the Fluid matte medium is a better alternative”

“We typically recommend sealing with a clear, gloss product before applying a matte”

There seems to be lots of products with almost the same name and do almost the same thing. What is the difference between fluid matte medium and matte medium ? What do you mean by sizing here ? is sizing a top coat and isolation coat? It seems like you changed subjects there with out saying what to use instead of matte medium as a top coat but then it seems that matte medium is ok as a top coat on top of gloss..

If the point of Varnish is to be removable for cleaning than it would seem that the top coat would have to be only solvent based because other wise removing the top polymer “varnish” coat would also remove the polymer isolation coat whether is is matte or gloss. Does polymer varnish have a different solvent for removing and cleaning than other polymer coatings used as isolation coats such as soft gel, glazing fluid, leveling fluid or mediums?

Comment from peter
Time: September 3, 2007, 3:02 pm

People have been using paper in collage on canvas for years and applying it with polymer medium. These paintings are not always framed under glass. Paper “glued ” to canvas and coated with acrylic would seem be much tougher than the canvas by itself. it’s easy to poke a whole in canvas but quite difficult to poke a hole in watercolor paper on canvas. If the watercolor paper is treated with several layers of fixative, soft gel, and varnish . It seems to me Watercolor on paper on canvas is more archival than paint on canvas. There shouldn’t be any problem with framing it with out glass. Essentially the watercolor becomes an acrylic painting and should be just as archival as acrylic on canvas or watercolor on canvas. The paper is no longer subject to the environment any more that an acrylic painting would be. the acrylic layers make it water resistant. The varnish makes it uv and pollution resistant.

Comment from Mark Golden
Time: September 14, 2007, 9:48 am

Peter, I can sympathize with your confusion. A sizing would be a material only for application directly to your support. A sizing is not a top coat for the surface of your work. I hope that makes sense. When I suggest using Fluid Matte Medium as a size for clarity versus the Matte Medium, I do that because many people wanting to size a canvas a potentially have that canvas color coming through might want the clearest product possible. Others might want a more matte product. In which case then you’d want the Matte Medium. Different strokes……

When we talk about an isolation coat; this is the application of a protective clear coat on the surface of your painting. For that purpose, I’d never recommend our Matte Medium. It is extremely matte and as such might obscure an image that is underneath. I always recommend our soft gel gloss as this product has the greatest clarity and would be allow for the greatest clarity of image underneath. I hope that makes some sense.

For a varnish, we only recommend removable coatings. But for the greatest success on removability and for evenness of finish, it is important to seal your painting. If you don’t do that it could lead to streaking or fogging especially if you desire to use a matte varnish as a final coat.

We usually recommend using clear (gloss) coats underneath until the work is completely sealed before working with our Matte MSA Varnish or Matte Polymer Varnish. Again this provides for the greatest clarity of image. Of course as an artist you can dismiss or ignore these suggestions, and many artists do. One just needs to be aware of the potential consequences.

If you still have questions, as I know these products all sound so similar to one another, please give our Tech Support a call at 800 959 6543. Regards, Mark

Comment from Suzannah
Time: March 23, 2008, 12:49 pm

This is all very helpful but I was wondering if anyone had any info on a fixative top coat for watercolor on birch panels.
I size the panel with rabbit skin glue and then paint on that surface. Since it’s a cradled panel they usually don’t get framed and I have been looking into something to protect it without changing the look. Any suggestions?

Comment from Mark
Time: March 24, 2008, 3:51 pm

Suzannah, this is a pretty interesting combination you have here. You’ll certainly need a solvent borne system if you’re planning on top coating this piece. I’ve not worked with our MSA on top of watercolor on top of rabbit skin glue, but you might want to test it out. Another solvent borne product you might want to investigate is Gamblins – GamVar. Again, I don’t have any experience relating to your exact application, but these are places I’d try. I’ll speak to our technical team to see if anyone else has some experience. Remember the difficult part of what you’re doing is that it will most likely be irreversible. Best of luck with the project. Mark

Comment from Cindy
Time: August 14, 2008, 7:40 am

Any feedback on the Varnish over wash for pencil?

I am using prismacolor verithins and the varnished surface helps reduce the waxiness of the pencils.

Comment from Mark
Time: August 14, 2008, 8:38 am

Cindy, great question and something we’ve not yet studied. I’ll definitely get some work started soon. I will share that I’ve had issues with our MSA varnish on pastels and charcoal as it is penetrates these materials so easily that it can change the depth and value of these materials. You have to work very lightly over these materials. I realize that colored pencils are a different material and it should be interesting to see the reaction. Thanks, Mark

Comment from Jane Troyer
Time: January 1, 2009, 11:34 pm

Dear Mark,
I greatly appreciate these conversations about varnishing watercolors. It’s a hard decision whether or not to varnish. What would you suggest, a spray-fix possibly, as a better solution to using varnish on liquid watercolors on canvas without gesso? And then I thought I would add glass? Or is better just to put the liquid watercolors on canvas under glass without a spray fix. I have a couple tubes of Open Acrylics, I thought that tomorrow I would try those in washes, too. I am also using the Liquid Matt Acrylics tomorrow on ungessod canvas, and I am excited to use these acrylics. Thank you, much. Jane

Comment from Hedley Roberts
Time: November 12, 2010, 3:13 am

Dear Mark (and Suzannah). I too have watercolour on Rabbit Skin Glue Gesso MDF panel 60×48. I’m looking to seal it with UV varnish. Any advice or feedback on your tests? thanks Hedley

Comment from Mark
Time: November 12, 2010, 12:47 pm

Dear Hedley, I’ve not had any experience with Rabbit Skin Glue Gesso and watercolor. You have our interest! The MSA Varnish would be my first suggestion as nothing in this varnish would disturb the water sensitive Gesso or the watercolor. Take a look at this link and give our tech folks a call at 800 959 6543

Comment from Bill
Time: October 29, 2012, 5:49 am

I have repainted over a watercolour picture using acrylic. Acrylic varnish gives patches of dullness. Should I use watercolour varnish instead?

Comment from Mark
Time: October 29, 2012, 8:04 am

Bill, Not being able to see the piece or detailing its construction, it would be difficult to give you advice. Often dulling of the varnish occurs when the paint surface is not sealed and the varnish is taken up unevenly by the paper. We have an application technical paper on varnishing watercolor. I’ve attached it below. I’d also recommend that you give a call to our technical support group who would be able to understand your situation in greater detail.
Thanks, Mark

Comment from Robert Bambrick
Time: May 10, 2017, 11:44 pm

So glad to see so many view points regarding varnishing watercolor paintings. Have been varnishing most of my painting for over 8 years now and have sold many. From my perspective , the finish product out shines the old fashion way of finishing and framing and I guarantee all of them for as long as I live. The advantages out numbers the disadvantages . Bob

Comment from Cheryl Wisbrock
Time: July 30, 2017, 3:56 pm

I am trying to find definitive information/instruction about varnishing (spray) watercolors. I read a blog where Mark Golden referenced the following page which was to be a technical paper on that topic but it only brings up a brief sheet on acrylic paint. Can you help?

Comment from Cheryl Wisbrock
Time: July 30, 2017, 3:57 pm

Would love to know more about how Robert Bambrick uses varnish (which products etc) for watercolor.

Comment from Mark
Time: August 2, 2017, 8:22 am

Cheryl sorry for the late reply.
Take a look at these resources for information. We have Materials Application Specialists on staff that can also answer your questions. Please don’t hesitate to call 1800 959-6543

Comment from Carla flegel
Time: August 31, 2017, 1:01 am

Currently i apply gel medium to a birch panel. Then apply the watercolour paper directly onto the panel. Then when i am ready to finish the painting i spray a fixative on then a coat of archival UV protectant then apply a coat of Dorland’s wax… i am wondering if i can apply a quick coat of a varnish and then apply a liquid varnish over that much like an acrylic painting??? I am concerned that the wax will “collect dust or dirt” and think the varnish will be more permanent anyone have any experience with this format … when my painting is complete it looks like a “wrapped canvas” on the wood panels

Comment from Bill Berry
Time: May 21, 2018, 8:24 pm

Maybe I’ve just not read all these remarks, but I’ve not seen anything that tells of any dangers of yellowing over time due to varnishing. Is there any problem with this?

Comment from Sue Buck
Time: November 7, 2018, 4:32 pm

Am mounting my Golden MSA Gloss varnished watercolor paintings on panel boards using Golden Extra Heavy Gel Gloss as an adhesive. LOVE the finish of the MSA. But, am having an issue with the watercolor paint lifting off the paper as the Gel adhesive is drying.
I must say I use my watercolors very thick, so thick that the humidity of outdoor shows was swelling some colors into contact with the (was using) traditional glass of framing. (Therefore, why I began varnishing.)
Any info on how to remedy this paint-lifting issue??

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