My recommended protective finish for your paintings

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In our Facebook Group, the question comes up a lot about the best way to bring shine and a nice glossy finish back to the dried paintings. Acrylic paints can dry rather dull and darker than when wet, but adding back a glossy finish and brightening up those colors again is easy!

What top coating, protective finish or varnish should you use on acrylic paintings and why. Learn about my favorite and why I love it

Why ‘protect’ your paintings?

  1. Cleaning.  A protective top coat on your paints can keep off dust and other dirt or marks that could build up over time and discolor the painting. It would also protect it from splashes and create a water-resistant finish. That doesn’t mean you should rinse off your painting under the tap if it’s dusty, but a wipe with a lightly damp rag shouldn’t do any harm.
  2. Colors and shine. Acrylic paints can dry rather matte and dull and often look a bit disappointing when compared to how they shine when they are wet. By adding a glossy coat on top of the dry painting, you can really make those colors shine again, and it helps to brighten them up – like a wet-look again.
  3. Smooth finish. If your painting dries with a few pinholes or more texture in the paint than you would like, you can usually smooth out the surface by using a self-levelling protective finish. The more layers you add, the less any unwanted little bumps or textures will be noticeable.

What is the difference between a protective finish and a varnish?

You may have heard varnish used as a generic term for any finish, but traditional varnish describes an older form of finish that contains alkyd resin, oil, and solvents. When applied to surfaces indoors or out, varnish cures into a thin and glossy film with a faint yellow or amber tint, similar to the finish achieved with oil-based polyurethane.

So although we might talk about ‘varnishing’ our paintings to protect them, we aren’t actually using a real varnish to do that. A varnish would be oil based and typically has a slightly yellow tint – not good for our paintings!

What is the best varnish to use on acrylic paintings and why?
A typical varnishing session with Polycrylic.

What makes a good protective finish for your art?

You will be looking for something that has these features in order to top-coat an acrylic painting:

  • Water-based (not oil based), with easy soap and water cleanup for your brushes
  • Non-yellowing
  • Glossy finish (or matte if you prefer)
  • Self-levelling
  • Doesn’t show brush strokes

Why I love the MinWax Polycrylic Protective Finish

The Polycrylic protective finish checks all the boxes for me when it comes to protecting my artworks. It’s easy to use, you can really put it on nice and thick and there are never any brush strokes. It self-levels so it spreads and smooths out a little like a resin. It’s glossy, and it’s not too expensive. I can easily wash out my brush after and it never hardens.

There were questions raised in the Facebook group about whether it would yellow so I wrote to MinWax and asked them all about it, and which of their product range would be best for protecting acrylic paintings. They said:

“the only products we offer that will be suitable for use over paint would be the Polycrylic or the Water-Based Helmsman Spar Urethane. Neither of these coatings will amber over time, which is typical with other polyurethane type products. To apply this product, however, you will need to allow the paint to fully cure (at least 30 days) first.  This will prevent the solvents in our products from reacting with those still remaining in a still-curing paint coating, avoiding the color running, discoloring or hazing. Apply your clear finish per label directions. You should have pleasing results for your project. “

That was interesting advice about allowing the acrylic paint to fully cure before applying the top coat and I think that would be good advice to follow whatever top coat you decide to use. I usually leave it about 10 days and so far (fingers crossed) I’ve never had any issues with this finish.

The Polycrylic comes in matte, satin, semi-gloss and gloss. You can get it in a spray can (which I’ve never tried) or in various different sized cans.  Recoating time is 2 hours and it’s fully dry in 24hrs. So if you are looking for a nice glossy and easy to use finish for your paintings, give Polycrylic a try. You can get it here:

Amazon USA

Amazon Canada

Amazon UK

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40 thoughts on “My recommended protective finish for your paintings”

  1. For fine art and archival purposes a solvent based sealer is best, this is because it can be removed if need arises to repair a painting in the future. Acrylic based varnishes/sealers can not be removed.

    1. That’s a very good point that serious artists creating awesome art works should consider. Which one do you recommend Jacqi?

      1. I use Gamblin products on my fine art acrylics. The product is known as Gamvar and the solvent is Gamsol. Gamvar comes in matte, satin or gloss. I recommend painting an isolation layer on your piece first. This solution is 2 parts Golden Gel Medium to 1 part water. Paint an even thin coat that goes on milky but dries clear. Let this gas out and the paint the Gamvar on in a single thin even coat. I prefer the satin but have used them all.

        1. I use the same method as Dan. Before applying any varnish I coat the fully dry acrylic canvas with an ISOLATING coat. The same as Dan uses.
          Then the varnish. I use Soluvar by Liquitex.
          If the painting in the future needs to be cleaned the varnish can be remove to the isolating coat, without harming the acrylic.

    2. Thankyou for sharing your knowledge, it is fantastic to know what and how to use paints and Varnishes. I was going to do a record but didn’t quite know how to paint the Gesso onto it should I do it in the round groves of the album? Thanks Lee from down under.

  2. I’ve been trying to find the answer to a query I’ve had in regards to using silicone (or any oil-based product) in the paint to create cells.

    We all know oil and water don’t mix… nor does oil evaporate. Do the silicone additives leave residue on the dried paintings? Is there any reaction when you do clear-coat the finished results?

    1. Yes you do get silicone oil sitting on the surface of the painting when it is dry. I remove mine by rubbing in circular motions with some talc or cornstarch, then brushing that off with a soft towel and wiping down with a wet wipe. If there is any oil still visible repeat these steps and its all good to go and varnish. Never had any issues with it separating. Thanks for asking.

      1. Fantastic! Thank you for that info, Deby. There’s information everywhere about silicone but not a lot about removing it from the finished product. I finally found a tutorial last night (I think by Danny Clark?) which gave a few methods of removal.

  3. Did you figure out a way to finish the small tiles to make coasters? I used a triple coat product but after several weeks it got tiny bubbles in it.

    1. I’m still experimenting Lori. It takes a while because I need to make sure the paint is fully cured before varnishing and then make sure the varnish is fully cured before testing. I have 6 products to test so far. I will report back …

  4. Hi Deby,
    I’m getting ready to topcoat my first pour and decided to use Polycrylic as you recommended. What brush do you use? I hate to use a good art brush. Have you tried the Wooster Shortcut?

    1. I use a really soft varnish brush I got from my DIY store. I only use it for varnishing and make sure to wash it in soapy water afterwards.

      1. Thank you for sharing all of your great experience and ideas!
        I just finished top coating my pours with Minwax Polycrylic Gloss. I have an unexpected result. It crackled the finish of all the paintings, especially in the areas of thicker paint. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions?

        1. Oh that is terrible. I’ve not had that on any of mine. How long had you left the paintings before varnishing, and what surface was it?

          1. The pours were comprised of medium flow acrylics, PVA , Floetrol and treadmill silicone on canvas. Sizes 12×12, 16×20, 11×14.
            Let dry between 3 weeks to 1 week. I top coated 15 pieces, all did the same thing to varying degrees. Two coats of Polycryl Gloss.
            Could it be the amount of polycryl? I thought it applied rather thick. I applied it with a good quality synthetic brush, but was getting brush marks anyway.
            I have refinished furniture, so top coating is not unfamiliar to me, though, I have never used Polycryl before.
            Can polycryl be thinned a bit with water or Floetrol?
            Thanks for your help!

  5. I only use Liquitex Pouring medium with soft body and fluid acrylics. I was excited to hear about the polycrylic drying smoothcwithout brush strokes but now concerned because Carol said she had cracking. Carol what paint, mediums, do you use water or silicone? How long did you let your paintings cure?

  6. Even if you put varnish on your painting (after isolation coat first); if you put it before the painting has cured well the varnish will streak across with the acrylic. So make sure your paintings are cured well especially if they are thick acrylic.

    1. The only way to find out is test it and see 🙂 I suggest testing on an old canvas you aren’t so in love with and see how it performs. Sprays usually are best used in several very light coats. They don’t have the gloss of a thicker brush on varnish but will still protect your paintings.

  7. Thanks for your info. One question-what happens when silicone oil keeps rising to the surface of a painting? will it affect the sealer and the paint?

  8. I’m finding that I get brush strokes even with a fine varnish brush. I recently bought the Mod Podge brush to see if that will leave a smoother finish.
    Any suggestions on application? Thank you.

    1. It might be that you are using it a bit too thinly. I really slosh it on there nice and wet and then the brush strokes even out and smooth away behind the brush. The only time I’ve had trouble was when it was really hot here and I put it on too thinly and it was basically drying as I was doing it.

      1. Thank you for that tip. I decided to put a thicker layer on and it dried in a cracked pattern. How many coats do you usually apply?

          1. I did a thicker coat on six pieces hoping for a self leveling effect and no brush marks and all of them cracked. I am so frustrated.

          2. Oh that is frustrating. We’ve had a couple of people post examples of this in the FB group recently too. It seems to happen very rarely and since it just started now, I’m wondering if humidity or temperature, drying time etc has anything to do with it. You may be able to hide the cracks by applying more layers.

          3. The application was in the San Diego area with higher humidity. I have had success applying it here in Phoenix, AZ. I love the Mod Podge brush to apply it with.

  9. I have a beautiful large acrylic painting (bought 10 years ago) of an ocean wave. The painting is covered in a varnish / resin lacquer. I can see its the lacquer going yellow not the painting underneath the lacquer. So my beautiful white water wave is going ‘yellow’. From what I’ve read here it looks like my painting is unrepairable?
    There is no way of getting the lacquer off? Any comments or ideas to save my painting?

    1. That is disappointing. I’d suggest taking it to an expert just for a review. They may be able to test a little of the varnish on the side of the painting and see if it is easily removable with a solvent, without damaging the paint underneath. I think varnished acrylic paintings are going to be a challenge for conservators in future.

    1. Not being from Australia, I’m finding that hard to answer. I know you have some really good art stores, so I suggest getting one of the artist varnishes designed for use with acrylics. The staff there should be able to help you find the perfect one. But for DIY store alternatives, I really don’t know what you have available.

  10. I am just a beginner with this dirt pour and I have some cracking also after I applied the polyurethane should I just do the ne coat

    1. You used a polyurethane? Hmm, I’m not sure if that is the best finish for acrylic paintings. Have you used it before successfully? If the first coat has cracked, it really is almost impossible to repair that. You can add more coats and it may smooth out and hide the cracks a little but I don’t think they will disappear. Did you use PVA in your painting? It seems to be the most common indicator when the varnish crazes or cracks.

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