Painting Sold and Varnished: A Review and How-To with New Pre-Mixed Gamvar Varnish (for oils, acrylics, alkyds)

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 9"x12, oil on panel

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 9″x12, oil on panel

I just sold the painting above and wanted to varnish it with a protective layer before shipping. I’ve been afraid to try traditional damar-based varnish which is prone to drips, bubbles and yellowing. I knew that somehow at least one cat hair would embed itself. So in the past I used a spray-on varnish (which has its own disadvantagse) or just shipped sold paintings without varnishing.

The ORIGINAL 2-part Gamvar Picture Varnish

The ORIGINAL 2-part Gamvar

I’d read that Gamblin’s Gamvar synthetic varnish was easier to use and very archival, developed based on research at the National Gallery of Art. But it came as a two-part kit that you have to gently mix, every hour over eight hours. For me, that is a recipe for failure. I knew I’d get distracted and miss an hour just like when I make a cup of tea, forget about it, and hours later have to throw it out and start over.

New Gamvar Pre-Mixed Picture Varnish

New Gamvar Pre-Mixed Picture Varnish

Now it comes Pre-Mixed! Gamblin just released a pre-mixed version of Gamvar in a 2 oz. bottle containing enough varnish to cover 40 square feet. I called Gamblin with some questions that I didn’t see answered on their website. Their technical support people were on other calls so the operator connected me to their president who cheerfully answered my questions. You can’t beat that for customer service!

My questions and his answers were:

  • How long does it take to dry/how long before I can ship? Two days to ship, one day or less to dry to touch.
  • How soon can you varnish a painting? Best to wait 3 – 6 months, but you can varnish with Gamvar as soon as the painting is dry to the touch, or if thickly painted, when it is firm underneath the surface of the painting. The mild solvent in Gamvar won’t dissolve the surface paint.
  • What kind of brush to use? For my 9×12″ painting, he suggested just using a large filbert hog-bristle oil-painting brush. (I used a #12.) He said that regardless of the size of painting or brush, the bristles should be less than 1/4″ thick or they’ll suck up too much varnish.
  • Should the painting dry flat or standing up? Either is fine. Since the varnish is the consistency of water and you apply it VERY thinly there will be NO drips. (And he was right!)

Before I got started I watched this video on the Gamblin website:

He made it look so easy. And it was! No finesse, special talents, experience, or special brushes required. It’s not sticky, oily or smelly. (But do have proper ventilation anyway.) It’s so thin  that it won’t leave brushstrokes (although the shine can bring out the brush strokes in the painting).

The instructions below include tips that Gamblin tech support gave me when I called them again with more questions after varnishing a few paintings.

How to apply Gamvar Picture Varnish (with tips for troubleshooting)

  1. Try to work in an area where dust or pet hair won’t be a problem and remove any dust from the painting first. I gave each painting a swipe with a clean Viva paper towel (a blue “shop towel” or a lint-free cloth is OK too, but don’t use regular paper towels; they leave lint). Cover your work surface and wear gloves if you wish.
  2. Pour a small amount of the varnish in a separate container (I used a disposable plastic cup) and close the jar to prevent evaporation. Dip the brush just a bit so it doesn’t soak up too much varnish and wipe it several times on the side of the cup to remove any excess.
    (TIP: You really need only a tiny amount. Start with much less than you think you need.)
  3. Brush it on vigorously, scrubbing it in, like he does in the video above, corner to corner, crisscrossing, going back and forth until the surface is completely covered. When the painting is covered with no missed dry spots (tilt it to towards the light to check for areas without shine) stop brushing, you’re done. Or, for a more matte finish you can continue brushing for another 2 or 3 minutes.
    (TIP: If you notice areas where the varnish appears to bead up or resist, scrub in that area more vigorously. If it still resists, add 10% of Gamsol to the varnish you poured into a separate container. Gamvar has such a small percentage of solvent that for very slick passages of a painting it may need just a bit more solvent to “open” the surface.)
  4. Let it dry. I dried mine vertically on the repurposed Blockbuster video rack in my studio. Standing the paintings with the varnished side leaning towards a wall will help prevent dust from falling on them. Clean your brush with Gamsol or other odorless mineral spirits.
    (TIP: After the varnish dries, if you notice any areas you missed or spots that aren’t as shiny as the rest of the painting, just apply a second coat of the Gamvar to the dull spots, not the whole painting.)

Yesterday I varnished nearly two dozen works painted with oils, Holbein Duo water-soluble oils, acrylics, Golden Open Acrylics. The surface textures ranged from very smooth to very rough. Today they are all dry and have a nice even sheen that has restored the richness of the colors and darks. It took me less than one stress-free hour.

I also tried it on watercolor; it was fine on Aquabord, but on watercolor paper it just soaked in, accomplishing nothing. Even though it didn’t lift the paint, Gamblin doesn’t recommend it for watercolor without first applying an isolation coat and even then they say it doesn’t provide the needed protection of framing under glass.

Why varnish?

  • It is a way to unify the surface with an even sheen and bring back the depth of the colors.
  • It provides a protective coating and archival varnishes like Gamvar can be easily removed so that if the surface gets dirty, greasy, smoke-damaged or something splashes on it, when you remove the varnish with a little mild solvent, the paint surface below will be undamaged.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in Gamblin and was not asked to write a review. They’re just a great company.

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About Jana Bouc

I am an artist who loves (and lives) to sketch and paint in watercolor and oils. I teach watercolor classes in the San Francisco Bay Area.
This entry was posted in Art supplies, Mexico, Oil Painting, Painting, Product Review, Studio and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Painting Sold and Varnished: A Review and How-To with New Pre-Mixed Gamvar Varnish (for oils, acrylics, alkyds)

  1. Carol C says:

    Thanks for this informative article. I just went to an acrylic workshop and learned about varnishing paintings…not something that’s ever come up with watercolors! This helps shed some light on a potentially scary topic!!

    • Jana Bouc says:

      Yeah, I guess it’s still a little scary for me too. I may have gotten overly enthusiastic because under close inspection I found a few problems. I put a note on the blog about it and will update the post after I talk to Gamblin on Monday. Jana

  2. caseytoussaint says:

    I always use the spray on kind and then brush on normal varnish after, and I have had a few cat hairs stick to it. This looks great, but I wonder if it’s available in Europe? I love that painting, by the way. You get pulled right in and want to turn that corner and see aroune it.

    • Jana Bouc says:

      Thanks Casey! I love it too. The funny thing is that it was done from a Google Streetview for Virtual Paintout. Three of my paintings for Virtual Paintout were very successful and I think I’m going to start doing it again. I’ve posted a note on the blog that I spotted a few problems under close inspection and will be updating the post after I talk to Gamblin. I enjoyed seeing your recent post with the new paintings and I’m just so glad to know you’re still at it too. Hope to see you soon. Jana

  3. Kari says:

    Did you run into any problems on the watercolor painting? Did you spray it first? I was a little worried about brushing the surface and pulling up color. I have been looking into this subject and find very little on varnish on a watercolor painting. Thanks for the post! Kari

    • Jana Bouc says:

      Hi Kari, YES! I did run into problems when I tested using the varnish on a watercolor on paper. It worked fine on the Ampersand Aquabord but was useless on paper as it just completely absorbed into the paper. It didn’t seem to disturb the surface though. I actually edited the post and removed “watercolor” from the title and added the above information. Thanks for asking about it–your question made me check and I’m glad I did. I’d hate to lead people astray! I think it’s possible that if you first sprayed the watercolor it would work, but there wouldn’t really be any reason to do so if you’d already sprayed it. Jana

  4. Reiro says:

    I used Talens matte with always very good results, when I painted acrylics. Now that I changed to metal (Brass or steel) or metal coating and patinas (All from Sculpt Nouveau – USA) on canvas and inkjeted Japanese paper applications, I tried a couple of matte protective finishes. After some testing I definitely go for Smart Coat Matte Finish from Sculpt Nouveau – USA. Does not yellows, no bubbles or orange peel, great product.
    Cheers
    Reiro – Portugal

    Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in Sculpt Nouveau and was not asked to write this. I am just trying their products on my work, with very good results.

  5. How is the premixed GamVar versus their traditional unmixed GamVar? I’m curious as to why they just recently decided to premix it. What kind of surface sheen did it give you?

    • Jana Bouc says:

      I never tried the unmixed product. I bought a box of it but it looked like way too much trouble to mix and use. The premixed is super easy and gives a light surface sheen. It’s inexpensive and there are small bottles so it would be easy to give it a try on a less important piece to see if you like it. Jana

      Sketchblog: JanasJournal.com Website: JanaBouc.com UrbanSketchers-BayArea,blogspot.com

      • Thanks for the help. I’m definitely going to give GamVar a try. I have a feeling that I’m really going to like it. When you varnish your pieces how do you ensure that no dust or hair will settle on the surface? Most things I read mention a tent of some sorts over the piece but they are never specific about what they use and how they set the tent up.

      • Jana Bouc says:

        Sorry for the late reply! I don’t find that dust and hair is a problem with this product because it isn’t sticky and has the consistency of water. I have more problem with dust and brush hairs in the painting itself. And with my cats no longer able to get in my studio, that has helped a lot. I just put a piece of newsprint down on the table, brush on the varnish (see the video on the Gamblin website–he brushes the heck out of it, not gently at all) and set it on a rack to dry in a near vertical position. It dries within a couple hours. Gamblin has great tech support. They gave me a lot of info on the phone when I called them. I just bought their varnish brush but haven’t tried it yet…it seems a lot nicer than what I was using–very long bristles, not super soft hair as is usually sold for varnishing. Jana

        Sketchblog: JanasJournal.com Website: JanaBouc.com UrbanSketchers-BayArea,blogspot.com

  6. Jody says:

    great article I was concerned about the solvent dissolving my paintings because I like to use a workable finish right away and to do that it says to mix a 1 part varnish to 5 part solvent mix. This would increase the solvent in the mix? So now I feel like I have to wait longer and use a finishing layer of pure varnish.

  7. Sara Leibman says:

    Thanks for your article. It answered my two most pressing questions – how long do I HAVE to wait before varnishing an oil painting and how long does GamVar take to dry. When I ask the first question, people automatically say 5-6 months, but I figured that was just in case I want to be able to remove the varnish later without taking the paint with it. I have a few paintings that are in that category and I’ll wait to varnish them, but I also have plenty of paintings that don’t warrant such care. It’s nice to know that I can varnish them to meet show and other deadlines.

    • Jana Bouc says:

      According to Gamblin you can apply Gamvar as soon as the painting is dry to the touch (if the paint isn’t too thick). It’s different than the varnish containing damar that maybe does have to wait that long. Anyway, Gamvar is great stuff–very easy to use, pretty much foolproof. It’s not sticky and dries quickly. Jana

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