How to Varnish a Watercolor Painting for Surface and UV Protection

Varnished Watercolor Painting of chipmunk by Deb Watson framed without glass or mat

You can use varnish to protect your watercolor painting from surface dirt or UV damage. Varnished watercolors can be framed like oil or acrylic paintings, without glass or mat and there are lots of advantages. Here’s everything you need to know about varnish and watercolors.

What Varnish Works With What Watercolors

Your type of paper matters when you want to varnish your work!

Cold pressed and rough watercolor papers let the paint sink in deeply and that paint is less likely to be disturbed or displaced when varnishing. On hot press paper, the paint sits more on the top and the image may blur and lose detail if it gets damp.

Test your varnish on a scrap piece of your paper before you try varnishing a painting you have a lot of work in.

Varnish Types for Watercolor – The Good and The Bad

Varnished Watercolor Painting by Deb Watson framed without glass or mat - tulips

I use Golden Archival Spray Varnish – I like the mat finish. There are other brands of spray varnish on the market – just check the label to see that they are archival and for watercolor.

Cheaper sprays? – One of my artist friends bought cheap spray varnish and bragged how it worked just as well for almost nothing. Then her paintings turned yellow in the next year. Don’t use cheap sprays.

Liquid varnish for watercolor paintings – Another friend uses a liquid varnish and gently brushes on the coats with a large flat brush. This works well for her cold pressed watercolor paintings but I haven’t tried that.

How to Apply Spray Varnish to Watercolor Paintings for Surface and UV Protection

Varnished Watercolor Painting of Deer by Deb Watson framed without glass or mat

Follow the directions on your varnish when you use it on your watercolor paintings – 3 coats, apply in warm temperatures and use in good ventilation.

The instructions on my Golden Spray Varnish say to give your work 3 or more coats of varnish for UV and surface protection, so I give it 3 light coats that cover the surface but not enough to bead up or run.

I usually spray the painting horizontally first, dry, then spray it going vertically, dry, and last give it spray diagonally and dry.

Spray your work outside or in a well ventilated room. The temperature needs to be 50 or above. If you do spray it in colder weather and it turns cloudy, you can let it dry well and give it another coat of varnish to usually get rid of the cloudiness.

Does Varnishing Watercolor Paintings Really Protect Their Surface?

See for yourself in this video – the painting was done on 140 Lb. Arches cold pressed paper and varnished with 3 coats of Golden Archival Spray Varnish. I used it in over a hundred demos and the paint did eventually start to lighten after all that washing, but it held up well for all that abuse.

How to Frame A Varnished Watercolor Painting Without Glass or Mat

How do you get a piece of watercolor paper to stay in a frame?

Paint on illustration board for the easiest framing of your watercolor without glass or mat.

The easiest way to successfully frame varnished watercolor paintings like oils and acrylics, without glass or mat, is to paint on illustration board.

Illustration board is matboard with watercolor paper mounted on top. It is easy to cut to size of your frame and stays put well.

Mount your watercolor paper onto board to frame it like an oil or acrylic.

You can have your watercolor painting dry mounted at the frame shop.

I mount my 140 lb. watercolor paper on artist panels, using acrylic gesso medium as the glue. This takes practice and is messy. I’ll do another blog post on this process so I can show you step by step.

Varnished Watercolor Painting of Cowboy by Deb Watson framed without glass or mat

Why Varnish Watercolors?

Better presentation – Varnished watercolors have an up close and personal appeal to their viewers as opposed to works under glass.

Less cost – Framing is much less expensive when you don’t need glass and mat.

Less weight and safer – Large watercolor paintings with glass are very heavy and broken glass could pose a serious were they to fall due to being bumped, earthquake, etc.

Can be hung in sunny or damp areas without damage – Watercolors hung in sunny areas without expensive UV glass will fade over time. Watercolor paintings hung in damp kitchen or bathroom areas will buckle up in their frames due to moisture. Mounted or illustration board watercolor paintings with varnish can safely be hung in either hazardous area without damage.

How to Mount a Watercolor Painting on Board

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