Aesthetics of Varnishing Transparent Watercolor

This article briefly explores the permanent changes created by varnishing transparent watercolor on paper, in particular the aesthetic changes to color, value, texture, and sheen. Keep in mind that varnishing also changes the nature of the painting through the permanent addition of acrylic. While there are several approaches to varnishing watercolor, we only focused on what happens when creating a removable varnish layer. This involves a three-step process: ‘fixing’ the transparent watercolor, applying an isolation coat, and varnishing. By creating a barrier between the painting and the varnish, the isolation coat allows for removal and replacement of the varnish should the surface become damaged in the future. For more information, please see our Varnishing Watercolors with GOLDEN Products tech sheet and Varnishing Resources page.

Sample Preparation:

We applied QoR Payne’s Gray in three dilutions to Fabriano Artistico 300 lb. / 640 g.s.m. cold press watercolor paper. This resulted in a strip of bare paper, then bands of light, medium, and dark washes. Over this, spray coats of aerosol Archival Varnish Gloss locked down the water-soluble paint surface. An isolation coat of Soft Gel Gloss diluted 2:1 with water was brush applied, allowed to dry, and followed with a second isolation layer to create a glossy surface. Finally, following directions for dilution where appropriate, we applied Gloss, Satin, and Matte versions of MSA Varnish, Polymer Varnish, or Archival Varnish.

Test Results:

Overall, varnish changed the transparent watercolor paint’s color and value while overpowering or muting the distinctive interplay of light and shadow inherent to the texture of cold press watercolor paper. Lighting angles and viewing positions can have a dramatic impact on how a varnished surface reads, and the same area may be easy to see or completely obscured depending on context and position.


Changes occurred to the watercolor paint’s value and color with every varnish. Payne’s Gray darkened slightly in nearly all the examples. This change is demonstrated clearly in the tests of Gloss varnish over a dark wash. The only exceptions to this darkening of color are the Matte varnishes, which lightened the dark wash. Varnished Payne’s Gray also developed a tinge of tan throughout the tests, shifting color away from a blue-black and toward a warmer or more neutral black or gray. Overall, all of the varnishes seem to have the smallest impact on the appearance of bare watercolor paper, with the Matte varnishes creating the least change.

Surface Sheen and Cold Pressed Texture

All three Gloss varnishes dried to glossy surfaces, although the Polymer Varnish Gloss is slightly less shiny. Light reflecting off the Gloss sheen creates a white glare in certain lighting and viewing situations. The higher areas of the paper texture reflect light more brightly, and can create a broken reflective quality that obscures the painting. The intensity of the reflection and the impact of paper texture are both less with Satin varnish than with Gloss. However, Polymer Varnish Satin was glossier than its Satin companions, and created a surface that can sparkle with tiny dots of reflected light that make it hard to see the painting. MSA and Archival Varnish Satin both created a low sheen with softer reflections that provide less distraction. There are no disrupting light reflections with the Matte varnishes, and the painting is visible through the layers. The muted sheen created by the Matte surface quiets the visual texture of the cold press paper by reducing contrast. This subordinates the importance of the paper’s unique texture, which consequently plays a lesser role in the overall composition of the painting.


Varnishing transparent watercolor on paper permanently changes the nature and aesthetics of the painting, creating a mixed media work with altered colors, values, surface texture, and sheen. We recommend testing on the paper and with the paints being used before a decision is made as to varnish and sheen. If these changes are embraced, varnishing of watercolor may be both acceptable and liberating. If a painting contains many intense dark colors, Gloss or Satin varnishes might be good choices. If the painting focuses upon light and middle values, the changes created by a Matte varnish might be most satisfactory. We will continue our own testing of GOLDEN Varnishes over more QoR watercolors in the future.

Watercolor with Varnish

QoR Payne’s Gray on Fabriano Artistico 300 lb. / 640 g.s.m. cold pressed watercolor paper, with (left) unvarnished, 1 brushed coat of diluted MSA Varnish, unvarnished, 1 brushed coat of Polymer Varnish, unvarnished, 3 spray Archival Varnish, unvarnished


, , , , , , , , , , ,

17 Responses to Aesthetics of Varnishing Transparent Watercolor

  1. Nancy Boyle May 15, 2017 at 7:29 pm #

    As a watercolor painter, I have to judge the results against the benefit of framing without glass. Thank you to Golden for continuing research on the use of acrylic materials in watercolor.

    • Cathy Jennings June 7, 2017 at 2:59 pm #

      Hello Nancy,
      We are glad you find presentations of our research helpful. One of our goals with this article was to help artists understand potential changes. By surrounding each varnished section with unvarnished watercolor, the test emphasizes the changes that occur. Varnishing an entire painting removes this “before and after” comparison, and resulting changes might appear less dramatic. The best way to see whether the alterations are acceptable for you, is to create your own testing to see what happens with the papers and paints you are using. Should you have any questions, please give us a call at Golden Tech Support!
      Best Regards,

  2. Mike Simpson May 16, 2017 at 8:19 am #

    Great article and timely info. Andrew Webster of Streamline Publishing and just published a review I did on this very practice.

    • Cathy Jennings June 7, 2017 at 3:02 pm #

      Hello Mike,
      Thank you! Thank you also for the link to your informative article. We believe varnishing watercolors may offer an alternative option for painters, and through our research we hope to clarify some of the changes that varnishing might create. We plan to expand testing to include more colors in the future.
      Best Regards,

  3. Janet Cassady May 16, 2017 at 4:36 pm #

    Wow! That’s a significant color shift!
    That’s disappointing because museum glass is so expensive!


    C’mon, Golden chemists! You can do it! Give watercolorists an alternative to museum glass!

    • Cathy Jennings June 7, 2017 at 3:04 pm #

      Hello Janet,
      Thank you for your input. We will be doing more testing, and we are always looking for ways to improve our products. We will keep your request in mind! Non-glare UV protectant museum glass or Plexiglas-style acrylic glazing seem the best way to protect without altering the aesthetics or nature of the original watercolor painting. Varnishing almost always changes the way that artwork appears, whether that artwork is a watercolor, acrylic, or oil painting. In this test, we placed strips of unvarnished watercolor on both sides of the varnished sections to emphasize the differences. We have found that the changes are less noticeable when the entire work is varnished, as the original no longer exists for direct comparison.
      Happy painting,

  4. Nancy E Boyle May 20, 2017 at 4:58 pm #

    Thank you for this research. I will take it into account when making my own tests on the colors I use.

    • Cathy Jennings June 7, 2017 at 3:05 pm #

      Hello Nancy,
      We are glad you found our article helpful!
      Best Regards,

  5. Bonnie Steinsnyder May 20, 2017 at 11:01 pm #

    How do the varnishes effect watercolor on Yupo paper?

    • Cathy Jennings June 7, 2017 at 3:10 pm #

      Hello Bonnie,
      Yupo is extruded from polypropylene pellets, and acrylics do not adhere well to polypropylene plastics. We have not tested Archival Varnish on Yupo, however since Archival Varnish is also an acrylic, we suspect there might not be permanent adhesion. Should you wish to do adhesion testing of your own, you might paint watercolor on a piece of Yupo, allow it to dry, and spray the surface with Archival Varnish. Use enough sprayed varnish layers to seal the surface, let the varnish dry, and then do a cross hatch adhesion test. The article “Test for your Application” contains information on doing a cross-hatch adhesion test. As for changes in color and surface, we suspect they will be similar to what happens in this test, although on the smooth surface of Yupo there might be noticeable brush marks from the application of diluted MSA or Polymer Varnish. The textured surface of cold pressed watercolor paper helps diminish the impact of brush application.
      We hope this is helpful, and please give GOLDEN Tech Support a call if you have more questions.
      Best Regards,

  6. Lynn August 1, 2017 at 6:28 pm #

    Would the change be as noticeable if you only use the aerosol Archival Varnish Gloss?

    • Cathy Jennings August 3, 2017 at 3:24 pm #

      Hello Lynn,
      We have found that any coating over a painting is likely to change the aesthetic qualities. Using multiple layers of Archival Varnish Gloss without an isolation coat may allow the changes to be less noticeable. We would suggest testing over dark and saturated washes as well as over the paper itself to see if the potential changes to the artwork are acceptable. We hope this is helpful!
      Happy painting,

  7. Kat August 31, 2018 at 3:20 pm #

    Putting a watercolor painting under any glass changes the appearance of the painting (brightening, deepening and glare) though not permanently.
    I would be interested if your tests included comparing varnish against glass/acrylic, in addition to the bare watercolor painting.
    Archival varnishing seems quite legitimate, especially if removable. Oil painters take advantage of the removable protective quality and aesthetic changes archival varnishing contributes to a painting without needing to call the work multimedia. It seems like a long time coming for watercolorists to have this same tool, and for it to be considered an advantage to a watercolor painting rather than re-labeling the resulting work as multimedia.

    • Cathy Jennings September 14, 2018 at 1:59 pm #

      Hello Kat,
      We have not done side-by-side comparisons of the aesthetic changes created by a gloss varnish versus placing glass over a watercolor. We have, however, tested the UV protection offered by regular glass, museum-grade UV acrylic glazing, and multiple coats of our Archival Varnish Gloss. The test results may be found in the Just Paint article “GOLDEN Archival MSA Varnish Over Transparent Watercolor on Paper.”
      Warm Regards,
      Cathy Jennings


  1. Aesthetics of Varnishing Transparent Watercolor: Creating the Least Change | Just Paint - March 4, 2019

    […] a previous article2 we investigated the changes that occurred when varnish was applied to washes of QoR Payne’s […]

  2. ... - October 5, 2019

    […] … […]

  3. Varnishing Mixed Media Paintings | Just Paint - July 14, 2020

    […] are sensitive to aqueous mediums and varnishes and therefore are best spray varnished. See: Aesthetics of Varnishing Transparent Watercolor and Aesthetics of Varnishing Transparent Watercolor: Creating the Least […]

Leave a Reply


Made by Golden Artist Colors, Inc.