Picture Varnishing: Get the Streaks Out!

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Of the many the posts I have published , few have received as many comments as Gamvar: Gamblin’s Easy-to-Use Picture Varnish for Oil Painters. Varnishing is quite problematic for many artists, and that post offered some straightforward advice.

One of the issues the original post did not address was the problem of streaking — those telltale brush marks left after the varnish has dried. I’ll discuss this here, but I’ve also added it as an addendum to the original post.

Before I describe the technique for dealing with steaks, I should mention that if you are getting streaks you are are almost certainly applying too much varnish. As I wrote in the original post, “Always apply varnish as thinly as possible, avoiding visible brush strokes. Those new to varnishing overestimate the amount of varnish necessary and apply far too much. Imagine that you are trying spread the varnish as far as it can go.”

When a painting’s surface is more textured, say, from the weave of the canvas or the texture of the strokes themselves, streaking will be less noticeable. However, the potential for streaks is greater when the surface is very smooth to begin with, and the paint is applied very thinly with little or no visible texture. Then there is no texture to interrupt or camouflage or the streaks.

Immediately after applying a very thin layer of varnish, use a very soft, delicate, “fluffy” brush and lightly dab the surface. This breaks up the streaks. Use a quick, light up and down dabbing motion, and pay close attention that you don’t miss any spots. The brush shown here is a 2-1/2 inch wide Asian-style Hake wash brush with sheep hair. Note: It is preferable to not use the same brush for this dabbing step as you did for the varnishing. The varnishing brush is laden with wet varnish; it’s hairs will be clumped together and have less “fluffiness.” Use a dry brush with hairs that are still fluffy and open. If you must use the same brush as you used for varnishing, wipe it back and forth on a roll of paper towels until most of the remaining varnish has been soaked up. The hairs should regain some of their fluffiness.

varnish-streak-brush

Additional Resources

Gamvar: Gamblin’s Easy-to-Use Picture Varnish for Oil Painters

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About Author

Mitchell Albala is a Seattle-based painter known for his semi-abstract and atmospheric landscapes. His book, "Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice," is a national bestseller with nearly 40,000 copies in print. Mitchell is also a popular workshop instructor at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, and Daniel Smith Artist’s Materials. He led painting adventures in Italy in 2015 with Arte Umbria and in 2017 with Winslow Art Center. He has lectured on Impressionism and landscape painting at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. His popular painting blog, which serves as a companion to his book, was awarded #12 on feedspot.com’s Top 75 Painting Blogs.

8 Comments

  1. Stan Chraminski on

    Great advice. I get this problem at times. Another issue is cleaning the brush after varnishing is a chore (I try to avoid solvents) so I use the cheap painter’s brushes that are disposable, and varnish a bunch of paintings at one time. Need to shake the brush out first to get rid of loose hairs, which these cheap brushes have, but otherwise they are soft enough to use the technique mentioned in the article. I find the varnishing is needed to equalize the shine and bring out subtle colors so use the Gamblin varnish regularly as a final touch. Glad they are coming out with an already mixed version versus the crystals and solvent being separate before.

  2. Mr. Albala, thank you for this post, (and I adore your book!) as varnishing is always an issue for me. Do you have an opinion on spray varnish? Seems like the spray would eliminate the issue of brushstrokes/patterning in the varnish.

  3. Mitchell Albala on

    Before I started to use Gamvar, I did use spray varnish — specifically Golden’s Archival Mineral Spirits Acrylic w/UVLS, which comes in a matte, satin or gloss variety. I liked using this for the reason you mentioned — it eliminated the issue of streaking. Spray varnish can lay down a nice even coat. But don’t stray it on too thick! Always test the spray out on an old painting, so you can get a feel for how heavily the spray comes out. The disadvantages of the spray-on varnish is the 1) you need to wear a ventilator mask and spray in a dedicated area. You don’t want to be breathing in those fumes! 2) Unlike Gamvar, this varnish, which contains an acrylic component, does require the oil paint to be as dry as possible. So this would be a good option if you were in no hurry to varnish your paintings. Six months to a year is the recommended wait time.

  4. Thanks for the informative article!. My first painting is accepted in an exhibit. I varnished it and just got it back from the framers. I did not notice before it was framed that there is a matte section on the painting( the painting has very little texture, so its quite obvious. Help! can I spot touchup the areas? i dont want to get varnish on the frame.

  5. Mitchell Albala on

    This should be an easy fix, Joanne. It sounds like you simply missed a spot when you varnished. Go back with a very soft brush (commensurate with the size of the spot) or a lint-free rag and retouch the area you missed with the varnish. Try not to overlap the already varnished area too much. That should help a lot, though it might not make for a perfectly seamless match. As for protecting the frame, that’s easy. Simply use low tack masking tape to mask off the edges. Besides, you’re just going after one small area, correct? So you won’t be exposing too much of the frame, anyway. Good luck.

  6. How do I fix the streaks? I am new at varnishing and I varnished a painting yesterday and I guess I put too much on, as you mentioned in your paragraph. What can I do to fix it?

    Thank you,
    Dorothy

  7. Mitchell Albala on

    Well, color temperature is a big topic. I am more aligned with your instructor who was more rigorous about applying cools and warms. “Just paint what you see” is a nice idea, but in practice it is more helpful to have some guidelines, or “things to look for.” Color temperature is one of those. In my teaching, I also stress the importance of temperature differences. I try not to put it into a formula; for example, “shadows are always warm and lights are always cool.” Rather, to observe the differences — whatever they might be. The thing to look for are the differences. Variations in color temperature are also one of the variables that lend interest and contrast to the painting. I have one article that relates to temperature, in terms of your palette. The “Expanded Primaries” Palette — Thinking About Cool and Warm

  8. Mitchell Albala on

    Yes, first-timer varnishers almost always put it on too thickly. What you need to do is remove that layer of varnish, and then revarnish. I would recommend testing out your varnishing process on an old scrap painting. Don’t experiment on your good pieces! I don’t know what varnish you used, but if it was Gamvar, as discussed in the article, then removal should be fairly easy with a little bit of Gamsol. Gamvar is formulated to be removed with Gamsol. Do not use stronger solvents like turpentine, or they will remove paint! With a gentle lint free cloth, and a little bit of Gamsol, gently rub the surface. This should loosen the old varnish. You may notice that the surface gets a little sticky as the varnish dissolves from the Gamsol. Be sure to clean this off, as well. Rub very gently! I also recommend cleaning it in sections, so you are not attempting to “mop” the entire surface. Hope that helps. You may also be able to find some specific information about varnish removal at the Gamblin website. Good luck!