How to finish an acrylic painting – part I

So here I am with a brand new website that I’m really excited about, yet I haven’t posted here in over a week. Why? Because I’ve been crazy busy with a web design client and prepping some paintings for exhibition next month. It’s the paintings I’d like to talk about here.

One of the things I have always been concerned about since starting my business around fourteen years ago has been customer satisfaction. I will leap through hoops to make sure my clients are happy with what they pay for – it is a lesson I have learnt very well having spent even longer in customer service. This has not changed now that my focus is my artwork. So one of the first problems I was faced with when starting to paint to sell, was how to find the right equipment and materials to ensure that no matter the skill of my art, the actual physical piece would be good quality and finished correctly. I may not be Da Vinci or Michelangelo, but considering the products they had to work with versus what I have access to, I expect my final product to at least last a lifetime.

So what do you do to ensure this?

  • Good substrate – paint on good quality canvas (the best you can afford, some prices are atrocious, throughly investigate your market – I might do a post on this later), or well prepared board, or good quality paper, illustration board, or your choice. be aware of the material’s capabilities and how it interacts with various environments (have you considered tropical environments for example – one word – mold). Do your best to find the best you can afford.
  • Good paint – again, know your products. The good old argument of cost vs quality and the propaganda of advertising. Read up on your material. There is a massive amount of information out there both online and in books. Access your local library, read up about acrylics or oils or your choice of media – find out the real story about quality. From what I’ve read and experienced – with cheaper acrylic paints you risk poor pigment density, lack of lightfastness, lack of transparency (for those pigments that traditionally exhibit this), fake pigments, poor binders, lack of mediums to work with, lack of documentation, and inconsistent naming conventions (which sounds petty, but once you become familiar with your paints, working across brands is much easier if you can find a common pigment number).
  • Good protection – and here we come to what I would like to talk about today. I’ve been hip deep in it for the last week or so finishing off paintings.

So, I’ve called it protection because that is what it is. I’ve heard the good old adage that an acrylic painting is basically plastic and doesn’t need any protection, but there are reasons why I believe you need to put a final coat on your acrylic paintings

  • Each of your acrylic paints has different properties – some dry matt, some dry gloss. In my paint selection Payne’s Grey dries as matt as a sheet of photocopy paper, yet right next to it I might have used some Rose Madder which dries quite gloss. At the bare minimum, unless you are looking for a painting technique that asks for a variety of finishes, you might want to make the shine uniform across your work.
  • If I am going to go to all the effort of painting a painting, I want it to last a decent amount of time. Raw acrylic can be mildly sticky, barely sticky, but enough to attract dust – dust that is very difficult to get off. If a painting was to hang on a wall for ten years, regardless of how pedantic the house owner is, dust is going to get stuck on that painting. Even if you do varnish the painting, dust will settle on it, but there is a way to fix that one hundred years down the track.
  • This is a crappy painting, why should I bother to varnish it? You might think it is crappy, but your family or a potential customer might think otherwise. Do you want to take the chance that the customer or your great grandchildren might have to throw the painting away just because you didn’t bother to spend that extra little bit of time finishing it off?

Golden polymer varnish and self-levelling gel

So how do you finish an acrylic painting? I spent quite some time looking into this. It seems to be one of the things missed by many books and I had to survey several artists as to what they do. Some spray varnish, some paint varnish, some don’t do anything. Somewhere along the line I came across the method I use and it gives me the confidence that my painting has the best protection I can give it.

  1. Finish painting your painting and let it dry. Yes, acrylics appear dry in less than an hour, definitely by a day, but when a painting is complete, I suggest leaving it for at least a week or two, I’ve heard four, to make sure that all the volatiles have evaporated properly. You do not want to seal the escape of wet material.
  2. First step of protection, I coat with two layers of self-levelling gel – Golden Paints call it Self-levelling Gel, Liquitex has a Pouring Medium – it is the honey consistency medium that loses brush marks before drying, dries gloss and crystal clear. This is to create a layer between the varnish and the painting – a step which becomes more clear when I explain what kind of varnish I use as a final coating. Apparently you can also use Golden Soft Gel for an isolation coat.
  3. The final coats are two of removable varnish – Golden is the only brand I know of – Polymer Varnish with UVLS. It is a water based product not solvent based (which someone managed to sell me once by my accident) and contains Ultraviolet Light Stabilisers that helps prevent fading. For detailed information on this product, please view the documentation which also includes some description on how to apply an isolation coat and why. I use satin varnish because I like a little sheen, but the varnish is available in gloss and matt also. I paint it on with a brush, simply because I’m not confident in the coverage of a spray.

So why the isolation coat? The varnish is removable and with it the accumulated dust of how many years it has been hanging before someone thinks it is worth repairing or restoring, the varnish can be removed with ammonia, the isolation coat protects the painting and new varnish can be applied bringing it back to almost new. This is something that can be advertised as a product advantage when selling your work.

The above procedure also gives your work a finished look, a more permanent feel.

I will get into the nitty gritty about how I actually apply the isolation coat and varnish in Part II of this post. I hope the above has been useful to some. Do you have any varnishing hints and tips to share?

Best wishes,