When to use retouching varnish.

Retouching varnish

Once finished a painting there may arise glossy and matte or flat areas in the canvas. That looks not nice, especially exposed in wrong lighting. It is caused by a combination of the colour used, the type and amount of thinning agent added and the absorption of the ground.

The amount of oil in the paint as well as the amount of solvent that is added can vary per colour. It´s called sunken-in areas and it has nothing to do with a bad painting technique. Treating the sunken-in areas, once they are thoroughly dry to the touch, with a very thin coat of  retouching varnish restores the gloss and colour.

If the sunken-in areas are very absorbent it may be necessary to repeat the procedure (once dry) in order for the gloss and colour to be of a sufficient level. The varnish dries in a few hours and leaves a porous film which in turn gives suitable adherence for a following coat of paint. It is very important to apply retouching varnish very sparingly, as the paint, not yet completely dry, may dissolve in the solvent of the varnish. Use for applying a broad varnish brush. The painting can dry now completely. After a drying time of at least one year is a layer of final varnish is recommended.


    About ben

    Ben Lustenhouwer is a professional portrait artist. Over the last four decades he has completed several hundred commissions from all over the world. He has painted heads of state, VIPs and the man in the street. He has received a thorough grounding in figurative art, is very well versed in human anatomy specializing in the human face for portraiture. He is expert in the full range of media including graphite, charcoal, watercolor, acrylic and his own specialism, oils. He is passionate about sharing his knowledge with all those wishing to learn or improve upon their painting and he understands only too well the challenges and frustrations associated with painting a portrait.
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    14 Responses to When to use retouching varnish.

    1. Paige says:

      Hi Ben, thanks for this clarification. I’m sure traditional art schools must cover this info, but surprisingly enough most classes don’t touch on it. I was unfortunately vanishing my oil painting with acrylic varnish for several years, and after it was dry to the touch. Now that I wish to be more career oriented, I am tracking my paintings and will remember to varnish after one year. I’m glad the retouching varnish can be applied now. I have gone over all my work with turpentine to remove the acrylic varnish. Again, Thanks

    2. Barbara says:

      I’ve finished a couple portraits but they are too shiny. I use Liquin as a painting medium and covered the paintings with it at the end. Is there a product I can use to bring the sheen down to satin or mat? I have a show in November so could put a varnish on in 3 months. Thanks

    3. Jane Bradley says:

      I am dealing with a major disaster on a commission I recently completed. A portrait 36X36, painted on a linen panel. I have used these panels for years and have used retouch varnish for years with no problem. The background requested by the client was viridian and ultramarine, and there was a great deal of oil in the paint (not added, but good paint). There were several layers of this background color as she made requests. I sprayed it when I thought it was dry enough, like I always do. It won’t dry, and has picked up some lint,has run a little in some areas and generally looks horrible. I have put it in a box in the garage, etc, but it is not drying. Any suggestions? She is getting impatient and questions why I have not sent it to her. I am ready to paint another.

      • ben says:

        Dear Jane.
        We all suffer sometimes from disasters and we wish to have chosen an other profession. When you say it looks horrible I am afraid you must paint another. However take the painting out of the box. It won´t dry there. It needs light to dry. So expose it to as much light as you can. And also this: try to educate impatient clients. Wish you good luck.

    4. Ann Kinloch says:

      Dear Ben, After completing my first oil painting of a seascape, a friend fell in love with it and offered to buy it on the spot, but when I said she would have to wait at least 3 months so that I could varnish it prior to framing, she was noticeably disappointed. I started searching the internet for a solution to this problem and found Winsor and Newton retouching varnish, then your description of how and when to use it. My seascape has not got patchy areas of matt and gloss, but due to the overall thinness of the paint applied, the colours in the painting have become lighter and have a chalky appearance which makes me think this is caused both by the thin application and saturation onto a cheap canvas. I intend to apply a very thin layer of this varnish using a monarch synthetic brush followed 2days later by another layer if necessary to bring the colours back to life. After a year I will advise the buyer to have the painting given a permanent varnish.
      Is this the right way about my problem. I am such a newbie and am honoured to have an artist like yourself comment.
      Ann Kinloch

      • ben says:

        Dear Ann.
        You did right by putting retouching varnish first. And after one year the final varnish is also the right way. But to repair the chalky character will be difficult I would say.
        The problem is in the canvas as you say.
        Kind regards.

        • Ann Kinloch says:

          Thank you Ben for your comments. I varnished the painting with one thin coat of Winsor and Newton retouching varnish (so easy to apply) early this morning and it looks fantastic!. What a difference, no more chalkiness and the colours look deeper with an overall consistency of depth and a lovely slightly glossy sheen throughout. I will wait 6 days then transport it to the buyer, I don’t think it needs another coat. You have given me such confidence and am so grateful for your advise.
          Ann Kinloch, Scotland

    5. Tom says:


      thank you for the information about painting/varnishing.
      I just have a question about the sunken-in areas:

      Would a layer of retouching varnish, put at the end of a painting, make the sunken-in areas even for good? Or is a finishing varnish after one year necessary anyway?
      Problem is, what if you don’t have one year time between finishing and selling the work? I’m just spinning around the idea to use retouching varnish instead of finishing varnish, because you don’t have to wait at least half a year.

      Would like to hear your professional point.
      Thank you,

      • ben says:

        Hi Tom.
        I do both. When the oil is dry to the touch ( after some weeks and even less) I apply retouching varnish and deliver the painting. After a year a final varnish is required. Sometimes I do that myself.
        Good luck.

        • Tom says:

          Many thanks Ben,

          that helps me a lot, had a struggle with that question.
          I’ll do it like that.


    6. Tori says:

      I just discovered your work and your blog. I am overwhelmingly happy about it! I can’t get enough of it all. Thank you for putting this together. This is the answer to my struggles. I began a portrait this weekend after viewing your edited demos and the difference in my work is already very clear. I am purchasing your full portrait demo and am looking forward to pouring through the rest of your blog.

      My question regarding varnishing:
      How do you feel about spray retouch varnishes?

      Thank you!!

      • ben says:

        Hi Tori.

        Thank you for your kind words. Long time ago I applied spray for the retouching varnish and it is a perfect solution, but I cannot stand the spray in my studio. But if the painting is not really dry to the touch it is a not a bad idea. But be careful.
        Kind regards.

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