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Should You Varnish Gouache Paintings? (Guidelines for Varnishing)

This is a question that most artists will eventually ask when working with gouache.

While varnishing is a common practice in oil and acrylic painting, it’s not as straightforward when it comes to gouache.

It is not necessary to varnish gouache paintings due to the fact that gouache dries to a matte finish, and some varnishes could damage the artwork. However, if you want to add a protective layer or enhance the appearance of the painting, you can use a varnish specifically designed for gouache.

Keep in mind that varnishing may alter the surface texture and color of the painting, so it is recommended to test the varnish on a small area of the artwork first.

Let’s explore the various factors that go into deciding whether to varnish a gouache painting or not. You’ll also find a list of the pros and cons, along with the do’s and don’ts of varnishing.

Here’s everything you need to know:

Understanding The Nature of Gouache

Before we dive into the topic of varnishing gouache, let’s quickly review what gouache is.

Gouache is a water-based paint that consists of pigment, binder, and water.

Unlike oil or acrylic, which dry to a glossy or semi-gloss finish, gouache dries to a matte, opaque surface.

This matte finish contributes to the distinctive charm that gouache paintings possess.

When varnishing a gouache painting, one runs the risk of altering its original appearance by adding gloss or altering the surface texture but one also runs the risk of encountering major damage to the artwork if the varnish does not adhere well to the paint.

See also: Painting With Gouache: Everything You Need To Know

So, Why Varnish Gouache Paintings?

Gouache is considered a fairly stable medium with excellent lightfastness (meaning it doesn’t fade easily), so the need for varnishing isn’t as crucial as it is for other mediums.

But before we completely dismiss varnishing altogether, it is essential to consider the purpose and context of your gouache painting.

If the artwork is intended to be displayed behind glass, such as in a frame or under a protective sheet, the need for varnishing diminishes since the glass itself acts as a barrier that safeguards the painting from external elements.

In this case, varnishing may be unnecessary, as the glass provides adequate protection.

See also: How Long Does Gouache Last? (Average Lifespan Explained)

However, if the gouache painting is exposed to the environment, varnishing can provide an added layer of defense.

Varnish acts as a shield against dust, dirt, and moisture, preventing potential damage and fading caused by exposure to sunlight.

This is especially important if your artwork will be displayed in a setting with high humidity or where it may come into direct contact with contaminants.

It is crucial, though, to exercise caution when selecting a varnish for gouache paintings.

Ordinary varnishes meant for oil or acrylic paintings may not be suitable, as they often create a glossy or satin finish that goes against the desired matte quality of gouache.

In fact, the wrong varnish could remove or reactivate the gouache paint from the surface and damage the artwork.

Look for varnishes specifically formulated for gouache that will provide protection without altering the matte texture if you really, really need to varnish a gouache painting.

The Pros and Cons of Varnishing Gouache

With everything said and done, is it really that essential to varnish gouache paintings, or is it better to leave them as is?

Let’s look at the pros and cons of varnishing so that you can make an informed decision when it comes to your own work.

Adds a protective layer that prevents fading and makes it waterproofCan damage the artwork and remove the paint
Enhances the vibrancy of the colorsMay cause minor discoloration
Protects the artwork from discoloration and dustCan create undesired effects if applied incorrectly
Creates a high-gloss lookNot all varnishes will be suitable

When To Varnish Gouache?

According to one of the best gouache manufacturers, Winsor & Newton, it’s recommended to avoid varnishing a gouache painting as this could mess up the depth and finish of the painting.

While varnishing gouache isn’t necessary for preservation purposes, there may still be instances where applying a varnish could be beneficial.

For example, if you plan to display your gouache artwork without framing it behind glass or if you want to enhance the vibrancy of your colors even further, then varnishing might be worth considering.

Additionally, varnishing can provide a uniform finish over your entire artwork if you prefer a consistent sheen.

How To Choose The Right Varnish

If you’ve decided to go ahead with varnishing your gouache piece, it’s crucial to choose the right varnish for the job.

Since gouache is water-based, it’s important to use a water-based varnish as well. You also have the option of a cold wax varnish.

It really depends on what works for your budget and which finish you like best.

Make sure to select a varnish specifically formulated for use on watercolor paintings such as a water-resistant varnish, or opt for a spray varnish that prevents mess or cleanup.

With varnishing, it’s best to do it outside in the open air.

Please take extra precautions when working with any varnish to ensure there’s sufficient ventilation, as inhaling toxic fumes can be harmful to your overall health.

Also, if it’s your first time using any varnish, don’t make the mistake of using the varnish on your finished paintings before you know how to use it.

As a total noob, I made this mistake and ruined some of the best paintings I’m fond of.

What you can do is paint a few small random paintings on the paper and when they dry, use the varnish on the painting to learn how it interacts with the surface and your painting.

This way, you’ll gain first-hand experience of what to do and what not to do!

Tips On How To Varnish Gouache (Do’s And Don’ts)

Artist Lena Rivo does a fantastic job of explaining how to varnish a gouache painting and what to use in detail. Here are the instructions below:

Now that you have your chosen varnish in hand, here is a general guideline on the do’s and don’ts of varnishing a gouache painting:


  1. Ensure your gouache artwork is completely dry before applying any varnish. Moisture can cause unwanted reactions and result in a subpar finish.
  2. Protect your working area by laying down a clean and flat surface. You don’t want any dust particles or debris marring your final varnished piece.
  3. Use a soft-bristle brush or a foam brush to apply the varnish evenly across the surface of your artwork. Work in thin, even layers, allowing each layer to dry before applying the next.
  4. Pay attention to detailed areas and make sure the varnish is applied uniformly without pooling or streaking.
  5. Allow your artwork to dry completely after applying the final layer of varnish. This could take anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days, depending on the brand and type of varnish you’re using.
  6. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding drying time between layers and the number of coats needed for optimal protection.


  1. Don’t varnish your gouache painting unless it is completely dry. Applying varnish to a wet or partially dry painting can cause the colors to run or bleed.
  2. Avoid using varnishes meant for oil paintings, as these may not be compatible with gouache and can result in undesirable effects such as color shifts or cracking.
  3. Don’t overwork the varnish while applying it, as this can cause streaks or brush marks on the surface of your painting.
  4. Avoid varnishing your gouache painting in high humidity or extremely cold temperatures, as this can affect the drying and curing process of the varnish.
  5. Refrain from using excessive pressure or force when applying the varnish, as it can disturb the delicate layers of gouache paint and result in smudges or damage.

It’s always a good idea to consult the manufacturer’s instructions or seek advice from experienced artists when varnishing gouache paintings to ensure the best possible outcome.

See also: Gouache Mistakes: What Not To Do With Gouache

Alternative Methods: Is There Another Way?

If you’re hesitant about varnishing your gouache artwork or simply prefer not to use a traditional varnish, there are alternative methods you can explore:

1. Frame it behind glass (The best option!)

One simple solution is to frame your gouache painting behind glass, which provides an added layer of protection from dust and other pollutants.

2. Use a spray fixative

Another option is using a spray fixative that’s designed for use on gouache paintings. This can help seal the pigments in place and protect your artwork to some extent, although it may not offer the same level of protection as a varnish.

3. Store it properly

If you plan to keep your gouache artwork stored away or don’t intend to display it, storing it safely in a protective portfolio or flat file can help prevent dust or damage.

Closing Thoughts

Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to varnish your gouache artwork depends on your personal preferences and the intended use of the piece.

While varnishing can provide added protection and enhance certain aspects of your work, it’s not a mandatory step for preserving gouache paintings.

Choose what feels right for you and experiment with different methods to find what works best with your artistic style and goals.

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