When we see "removable" written on a product label we tend to think it means that product is not of the highest quality, but this couldn't be farther from the truth!  We're going to illuminate what removable really means to you and your art!


What sorts of art products are labeled "removable"?

    Varnishes, Top Coats & Sealants

    Why on earth would you want to remove that?

    There are three main reasons...

    #1 - Editing and Reworking:

    Many of us may have experienced getting a piece to where we feel it's "finished" and then applying a coat of varnish only to see that the varnish has changed the look of the piece; sometimes illuminating an area that needs more work. If this is the case, the very best option is to take the time to remove the varnish layer properly before reworking an area. Reworking and applying more paint over a varnish layer is not a good option.

    The whole point of varnish is to provide a protective and non-absorbent shield over the artwork. This means that any subsequent paint layers over varnish WILL NOT bond chemically to the varnish and may chip, fade, de-laminate or any number of other devastating things may happen.  If you attempt to dodge these issues by encasing the reworked area under yet another layer of varnish, you'll be setting yourself up for other issues down the road...

     Learn From the Mistakes of the Great Mistake-Makers

    Da Vinci was known for trying many experimental techniques that didn't always work out in his favor.

    People who saw the Mona Lisa in the 1500's made special note of her delicate eyebrows and eyelashes.  At some point in history (likely during some cleaning efforts) it's very plausible that varinsh layers were stripped away.  It is theorized that the Mona Lisa's eyelashes and eyebrows had been painted within the varnish layers and were lost during conservation.

    What a bummer.

    #2 - Varnish Mishaps:

    Sometimes varnishing does not go to plan... You can end up with tiny bubbles, dust, lint, cat hair, or brush bristles embedded in your varnish layer without realizing it at the time. It's important to have the option of removing a botched layer and trying it again.

    Also, some varnishes are meant to be a applied as a single layer only and do not respond well to multiple layer applications (always read product label for directions and do your research first). The main problems you can end up with are bubbles, or worse yet, fogging.

    • Bubbles happen when air gets trapped between layers
    • Fogging/cloudiness can happen if you tamper with the refraction of light by adding extra layers
    But varnish is crystal clear... how could it "fog"?
    Because, science.

    This MADD PSA commercial from the eighties illustrates the way light refracts through multiple "clear" layers. Each subsequent layer of varnish will bend the light a little more, obscuring and distorting your view of the painting beneath. Unlike smooth glass, each layer of varnish will also vary in thickness, compounding the problem even more.

    #3 - Conservation Purposes:

    Conservators are professional art restoration experts

    In the future, if your artwork is ever damaged or in need of a cleaning it may be taken to a conservator. In order to clean and restore the painting the first thing the conservator will need to do is safely remove the varnish. Again, the whole point of the varnish layer is to provide a buffer between your art and it's surrounding environment; if the painting is exposed to dirt or smoke it'll damage only the varnish layer and not the painting itself. It follows that if elements of your painting are embedded within the varnish then you're risking an irreparable Mona Lisa eyelash debacle when the varnish is removed.

    If a manufacturer has engineered a removable product it means they have the utmost concern for the longevity and preservation of your artwork.
    Removable is an indicator of the highest quality.

    Is it really that big of a deal? What happens if I use something else?

    Whether or not to apply a finish coat is a decision many artists struggle with. Even so, those that see a need for a final sealant sometimes struggle with what product to use. I often see people opt for the cheap and easy route by using a product already in their arsenal instead of buying a purpose-built varnish.

    Common Short-Cuts I Do Not Recommend:

    • Acrylic painters will seal their paintings with an acrylic medium instead of varnish
    • Oil painters may oil-out their paintings by applying multiple layers of thinned oil or use only a retouch varnish

    Technically these shortcuts will succeed in making your painting look better in the short term but are really only temporary solutions (as they offer no real long term protection).

    Just Use the Good Stuff

    As mentioned earlier, any paint added on top of a varnish layer may chip or wear off because there is no chemical bond between the layers; this is the the exact reason why you should use a proper varnish as a sealant. An artist quality removable varnish DOES NOT bond chemically to your painting which is key to any conservation effort. Artist's varnish will simply lay on top of your painting, protecting it in just the same way that nail polish lays on top your nails.

    I don't recommend finishing an acrylic painting with an acrylic medium; it's simply not durable enough, plus it will bond permanently to the lower layers, making it difficult (to impossible) to ever remove safely.

    An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

    It's nice to know your varnish is removable, but frankly no one ever wants to remove a varnish layer. Everything we're talking about here is worst case scenario and last ditch efforts in order to save a painting. These are all important issues to consider, but they're also preventable in many cases

    Isolation Coats:

    An Isolation coat is applied over the entire surface of a finished painting prior to varnishing. This layer creates an invisible buffer between the varnish and the painting which ensures that the varnish can be safely removed without touching the painting's surface.

    for Acrylics: Apply a layer of acrylic medium (usually a gel medium) over the painting's surface and allow to cure for minimum 6hrs.

    As an added bonus, you can opt for an isolation coat that contains UVLS (Ultra Violet Light Stabilizers) that act as sunblock, keeping the painting's colours true for decades longer than on their own. (see Golden UVLS Topcoat)

    for Mixed Media and Oils: Although not a common practice for oil painters, Cold Wax Medium works well as an Isolation coat for both oil paintings and mixed media pieces. Allow time to dry and cure before varnishing.

    Be aware:

    • all brands of cold wax mediums are inherently satin or matte, never gloss
    • Cold wax medium was developed as both a medium and a top coat, however it's not a durable finish (easy to scratch or melt) so I do recommend applying a proper varnish over top.


      Tips for Applying Varnish

      Always read the label, follow directions, and do research first!
      • Acrylic Gloss Varnish: apply in a single thick coat. A second coat is not necessary or recommended. Directions vary from brand to brand - READ LABEL
      • Acrylic Matte or Satin Varnish: avoid multiple layer applications at all costs. Matte & satin products contain a mattifying agent (usually a particulate). Film layers have a tendency to become cloudy in multi-layer applications.
      • Retouch Oil Varnish: a thin, fast drying, re-workable varnish layer. Too thin and absorbent to be suitable as a final finish coat.
      • Damar Oil Varnish: a thick, glossy, durable final finish. Intended to be applied in multiple layers (allowing ample drying and curing time between applications)
      • Matte Oil Varnish: avoid multiple layer applications at all costs. Matte products contain a mattifying agent (usually a particulate). Film layers have a tendency to become cloudy in multi-layer applications.
      • Gloss/Matte/Satin Spray Varnishes: a very thin varnish often suitable for application over all kinds of media (oil, acrylics, or mixed media - READ LABEL). Safe for multi-layer applications. Not prone to fogging.

      Removing Varnish

      Acrylic: use an alkaline solution like household ammonia (diluted to 5%). Starting in a corner of the painting, gently swab ammonia solution on and using a clean, dry, lint-free rag, wipe off right away. Repeat as necessary.

      Oil: use full strength turpentine (OMS are not strong enough). Again starting in a corner of the painting, dip a lint-free rag into  turpentine and gently swab over the surface of the painting. Repeat as necessary.

      In either case: Keep a close eye on the wiping cloth - if you see colour coming off then stop, you've gone too far. (This is why isolation coats are super handy.)

      Spray Varnishes: removal methods will vary from brand to brand so make sure you read the label or contact the manufacturer with any questions.

      Thanks for joining us and may all your varnish layers be free from bubbles, fogging, smoke damage and cat hair!

      April 13, 2018 — Karen Bullaro