An overhead perspective of one of the panels of my Frozen Waterfall triptych. A wet coat of varnish has just been applied and is visible as cloudy puddles on the painting's surface. Brushes and yogurt tubs (containing varnish and solvent) are visible on the floor nearby.

I finally got around to varnishing a few of my larger paintings.

I’ve been putting it off, I think, because varnishing is pretty scary for me. I’ve gotten it wrong before and ruined paintings.

It takes me forever to finish large paintings. By the time I’ve reached the varnishing stage, I might have years of work invested in a particular piece, which I really don’t want to lose because of, say, expired solvent or the wrong mixture. Waking up to discover your picture has become a tacky, discolored mess is the absolute worst.

On the upside, when I get the varnish right, it not only protects the painting but usually makes it look better in an extremely satisfying way. I've become a fan of satin-finish MSA varnish. Matte-finish varnishes have a nice velvety texture, but they can wash out blacks and reduce contrast. Gloss varnishes create a lovely, liquid-y depth that brings out tonal range, but their shine makes them hard to look at under bright lights. Consequently, glossy paintings are hard to photograph.

Satin is a goldilocks balance: minimal glare, but with enough contrast to protect the dark values.

This round of varnishing turned out really well. I'm especially happy with how the varnish works on my Frozen Waterfall triptych. It evened out the textures of the different paints and mediums I used (it had some oddly-mismatched shiny and matte spots) and helped pull the composition together. It feels finished in a way it hadn’t before.

A photo of Frozen Waterfall, a triptych on panels painted in acrylic and ink.

Frozen Waterfall, varnished and done