Can You Paint Over a Varnished Acrylic Painting?

It sometimes happens to artists; the longer they look at their artwork, the more they wish they had done something differently and want to make adjustments. But there’s just one problem. While the painting is not set in stone, it’s covered by a layer of varnish. 

You can paint over a varnished acrylic painting though this is not recommended. It is safe to do so if you initially used a water-based acrylic varnish. However, if you used a solvent-based varnish, painting over it with acrylic paint may end up ruining the artwork underneath.

The rest of this article will answer this question in greater detail by laying out the pros and cons for you. I will also give you a couple of alternatives to try out if you do not want to paint over your varnished acrylic painting.

Pros and Cons of Painting Over a Varnished Acrylic Painting

Painting over a varnished acrylic painting has its advantages and disadvantages. As an artist, you might find yourself having to decide whether to proceed with the painting or not. I have outlined the pros and cons to help you make the right choice for you and your artwork.

Pros

  • You get to fix your painting. If something about your painting is making your brain itch, retouching it is the most logical thing to do. It’s also very straightforward if you are painting directly over the varnish. With a few brush strokes, you can make adjustments to get it looking exactly how you want it to.
  • It takes less time. Painting directly over a varnished acrylic painting will take far less time. This is as opposed to first removing the varnish from the entire canvas, either by sanding it off or wiping it down with a varnish remover solvent. As both processes have to be done carefully, this can be quite slow. Skipping them altogether and painting directly over the varnish will save you a lot of time.

Cons

  • The surface will be uneven. Remember that you will not only be adding a new layer of paint onto the varnish. Once the paint dries, you will also have to apply varnish on the retouched areas. This will make your painting noticeably uneven. To avoid this, you will have to remove the varnish completely before retouching, then uniformly apply a new coat of varnish over the entire canvas once the new layer of paint dries.
  • The painting could get damaged. Many artists caution against painting over varnish as there’s the risk of damaging the original artwork. This risk is higher with beginners, and the common mistake they make is not using the right materials. It is relatively safe to paint over the varnish if it is a water-based acrylic varnish. If you are pressed on times, or at least want to find out more on how quickly you can get to this phase, we have a detailed article on How Soon Can You Varnish Your Acrylic Paintings.. On the other hand, using acrylic paints on a solvent-based varnish could mess up your painting.

How To Paint Over a Varnished Acrylic Painting

If you have weighed the pros and cons and have decided to proceed with painting over your varnished acrylic painting, here are the steps to follow:

  1. Make sure the varnish has dried and cured. Acrylic paints can dry within a matter of minutes, but this is only on the surface. Give your painting at least a week before varnishing to ensure that the paint has not only dried but also cured.
  2. Prepare the materials. Put together all the materials you’ll need, keeping in mind that you should only use acrylic paints when painting over a water-based acrylic varnish. Do not use acrylic paint on solvent-based varnish.
  3. Begin painting. If you have the right materials, you can begin to make the desired touch-ups to your painting. It’s advisable to limit the varnished area you need to paint over. 
  4. Let the paint dry and cure. Once you are satisfied with the adjustments you have made, set the painting aside and allow the new layers of paint to dry and cure. 
  5. Apply varnish over the new paint. When you are sure the new additions of paint have dried and cured, lay your painting down and apply varnish over the areas with newly dried paint. As these layers sit over the original varnish, they will need a coating to protect them from dust and ultraviolet rays. 

Alternatives to Painting Over a Varnished Acrylic Painting

Some artists would rather not take the risk of painting over their varnished works. Others may be willing to do it, but only in small areas that need a retouch. If the adjustments are substantial, they draw the line. 

Fortunately, there is a solution to this — totally removing the varnish before painting. There are two ways that you can do this:

  • Sand off the varnish – You can remove varnish from an acrylic painting by gently sanding it off with fine-grit sandpaper. This method is considered risky, but if done carefully, there won’t be any damage to the painting underneath. Wearing a respirator or mask is recommended to avoid inhaling airborne particles. You can also dab water onto the painting’s surface or soak the sandpaper in water to trap the particles. If you would like more information on the safety of sanding off varnish, we have a specialised article on the topic Is It Safe To Sand Varnish off an Acrylic Painting?
  • Use a chemical varnish remover – Wiping down your painting with turpentine, mineral spirits, or specially formulated varnish remover can do the trick if you don’t want to sand your painting. You’ll need to note the type of varnish you used so that you can choose the appropriate chemical to remove it. 

Once you have the varnish out of the way, you can make all the necessary touch-ups to your painting. After the paint has dried and cured, apply a layer or more of varnish over the entire painting. 

Final Thoughts

An artist’s judgment can change over time, and when this happens, it can only mean one thing — retouching their artwork. This is anticipated, and most varnishes are made with future removal in mind. 

However, some artists may still opt to forego the varnish removal and paint directly over it. There is a risk that comes with this. You will have to carefully weigh the pros and cons and decide for yourself what is best.

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Ines

Ines is a self-taught artist based in the UK. Originally from Caracas, she has dabbled in the world of arts and crafts in a diversity of ways participating in city intervention projects, sustainable practices’ open exhibitions, and her illustrations being featured in anniversary editions of literary magazines.

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