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How to protect a watercolor painting

OK, I have to make an assumption here. There are two types of people who will look up how to protect a watercolor painting and come across this article. The buyer of course wants her watercolor painting she just bought from the artist to last a lifetime. I’m assuming you’re not the buyer. I’m assuming you’re the artist.

If you’re the artist, this is who this article is for, not the buyer. So let’s go over how to protect a watercolor painting, from the artist’s perspective. For after all, if you’re a professional artist, your art is your legacy.

You’re insanely talented. Your artwork is so good that we all want it to not only outlive you, we’d love to know it will be around for literally hundreds of years.

The problem with colors are they fade. This is a problem all art mediums face. Even the great Leonardo da Vinci faced this.

We won’t cover oil or acrylics. I’m only covering watercolor and of course her cousin gouache. I’m also assuming you’re painting on watercolor paper. Note that this will also work for watercolor paintings on wood.

Preserving your watercolor painting

Alright, let’s go over how to protect a watercolor painting. You’ll only need two things – varnish and wax. I’ll note the specific ones I use.

You don’t have to use the same brands. These are just the brands I use and I think they’re excellent. I also love the way my paintings look after they’ve been waxed. But first things first.

Varnish

When the average person thinks of varnish, they think of wood varnish. Same concept.

We’ll be adding a protective layer of varnish directly over the painting.

Note that varnish is bad for your lungs. Luckily for me, I used to swim. I can hold my breath for a long time.

Always, always, always varnish outside. You don’t want your family breathing this stuff.

Krylon Kamar Varnish for watercolor paintings
I use Krylon Kamar Varnish for my watercolor paintings

Take your painting outside. Note to read the bottle carefully. You don’t want to do this when it’s really humid outside as it won’t work correctly.

Shake the bottle vigorously for two whole minutes. You want it shaken enough that you can do the whole shebang with only one continuous spray.

I get the painting in position over a big piece of cardboard. You can use a moving box if you have to. Then, I hold my breath and shoot. I really pack it on.

Wait at least several hours. Varnish has a real strong smell to it and if it’s outside for a few hours, it won’t be so bad when you bring it back in. Just don’t leave it out overnight. And if it starts to get humid, you’re going to have to bring it in. I’m not sure where you’re at, but when I lived in the South, it seemed like the weather changed on a whim.

Wax

After I brought my painting inside, I still wait overnight to wax it. This is the wax I use.

Dorland's wax medium
Dorland’s Wax Medium is very good for protecting your artwork

I made a mistake. I bought a bottle that was too small. I’ll be going through this sooner than later. Next time I buy this stuff, I’m buying the bigger bottle of Dorland’s Wax Medium. It’s great stuff!

After the varnish is totally dry, I take a soft cloth and a nice sized chunk of wax, and smear the wax over the painting. I let that go overnight, then put on a second layer of wax the next day.

So yes, preserving your artwork is a three night process. But the thing is, you don’t have to watch the varnish dry and the wax settle. I’m always doing the next piece of art while waiting for this one to get ready.

What does the wax do?

You might be wondering why you waxed it after already applying the varnish. The wax gives you an added sealant for protection. It also gives your painting some extra luster.

After all, our goal is for your beautiful painting to last hundreds of years after we die.

After waiting yet another night after the second layer of wax, it’s time to buff the wax. I simply use a paper towel.

After buffing the painting, the wax really makes it shine. You’ll love how it looks. For my pinups, the girls really pop when waxed. Whether you also paint people, or wildlife, flowers, scenery, or whatever, the wax really makes the colors pop while also adding additional layers of protection for your watercolor painting.

Allie as Marilyn side view
My latest painting – Allie as Marilyn – varnished and waxed and ready for sale
Note - you don't have to do this, but I always do.  I always add wax over the wood as well.  It gives an extra bit of protection to the wood as well as your painting.

2 thoughts on “How to protect a watercolor painting

  1. What type if varnish? A gloss, Matt, semi gloss?

    1. Hi Craig,
      Depends on the painting. Do you want it to be more flat, glossy, or in between?

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