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When to use retouching varnish.

When to use retouching varnish.

Retouching varnish

Once finished a painting there may arise glossy and matte or flat areas in the canvas. That looks not nice, especially exposed in wrong lighting. It is caused by a combination of the colour used, the type and amount of thinning agent added and the absorption of the ground.

The amount of oil in the paint as well as the amount of solvent that is added can vary per colour. It´s called sunken-in areas and it has nothing to do with a bad painting technique. Treating the sunken-in areas, once they are thoroughly dry to the touch, with a very thin coat of  retouching varnish restores the gloss and colour.

If the sunken-in areas are very absorbent it may be necessary to repeat the procedure (once dry) in order for the gloss and colour to be of a sufficient level. The varnish dries in a few hours and leaves a porous film which in turn gives suitable adherence for a following coat of paint. It is very important to apply retouching varnish very sparingly, as the paint, not yet completely dry, may dissolve in the solvent of the varnish. Use for applying a broad varnish brush. The painting can dry now completely. After a drying time of at least one year is a layer of final varnish is recommended.


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Comment Section

23 thoughts on “When to use retouching varnish.

By Beverly on 4 February 2017

I used re-touch varnish on a large 26×36 oil painting on canvas for a commission. it is very glossy. I know I could wait 6 months or longer to add mat or semi gloss varnish but the client wants it now. It has been a month and paint and re-touch is very dry and I paint thinly, Is there any way I could creat a semi-gloss re-touch to tone down the gloss?

By Ben Lustenhouwer on 4 February 2017

If you applied the paint thin as you say there is no danger to give it a matt final varnish

By Donna James on 29 November 2017

When applying the retouch varnish, immediately buff the surface very softly with a no lint cloth to tone down the gloss to a satin finish.

By Barbara Kenny on 22 August 2016

What do you use to clean the brushes after using retouch varnish? I have developed a sensitivity to turpentine. Thank you.

By Vivian on 12 August 2016

Is it necessary always to remove the retouching varnish before applying a final varnish and why if that is so – my husband is a chemist and wants to know hat is the difference between the two varnishes, to make it necessary to remove the first cost after a year?

By Kishori Taylor on 29 April 2016


I would like to try out a winsor and newton retouch varnish spray.

You say that retouch varnish gives the painting a porous finish. I have worked hard to find the smoothest surface, and I paint in thin layers to be able to paint photorealism in very fine detail. So my finished painting is currently very very smooth. Will it stay smooth if I use this varnish?

Also is there a difference in how retouch varnish looks and permanent varnish looks? And if so, what are the differences?

I look forward to hearing your wise words from experience which I’m sure will help me from making mistakes, and will be very much appreciated, thank you!

By Ben Lustenhouwer on 4 May 2016

Hi Kishori. I am not really familiar with smooth surfaces as my work has a more bold brushstrokes character. Retouching varnish should not change the surface but sometimes the varnish is rejected in some areas of the painting. That depends on the amount of oil in the underlaying paint. I solve that problem by adding a little saliva and I rub it with the palm of my hand into the varnish. In my paintings that does not cause problems as the surface is not smooth.

By Dixie Mccarthy on 28 January 2016

I just put a coat of retouch varnish on 11 oil paintings for a show . It was suggested to wait 20 minutes and then apply another thin coat of spray of retouch varnish….then let dry. The paintings are all outside on easels in the open air. Is this correct?

By Becky on 23 January 2016

Hi, I have been painting for 25 years… no lessons self taught . Now I have painting that are 20 years old hanging on the wall never been varnished ! is it to late to varnish these paintings?

By Ben Lustenhouwer on 26 January 2016

Dear Becky. You must clean te oil painting first. The best and the cheapest way is with a cotton cleaning pad and saliva. Really, that is the safest way to do.
After that you can apply a layer of final varnish.

By Barbara on 16 May 2015

I’ve finished a couple portraits but they are too shiny. I use Liquin as a painting medium and covered the paintings with it at the end. Is there a product I can use to bring the sheen down to satin or mat? I have a show in November so could put a varnish on in 3 months. Thanks

By Jane Bradley on 3 May 2015

I am dealing with a major disaster on a commission I recently completed. A portrait 36X36, painted on a linen panel. I have used these panels for years and have used retouch varnish for years with no problem. The background requested by the client was viridian and ultramarine, and there was a great deal of oil in the paint (not added, but good paint). There were several layers of this background color as she made requests. I sprayed it when I thought it was dry enough, like I always do. It won’t dry, and has picked up some lint,has run a little in some areas and generally looks horrible. I have put it in a box in the garage, etc, but it is not drying. Any suggestions? She is getting impatient and questions why I have not sent it to her. I am ready to paint another.

By ben on 3 May 2015

Dear Jane.
We all suffer sometimes from disasters and we wish to have chosen an other profession. When you say it looks horrible I am afraid you must paint another. However take the painting out of the box. It won´t dry there. It needs light to dry. So expose it to as much light as you can. And also this: try to educate impatient clients. Wish you good luck.

By Jane Bradley on 3 May 2015

Thanks Ben,
I am now in the process of repainting on canvas. Thanks for the input!


By Ann Kinloch on 28 April 2015

Dear Ben, After completing my first oil painting of a seascape, a friend fell in love with it and offered to buy it on the spot, but when I said she would have to wait at least 3 months so that I could varnish it prior to framing, she was noticeably disappointed. I started searching the internet for a solution to this problem and found Winsor and Newton retouching varnish, then your description of how and when to use it. My seascape has not got patchy areas of matt and gloss, but due to the overall thinness of the paint applied, the colours in the painting have become lighter and have a chalky appearance which makes me think this is caused both by the thin application and saturation onto a cheap canvas. I intend to apply a very thin layer of this varnish using a monarch synthetic brush followed 2days later by another layer if necessary to bring the colours back to life. After a year I will advise the buyer to have the painting given a permanent varnish.
Is this the right way about my problem. I am such a newbie and am honoured to have an artist like yourself comment.
Ann Kinloch

By ben on 30 April 2015

Dear Ann.
You did right by putting retouching varnish first. And after one year the final varnish is also the right way. But to repair the chalky character will be difficult I would say.
The problem is in the canvas as you say.
Kind regards.

By Ann Kinloch on 1 May 2015

Thank you Ben for your comments. I varnished the painting with one thin coat of Winsor and Newton retouching varnish (so easy to apply) early this morning and it looks fantastic!. What a difference, no more chalkiness and the colours look deeper with an overall consistency of depth and a lovely slightly glossy sheen throughout. I will wait 6 days then transport it to the buyer, I don’t think it needs another coat. You have given me such confidence and am so grateful for your advise.
Ann Kinloch, Scotland

By Tom on 23 April 2015


thank you for the information about painting/varnishing.
I just have a question about the sunken-in areas:

Would a layer of retouching varnish, put at the end of a painting, make the sunken-in areas even for good? Or is a finishing varnish after one year necessary anyway?
Problem is, what if you don’t have one year time between finishing and selling the work? I’m just spinning around the idea to use retouching varnish instead of finishing varnish, because you don’t have to wait at least half a year.

Would like to hear your professional point.
Thank you,

By ben on 23 April 2015

Hi Tom.
I do both. When the oil is dry to the touch ( after some weeks and even less) I apply retouching varnish and deliver the painting. After a year a final varnish is required. Sometimes I do that myself.
Good luck.

By Tom on 24 April 2015

Many thanks Ben,

that helps me a lot, had a struggle with that question.
I’ll do it like that.


By Tori on 29 May 2013

I just discovered your work and your blog. I am overwhelmingly happy about it! I can’t get enough of it all. Thank you for putting this together. This is the answer to my struggles. I began a portrait this weekend after viewing your edited demos and the difference in my work is already very clear. I am purchasing your full portrait demo and am looking forward to pouring through the rest of your blog.

My question regarding varnishing:
How do you feel about spray retouch varnishes?

Thank you!!

By ben on 29 May 2013

Hi Tori.

Thank you for your kind words. Long time ago I applied spray for the retouching varnish and it is a perfect solution, but I cannot stand the spray in my studio. But if the painting is not really dry to the touch it is a not a bad idea. But be careful.
Kind regards.

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