What am I doing wrong on varnish?

I’m a complete newbie, and obviously I’m doing something wrong on varnish or initial canvas preparation. i’m using Geneva primer, Geneva paints and gamvar gloss. I’m putting the varnish on thin, with short vigorous strokes like they show in the video. Am I doing something wrong? My varnished paintings look way too sparkly. I really want the deep colors from the gloss, and yes they are hard to photograph and on some angles they do look a bit better but there’s still a lot of sparkle. Am I doing something wrong? Cheap canvas? Do I have to gesso? 


  • emaz

    The varnish is doing its job perfectly. Creating a smooth glossy and protective surface.
    The canvas texture is killing you. Providing specular highlights in every stitch of the weave.
    Revarnish with a mat product.

    In future I suggest using an aluminium composite panel or some ply / hardboard panels that can be gesso coated and sanded smooth as a baby’s proverbial.


  • I’ve had it with these canvas frames I thought were good. The texture is hard to paint on and yeah gloss varnish looks awful on them. Does nobody use canvas then? It’s kind of ruining the experience for me. I’m confused though, doesn’t Mark use canvas? And many other talented painters?

    Also, I have some large canvas frames already. Is there any way to still use them? Gesso maybe? But then I’ll need sanding. Can I hand sand? How much sanding are we talking about?
  • edited August 4
    Mark uses canvas/linen. I'm guessing he applies several coats of gesso and sands between coats to get the smoothness he wants. If you want  a smooth surface without having to go to the trouble of making a canvas smooth then, as @Dencal said, you would probably be better off with aluminium or wood. I'd say it's definitely the weave of the canvas that is causing your varnish problems. 
  • It's in the lighting and post processing of the photograph. Mark has video of photographing using daylight. There are many way to photograph your paintings to mostly eliminate this issue. Everybody is using a different lighting set up to paint. I have a main light off my left shoulder, with a less bright fill on the lower right. I've painted with this light for a while. Mostly to eliminate glare. I photograph pretty much using the same lighting scheme to emphasis brush strokes. Varnished a painting will almost always give back some bright speckles.

    The painting has to be lite carefully to minimize this effect. Shoot in RAW format for the most color information possible. In your photo edit software (Photoshop or Affinity) duplicate the image layer. On the top layer apply the Filter>Noise>Dust and Scratches filter. Adjust so that the specs just disappear. In the layer panel change the blend mode to darken. Most of the specs will be gone.

    Light for the absolute least amount of glare
    Process the specs away with Dust Filter

    It takes a but of practice and a good well adjusted monitor. 
  • One way to eliminate the glare is to use a polarizing filter on your camera and use polarizing film over your lights.  
  • Thanks for all the feedback. I do have a professional camera and polarizing filters, so I know I could take better photos. But the fact is they look like this in real life at certain angles. I think I’m definitely starting off with a canvas that’s far too rough. I didn’t even realize that Mark gessos his canvas.

    Seems pretty clear to me that I have to start doing that. I’ve watched videos from gamblin, any other interesting hacks or points to make about using gesso on a canvas? I guess I’m graduating to what real painters would use.
  • There are different grades of canvas, as well as linens and boards etc, as mentioned above by others.    If you have already bought a stock of canvas, you could either try to sell it on and buy something more in line for what you are looking for.    The alternative is to add layers of gesso to smooth the surface of what you have.

    Art is experimentation.    Play around before you put all your effort into single masterpieces.     The history of art is full of people doing experiments and studies.     It is a learning process and if you stop learning, as far as I can tell, you may as well give up!

    Some people paint layers of gesso on and sand between layers.
    Some use a wide household wall plaster tool to spread it out and collect the excess back into a container.
    Gesso differs in liquidity from one brand to the next.   I sometimes apply water to thicker brands, or wet the brush.   I saw someone use a car window ice scraper one day, but it was a small canvas.

    As I said, art is experimentation.    Play with scraps or one canvas broken into sections.     Try matt varnish over that gloss on a scrap to see if it would help salvage that particular painting.   I look forward to seeing some of you work, once you get the varnish under control.
  • Yeah basically what everyone else said, but an artists Matt Varnish would be good on a smoother surface, (Matt varnish is still shiny but less so). 
    A slightly bumpy surface is always going to catch the light, varnish just makes that more obvious.
  • Hi Emaz – I love the second painting of the mother and children!

    You have received some great advice here.  My only suggestion is regarding the “gesso” and sanding. I suggest not using traditional gesso made of glue and calcium, but rather the modern commercial ground or prime which is called “gesso.” This ground is acrylic-based and is flexible. The traditional gesso is not flexible at all, but is brittle and will crack badly if applied to canvas.

    If you are using stretched canvas, and want to apply a ground and then sand: you may wish to slide a thin piece of cardboard under the canvas close to the edges where the stretcher bars are to avoid having the edges of the stretcher bars make a line in the ground/gesso as you apply it and sand it down. This line is caused by the ground being thinner than elsewhere on the canvas because the canvas will be pressed down on the stretcher bars. This line will be more or less noticeable depending on the type of stretcher bar being used.

    I don’t use canvas anymore, but paint on prepped oil paper. I put on a couple of layers of ground thinly (diluted with water) and sand it a little. I find this gives a smoother surface than putting on one heavy coat. 

    After you use up your supply of stretched canvas, you may wish to consider trying aluminum or hardboard, as others have suggested. If the springiness of canvas is something you like, then adding more ground to it will reduce the light glints. 

  • Canvas isn't the only issue. If you paint with any visible brush stroke you get the same specs of reflected light. If you paint with bold impasto of a smooth surface you get bad reflective highlight.

    This is a studio skill is not a surface thing. 

    1. Proper application of varnish
    Don't put too much varnish on your painting. For the last couple of years I've been using Kamvar spray varnish. Great protection without too much thickness 

    2. Lighting
    We don't all have a permanent set up for photograph our paintings. Try to have a repliicatable moveable setup that is geared to good exposure and minimal reflection.

    3. Image process
    Me. I hate photographing my paintings and often do a bad job of it. I try to make it up for it on the computer. I have computer skills. Most people don't. The process I posted above is simple. Photoshop or Affinity photo will do the trick. Let me know if you like a 5 min video on this process.

    We need to have proficiency in these 3 rather boring studio skills. We only have 1 chance to present our work. A bad photo of a great painting is a bad painting in the eye of the viewer.

  • edited September 13
    @emaz, I recently put too much varnish on (gloss spray) a painting on board.    It got these same glittery lights to it.
    I found an old painting on a similar board and played around to recreate the effect.   I then sprayed some matt varnish over it.  It worked.  I went back to the original and sprayed matt over the gloss (2 thin applications) and got a great result.   Those glittery reflections all gone.
  • Hold on!  Don't give up too soon! @toujours has a good solution.  Just spray some matte varnish over it. You'll be OK!!!

    Also, whenever you varnish a painting, apply very light coats. I applied the varnish much too thickly on my first few paintings.  I've learned to apply it thinly, whether I brish it on or spray it on.

    Having the weave of the canvas showing can be a very desirable effect.  Portrait artists usually like a finer weave which gives a smoother surface.   Landscape artists sometimes like a coarser weave.   I use a Fredrix polyflax canvas whcih is their portrait grade canvas.  Others on this forum don't like polyflax, but I enjoy using it.

    I recently tried an experiment similar to @toujours on some watercolors.  I had done some watercolors on paper and pounted them on board and then sprawed them with three thin coats of gloss varnish.  They ccame out with a very shiny gloss on them (as expected) that looked cheap and gaudy!  So I sprayed one coat of Matte varnish on them and they ended up looking exactly like the proginal watercolor!

    If you want to try a smoother surface, it's pretty easy to fill the weave in with gesso.  The canvas and NOT be an oil primed canvas to use gesso however.   You want a gess that is about the consistency of house paint.  Brush it onin a thin coat and let it dry.  Then sand it light with about a 120 grit sandpaper.  If you put it on thinly enough, it doesnt take much sanding.  You are just knocking off the high points.  Repeat until you have the surface you want.  The key is THIN coats!  It goes prett fast.  You can get your sirface as smooth as you want it.

  • I usually photograph a painting before varnishing it for the record.  Two thin coats of varnish are better than one thick one, yes. 
  • I usually photograph a painting before varnishing it for the record.  Two thin coats of varnish are better than one thick one, yes. 
    I tried that, but it was a patchy painting I had, raw and burnt umbers seemed to be soaking up litres of oil when oiling out, and glossy bits shone in other sections.  I thought the varnish may help.   Interestingly, with thin coats, the dull areas were still visible with gloss varnish, so I kept applying thin coats, then it went sparkly in other parts of the painting.
    The matt has helped to tone the glitter down completely, however a few dull spots still show up in different lights.
    I had it professionally scanned after a few coats of gloss before the sparkle showed up, but the dull areas were still visible.  I have not seen the result yet of the scan to see what if any dull spots show up.
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