Mastering Canvas Varnish: Water vs. Solvent Bases

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Choosing the right varnish for your needs can be confusing.

From brands to chemical compositions, there are a lot of different options out there!

What is the best canvas varnish? Which varnish should you choose? We’ll try and provide some answers in this article.

What are my options?

There are two main varnish categories when it comes to coating fine art prints: water-based and lacquer-based (aka solvent-based). Depending on your needs, each has their place.

Most of the time, you are going to be better off with a varnish that is water-based. Generally speaking, these will be more archival, most cost efficient, easier to apply, and easier to work with once dried.

Most print varnishes can be either rolled on or applied with a high volume low pressure (HVLP) spray gun. Some also come in pressurized aerosol cans.

Water-based options: Breathing Color’s Timeless or Glamour 2, Clearshield, Black Diamond Eclipse, Liquitex, and many more.

Solvent-based options: Golden Archival Spray, Clearjet

1. What are the differences between your canvas print varnish?

We’ve put together this handy chart that explains the major differences between Timeless and Glamour II canvas varnish. Choosing the correct print varnish for your canvas or fine art paper prints is a crucial step in ensuring the longevity and archivability of those prints. Take a look:

Timeless Vs. Glamour II chart
Print Varnish Comparison Chart

Based on the above chart, you can see that Timeless requires no dilution, comes in a variety of finishes, and works very well with either the roll or spray coating method. Glamour II was the first of its kind, an industry standard. It does require some dilution, so be prepared for a slightly longer preparation time.

You may ask: “Why use Glamour II if Timeless is so great?” 

Glamour II has it’s advantages as well! Where Timeless roll coating large prints above 30″x30″ can present a problem due to its quick dry time, Glamour II is a slow-dry varnish, so roll coating large prints is easier. Additionally, Glamour II requires dilution so end the end you get more bang for your buck, making it a great solution for the cost conscious.

2. What canvas and papers can I varnish?

It’s a great question, since water-based varnishes (like ours) work a bit differently than solvent-based varnishes that you might see (these often come in a spray can). Water-based varnish doesn’t have the same noxious fumes and health hazards that traditional varnishes do. No worries about inhaling harmful vapors or excessive ventilation setups.

The different chemical makeup means that you should understand which scenarios call for which type of coating. We’ve outlined some details below:

Canvas Prints

We would strongly recommend sticking with a water-based varnish when printing canvas. Historically, solvent-based varnishes have two problems on canvas: 1) The coating tends to yellow slightly over time, causing shifts in the color of the canvas and the inks thereon. 2) It tends to become brittle with long-term exposure to air. This can cause cracking, which is bad for obvious reasons.

For the most part, varnish is designed to protect your canvas prints from cracking when stretched. The topcoat also provides a layer of durability to the environmental elements (and careless browsers of your art). Additionally, the print varnish will increase dmax (that’s how black your blacks are), boost the saturation of your colors, and increase longevity and print permanence.

It’s worth mentioning that even though we design our varnish to work specifically with our canvas products, it will present many of the benefits listed above with most other canvas products on the market.

Fine Art Paper Prints

Many people don’t know that they can even varnish their fine art paper prints! We addressed those questions in another post, which you find below.

“Can You Coat Fine Art Papers?”

Fine Art Papers can be a little trickier to work with than canvas, as they are usually thinner papers that don’t absorb varnish in the same way as canvas. We recommend doing a bit of testing before you jump into big, important jobs. The keys are to not apply too much pressure, and to avoid over-saturating the paper. We have found that either rolling or spraying works. Feel free to give us a shout if you run into any snags.

BONUS: This post is full of information about our products, but when it comes to aerosol varnish, there are a ton of great options available.

To help you select the right one, we’ve prepared a detailed guide on what brands are out there and our thoughts on each of them. Also included in this guide is our quick video tutorial on how to properly apply varnish to paper prints for best results. All of this content is available for free download below.

Photo Paper Prints

Photo Paper is much too shallow and has a special coating that won’t work with a water-based varnish. You only option here would be a solvent-based varnishes in aerosol form such as Golden’s Archival Spray.

Coating photo paper prints has become increasingly popular, as printmakers look for ways to display photo paper prints without glass.

This leads us to our next question:

3. “How can I use your print varnishes?”

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This is a broad question that we’ll split up into two parts: A) Application Methods and B) Other ways to use our varnish.

A) Application Methods

We have found that both Timeless and Glamour II work well with our Timeless Roller Kit, or most HVLP guns such as the Wagner FLEXio 690 sprayer. Both rolling and spraying techniques have worked well with our varnishes, with Timeless being the preferred print varnish for those that just want to open, stir, and start varnishing.

A similar question we get is “Do you sell your varnishes in aerosol can form?”
The answer is no. Since our varnishes are water-based, they can’t atomize fine enough to work well in an aerosol can. For these applications, please look into a solvent-based varnish.

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The Wagner FLEXio 690 HVLP Sprayer

B) Other ways to use varnish
We are frequently asked if our varnishes can be used as mounting adhesives, texturizing gels, or acrylic paint mediums. The great answer is Yes for Glamour II. Unlike Timeless that comes pre-diluted, the concentrated form of Glamour II works well as either a mounting adhesive or texturizing gel. It’s also a nice acrylic paint medium if you do original paintings in acrylic. Please see this blog article on using Glamour II as a mounting adhesive, and this blog article on using it as a texturizing gel.

4. “What is the shelf life of your varnish and ideal storage conditions?”

This is an important question since bad or expired varnish can greatly reduce the quality of your prints. Both Timeless and Glamour II have a 6 month to a year shelf life, in proper storage conditions. We recommend a temperature-controlled environment in 65 – 75 degrees (F), 35-65% relative humidity, no direct sunlight on the containers, and preferably in the original screw-top containers or an airtight container of your own.

PRO TIP: If you’re new to varnishing photo prints, you’ll want to take a look at our guide to solvent-based aerosol varnish. It lists many of the popular products that you’ll want to research, and includes a bonus video tutorial on how to apply varnish to a paper print like a pro. Free download available below.
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