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The Role of Coatings in Fine Art Printing

Fine art printing is an art form in itself.

Digital printing solutions have changed the landscape of fine art and reproduction within the last two decades and continue to revolutionize the way “Fine Art” is perceived in the art world to this day.

Advancements in technology, material availability, and manufacturing practice make fine art prints a viable option for art collectors and printmakers alike. Fine art printing requires careful application and methodology just like painting, taking a photograph, or sculpting a piece of clay.

While this may not sound as hard as traditional art forms, it still requires an artistic and careful eye every step of the way. From the act of printing to the preservation process to shipping the print to your customer; fine art printing carries with it many facets to ensure a high quality result.

In this article, we’re going to explore what varnishes and coatings have to do with fine art digital printmaking and how they’ve helped to define “Fine Art Printing” in the 21st century.

What is ‘Fine Art Printing' exactly?

The art of reproducing paintings, photography, drawings, and more through a digital printer and high quality materials such as canvas, paper, or linen. The goal of this art form is to preserve the look and feel of the original and simultaneously offering art collectors an opportunity to collect the same piece through print reproductions.

For example, none of us could hope to afford DaVinci’s original ‘Mona Lisa’ that is now carefully preserved in a museum, however, a digital print reproduction of this famous painting is easily attainable in many different print sizes.

Fine Art Printing

Fine art printing has been referred to as ‘giclee printing’ or ‘archival pigment printing’ among others but the concept remains the same: using pigment-based inks and archival quality paper or canvas to ensure long-lasting prints that stay true to the original subject matter in color accuracy and detail.

Print and preserve

Before you run off to print the famous DaVinci on your small home desktop printer to start selling your copy of a fine art print, you need to understand that fine art printing is more than just hitting the “print” option in your favorite program on a plain piece of regular paper.

Important factors of fine art printing include the resolution of the digital image to be printed, type of inks used in printing, the printing equipment, the software used in printing, and finally the methods of protecting said print.

We’ll cover the first four points in another article, but protecting your fine art prints is the difference in ensuring your fine art print stays that way. Protecting your print from fading, weather shifts, dust, debris, or rough handling is just as important as selecting which media to print on. Let’s discuss the differences in how you can protect your fine art print.

What are coatings?

Put simply, coatings are either liquid varnishes, solvent sprays, or film laminates that protect the artwork from damage such as fading, moisture, and scratches. They come in four finishes : matte, gloss, satin, and luster. We’ll cover the types of finishes further down the article.

What are coatings

Good coatings can enhance the overall appearance of the print by increasing color vibrancy and replicating the look and feel of an original painting, for example the glossy look of an oil painting. Great coatings can even add additional archival properties and extend the lifespan of the artwork.

Here are the types of coatings and differences between them.

Liquid varnishes

Liquid varnishes are the most popular and commonly used type of protective coating and have been around since the days that amber and tree sap were used as methods of preserving an original oil painting. Solvent-based varnishes aren’t ideal for inkjet-printed canvas as they tend to yellow and crack over time.

We’re going to focus on the water-based varnishes as they are the best option for prints on aqueous matte canvas such as Breathing Color’s Lyve matte canvas.

Most water-based varnishes are easy to use and offer a range of sizes and prices for your needs and that makes them the ideal accessory for novice printmaker to experienced pro alike. To better understand their value, let’s review the pros and cons of these varnishes.

  • Easy application with a brush or hand roller
  • Can be blended together to create a personalized custom sheen
  • Self-leveling when applied on horizontal surface
  • Dry within minutes of application
  • Heat, scratch, and puncture-resistant with several coats applied
  • Can buckle fine art papers if applied too thickly
  • Not designed for photo papers at all
  • Requires an indoor temp-controlled spray booth if using a spray gun (HVLP)
  • Larger prints need longer curing and dry times

Solvent aerosol sprays

Solvent-based aerosol sprays can be used on inkjet prints but can be more challenging than water-based liquid varnishes. The major difference is that they typically only come in one 12oz can size ranging in prices from $10 to $25, making them more expensive when considering how much varnish is required for a larger print such as 24”x36”.

Solvent aerosol sprays painting

One print at that size would require at least three to four cans depending on how many coats of varnish you desire. Here are the pros and cons of solvent-based aerosol sprays.

  • Near-instant drying
  • Bonds quickly with fine art papers without risk of buckling or warping
  • Can be used on photo papers sparingly
  • Application requires no setup as cans come ready-to-use
  • Scuff and scratch resistance
  • Very smelly and requires a vented indoor or outdoor application area
  • Mask and gloves required during handling
  • Solvent aerosol sticks to everything so tarps, plastic liners, etc. are needed
  • Spraying can be inconsistent pattern if not careful
  • Achieving an even coat is harder on larger prints

Film laminates

The last and least popular types of coatings for digital printmaking are film laminates and they are exactly what they sound like: a plastic laminate film.

Some film laminates are heat-applied, peel-and-stick, or vacuum-pressed onto the surface of the print making them ideal for rigid substrates such as wood, metal, or acrylic panels. They aren’t as flexible as liquid or aerosol varnishes in that they require a special lamination machine in order to be applied properly making their costs prohibitive for anyone except the most dedicated professional printmaker. Here are the pros and cons of film laminates.

  • Consistent finish across print as film doesn’t change sheen
  • Can be cut to size saving time and effort
  • Come in different thicknesses for desired protection
  • Requires heat lamination machine or hydraulic press machine to be applied
  • “Silvering” is a problem where pockets of air or debris get trapped under the film causing white spots or voids that are impossible to remove
  • No option to re-apply or fix once applied to print
  • Matte finish isn’t a true matte look as the plastic still has a slight sheen

What are finishes?

We briefly mentioned the types of finishes earlier in the article. A finish is the desired sheen a printmaker wants for the final result on the print. Liquid varnishes, aerosol sprays, and film laminates all come in each type of finish and their look and feel can vary by manufacturer. A test of your desired brand is always recommended to ensure the look you want on your print.

These finishes are known as Gloss, Matte, Satin and Luster. Each type of finish can enhance a print in different ways such as a matte finish preventing any glare or reflection from museum overhead lights. Here are the pros and cons of each type of finish.


Gloss finishes are designed to enhance the colors and deepen the blacks of a print while providing the necessary protection from wear and tear. A high-gloss look can be achieved with multiple coats of varnish applied.

  • Gloss finishes achieve a high degree of shine to your print, resulting in a vibrant and highly saturated appearance.
  • They enhance the visual clarity and sharpness of the image.
  • They are ideal for photography where detail matters most.
  • Susceptible to glare and reflections making display a challenge
  • Handling can be difficult as fingerprints and scuffs are easily visible
  • Tend to attract more dust or debris to the surface of a print
  • Gloss finish tends to highlight surface imperfections of the substrate


Matte finishes do the exact opposite of gloss finishes, they reduce glare and reflectivity on the print. Conversely, this can ‘mute’ the look of an image making it appear a bit dull and washed out.

Matte finishes painting

For this reason, it’s best to use a gloss finish first and then apply a second coat of matte for the desired result.

  • Prevent glare or distracting reflections in direct light
  • Prevent fingerprints and dust from the surface of a print
  • Allow the focus to be on the print and not the finish itself
  • Can tend to mute the color tones and depth of an image with multiple coats
  • Not as water-resistant or scratch-resistant as gloss
  • Opacity shift can happen if applied too heavily

Satin or Luster

Depending on which brand you’re using, these can mean the same thing. Some luster finishes can appear a bit softer than a true satin finish so it’s important to find a brand you like and stick with it to prevent your finishes from looking wildly different from print to print.

Similar to gloss finishes, satin finishes contain some sheen and can create a glare or reflective surface. They tend to be more subtle than gloss finishes, but still enhance the print in the same way and offer a fine balance between both gloss and matte looks.

  • Offer a balance between gloss and matte finishes.
  • Enhance color vibrancy and saturation similar to gloss with less sheen or reflectivity.
  • The look is up to personal interpretation making consistency across brands and application methods difficult.


We’ve covered what coatings are and what types of finishes they’re available in, and how they play a role in protecting your fine art print. Coatings are an important step in the process of fine art printmaking and can make all the difference in taking your prints to the next level of color vibrancy, aesthetics, and durability.

Stay tuned for a follow up article on the science behind coatings, choosing the right coating for your ink type, and coating application techniques.

Here’s to a great print!


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