The Three Most Important Steps to Preserving Acrylic Paintings

How to protect and preserve your acrylic paints for future generations. Click To Tweet

How to protect and preserve your acrylic paints for future generations.

If you’re an artist and you are anything like me, you want to see your artwork last.  You want to know that if your great grandchild is one day looking at your painting, it is still going to look as wonderful as it did the day you finished it.  This art tutorial post will show you the three most important to steps to take to make that possible.
Now, I want to make clear though, that if you’re an artist and you don’t do these things, it doesn’t make your art any less valid. Some art doesn’t last, some artist do elaborate carvings in ice, knowing it will melt, and their art is still valid as art.  However, if you do want to make your paintings last, this post will show you three important steps to preserving acrylic paintings.

1. Get the best paint you can afford.

I’ve met a lot of artists who buy the cheapest paint they can find, and still manage to create very beautiful works of art, so why would I recommend buying pricier paint?  Well, its an unfortunate fact that when you paint with cheaper craft or student grade paints, even if the paintings looks great when it is finished, time will eventually show the difference.  Cheap craft paint or cheap student paint will fade a lot more than artist paint, and the painting will lose its vibrancy.   I’ve also seen cheap paint peel right off of a canvas when it is applied thickly, and this happened when the painting was only a few months old, cheap paints are also more prone to cracking and flaking.  Artist quality acrylic paint though, adheres to the canvas, can be applied thickly or thinly, and really resists cracking, peeling, fading, and flaking.

In addition to not preserving as well, cheap paint often uses impure pigments, or mixes of cheaper pigments to imitate the look of the pricier pigments, and when you try to mix your own colors you often get inconsistent results and muddy colors, but even if you do manage to get the look you want, remember that it isn’t likely to maintain that look several decades from now.

2. Protect your paint with an isolation coat before varnishing.

Most acrylic painters know that it is a good idea to varnish a painting in order to protect it, and yes, varnish is a great way to protect a painting from soiling and fading, but it should never be applied directly on the acrylic paint. An isolation coat creates a non-removable, physical barrier between the paint and the removable varnish. The purpose of an isolation coat is to protect the pigmented paint from the solvents used to remove the varnish if it becomes soiled or discolored. The isolation coat also seals any absorbent areas of the canvas, providing an even, uniform surface to apply varnish to.

How to mix and apply an isolation coat.

To make an isolation coat, mix 2 parts soft gel gloss acrylic medium to 1 part water, mix well, and allow it to settle until there are no bubbles in the mixture, then apply it with a brush that you use for no other purpose, not even for the varnish.   The isolation coat will appear milky white when applied, but will dry clear and glossy. Do one layer brushing one direction back and forth across the canvas, let it dry, and then do a second layer, brushing back and forth across the canvas in the other direction. Later, if you wish to have a matte finish, just use a matte varnish, and the glossy appearance will go away.  (Note, I prefer Golden brand soft gel gloss, but any soft gel gloss will work, also I am not being paid to promote Golden, I just like the product).

3. Finally, protect your painting with a fine art quality, U.V. resistant removable varnish.

After the second layer of your isolation coat completely dries, you can apply your varnish.  I prefer the Golden Brand polymer varnish, but other brands will work as well.  Just make sure that you get a varnish that is intended for fine art acrylic paintings, and that is U.V. resistant, since this will further protect your painting from fading.  Mix the varnish according to the directions on the jar, and apply it with another brush that is used for nothing else.  With the varnish, you’ll want to apply it gently and somewhat quickly, avoid over working the varnish because that is how you get brush strokes and bubbles in it.  Like the isolation coat, you’ll want to do one layer brushing on back and forth one way, let it thoroughly dry (for varnish this will take about 12 hours), and then apply a second coat brushing it on the other direction. Another option is to use a spray varnish, just follow the directions on the can, spray it on, let it dry, and repeat to make sure you have full coverage.

Now if your painting becomes soiled, for example if some irresponsible person spills coffee on it and doesn’t tell you about it, so that you find it after its dried on, or even if over time dust just becomes too hard to fully remove by just wiping the canvas, you can remove the varnish using household ammonia diluted with water. You can do so knowing that the ammonia solution will never touch the actual paint, because you had the forethought to apply an isolation coat.  Then after you remove the varnish, rinse all of the ammonia off, and apply a new coat of varnish. Whatever was on your painting will only be in the varnish, so when you remove the varnish, you remove the stain.


My wonderful blessing of a husband and myself atop the Space Needle.
My wonderful blessing of a husband and myself atop the Space Needle.

6 Responses to The Three Most Important Steps to Preserving Acrylic Paintings

  1. Very well laid out instructions – I have done a VERY limited amount of painting but think it would be a very cathartic activity for me! Thank you!

    • You’re welcome, and I should have mentioned that even if you have used cheaper paints, taking the next two steps will still preserve the painting some, making it last longer than it otherwise would otherwise have lasted.

  2. This is very helpful. I will read it over again and take down notes because I do some painting in acrylic.

  3. Great info to know! I have an old painting that was done of my father and I don’t think it was ever treated. I wish I could go back in time and share this post with the artist! We are now going to have to pay a lot for a restoration job.

    • Well, it also depends on whether or not it is an oil or acrylic painting, if its acrylic, than the steps I shared would have been the right course of action, but if its oil, there are different methods of preservation.