Mike Simpson, "Sentinel," 2016, varnished watercolor on Arches 140 lb. cold press on foam core, 9 x 12 inches

It’s a peculiar practice to varnish your plein air watercolors, since most are matted and glassed when framed. However, artist Mike Simpson has some thoughts on the process that might give you cause to pause.

It’s likely that you’ve never heard of artists varnishing watercolors because — let’s face it — it’s a process really meant as a protective finishing for oil paintings. However, the use of varnish on watercolor might not be as counterintuitive or impractical as it seems, as painter Mike Simpson is beginning to discover.

Mike Simpson, “Barra Barra Saloon,” 2017, varnished watercolor on Crescent illustration board, 6 x 9 inches

“I’m certainly not a pioneer of this practice,” Simpson remarks. “I had heard of the technique about 10 years ago and tried it then with varying degrees of success. It was at my first Telluride Plein Air Event. To my surprise, I had a buyer who bought all three of my watercolors that were varnished.” The experience at Telluride encouraged Simpson to dig a little deeper. “Around that time, I found some historical references to the process dating back to the days of Winslow Homer and before. It was my understanding that the practice was never popular because the quality of the varnishes was very poor and not suitable for watercolors.”

Mike Simpson, “Rock Wall,” 2017, varnished watercolor on Crescent board, 11 x 14 inches

However, as you can imagine, the materials and production of varnishes have improved greatly since the 19th and early 20th centuries, which led Simpson to Golden Artist Colors, Inc. “I discovered that Golden had developed a spray varnish for this very purpose that I have used with great success,” Simpson says. “The primary purpose for varnishing watercolors is that it eliminates the need for glass and matting while framing, thereby reducing the cost. Plus, some viewers consider the glass to be a barrier to the art. Problem solved!

Mike Simpson (left) with a couple who purchased one of his varnished watercolors during the Zion Plein Air Invitational, 2016

“Traditionally, as you know, watercolors are matted and glassed. There is resistance with many galleries to carry watercolors because the shipping and handling of glassed art is difficult. There is some argument, too, that buyers/viewers find the reflection of the glass a deterrent and objectionable, thereby creating a resistance to buying watercolors. Pastel artists find the same objections. Personally, in my gallery I have found none of this to be true. The issue of reflection on the glass can be minimized with museum glass, but the cost can be significantly greater. Consequently, the varnishing of watercolors eliminates these objections.

Mike Simpson, “Blue Bonnets Below Cut Bank,” 2017, varnished watercolor on Arches board, 9 x 12 inches

“Varnishing does, however, come with some problems. Purists won’t even discuss it as an option. Educating the public/buyer can be difficult. There can some resistance because the buyer isn’t sure of the acceptability of the practice. It’s ‘new.’ Moreover, watercolor exhibitions and societies won’t consider watercolors that have been varnished as they are deemed ‘mixed media.’

Mike Simpson, “Desert Colors,” 2016, varnished watercolor on Canson paper on foam core, 6 x 9 inches

“I’ve generally had success with my varnished watercolors at some plein air events. For me, the advantage is clear. After finishing the painting, I can spray it and pop it into a waiting frame and the buyers can walk away with a painting that doesn’t have the handicap of glass. It is dry, and it has a quick turnaround. I’ve sold several smaller paintings, 9 x 12 inches or smaller, this way; 6 x 8 inches or 6 x 9 inches have been popular sizes for me. The framing is cheaper and it’s a slam dunk deal.”

“Desert Colors” shown framed

What about the effect on the colors? Simpson has some thoughts on that as well.

“The colors in varnished watercolors are generally more saturated,” he says. “Darks are darker, and, depending on how many coats are applied, a glossy sheen can develop. Some find these attributes appealing. Watercolors do tend to dry a lighter value in color than when wet, and the varnish restores the ‘wet’ look. As I said earlier, however, purist buyers and artists, are repulsed by the idea. To each his own. I continue to do both and haven’t switched over 100 percent, and probably never will. However, for me it has become a great option for me at plein air events and beyond!”

“Sentinel” shown framed

If you’d like to learn more, Golden Inc. has an interesting discussion on the process here.


  1. Mounting the watercolour onto a gallery panel where the paper fits flush edge to edge, and then varnishing, achieves a pleasing modern look without the use of a frame. Gel medium is used as the “glue” and the work is then sprayed with the Golden varnish, followed by several coats of brush-on Golden Polymer varnish (satin) with UVLS protection. Thus, another bugaboo is fixed – the sensitivity of watercolour to both moisture and, especially, ultra-vilolet light. Some w/c societies are coming around to this “modern” approach (it’s been around since the 18th Century) – even the Toronto Watercolour Society, a most traditional group, now permits this approach.


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