Varnishing photographic prints on paper is an alternative to showing them matted and placed under glass. There are many benefits to varnishing prints. Let’s go through them.

But first, if you want to get an idea of what we’re talking about, watch this video. There are many ways to varnish prints; this is the technique I use.

Whether printed in a wet darkroom or printed by inkjet, photographic prints require some form of protection to keep them clean and protected. In early days of albumen and platinum paper prints, the old timers would wax the surface and place the prints under a mat, which was then placed under glass.  Waxing prints is an art form in its own way: if you’ve ever tried it you know what I mean.

Today, matting and glazing remains the standard technique to protect and display photographic prints. But there’s a significant aesthetic and physical cost to this presentation.  First, there’s the reflection off the glass that you have to fight before you can actually enjoy the artwork beneath. Second, glass is heavy and adds a lot of weight to the framed artwork. Third, glass is breakable; it needs its own protection for safety sake. Fourth, glazing requires matting; both adds complexity and cost to framing artwork in the traditional way.

Varnishing prints is an excellent alternative to matting and glazing.  A varnished print can be mounted into an open frame without additional protection. The varnish is washable and sufficiently durable to environmental grime or other hazards like sneezes, dirty fingers, or accidental rubs and scrapes.  Compared to traditional presentations, a framed varnished print is much lighter in weight, has no breakable glass to worry about, and requires no matting. Framing a varnished print is much easier and less expensive than framing traditionally.

But these physical benefits of a varnished print are of less importance than the aesthetic benefits, in my opinion. Modern varnishes (which are actually acrylics) gives the surface a subtle semi-gloss sheen but it also deepens the blacks and enhances global contrast and color vibrancy.  I prefer the semi-gloss surface, but know that you can choose any degree of glossiness you prefer, from full matte to very shiny gloss depending on the actual varnish applied. Regardless, from an aesthetic perspective, varnishing enhances a sense of visual depth in the image and gives it a very distinctive and  ‘painterly’ luminism-like appearance. Viewing these prints is a very different experience than viewing traditional matted/glazed prints.


Example of a hand-varnished print surface

Print varnishes are available from several suppliers, but they all are acrylic-based, which are applied in liquid form but which dry to a hard, durable coating after minutes to hours. I use Breathing Color Glamour II Glossy diluted with distilled water (2:1 or so) and only on rag papers. I use BC’s 9″ foam roller approach, but have tried other rollers with a lot of success. (I gave up on ‘any ole roller’ approach after spending 6 months reworking my technique because my hardware store changed their supplier of the rollers I was using, to disastrous effect).

Varnishing is fairly simple to master, but like any other print treatment it may require experimentation and practice. I’ve worked out a method that’s fairly reliable that I’m sharing below.

If you want to try hand-varnishing your photographic prints, here are a few tips from my technique:

1. Use multiple thin coatings of diluted varnish. It helps extend tack time until you get the coating even. It helps sneak up on the degree of glossiness of Glossy varnish, as the amount of gloss is directly related to the amount of varnish applied. Multiple coatings help avoid little air bubbles that can ruin the surface. These bubbles will form regardless, but thicker coatings may trap them and never let them go. Three thin coats are much better than one thick one.

2.  I varnish under a dust tent (homemade) and varnish on a vertical surface. Most people varnish flat on a horizontal table. My table is stood up (it’s actually a 4×8′ sheet of plywood), and I tape the upper corners of the print to the table.  I do this to avoid room dust falling on the print during drying time. I vacuum the tent before each session.

3.  I use the hose from a HVLP spray painter and as soon as the varnish on the print starts to ‘settle’– I keep a steady stream of warm air circulating over it to speed drying time, which speeds the application of 3 coats significantly.  You can get by without the rapid drying, but you’ll need to wait until each coat dries before applying the next. The longer it stays “tacky,” the more risk there is that dust will settle on the surface (not good, as even minuscule dust particles that get embedded in the varnish will show up like tiny stars.)

4. Be sure to varnish all the way to the edge of the paper, even the white borders. If you don’t, the paper will dry unevenly and cause serious warps and wrinkles that extend into the image that are very difficult to flatten. Just saying….

There are alternatives to varnishing techniques, and I’ve tried most of them. Some recommend using a sprayer. Some roll varnishing with the print flat on a table. Others have elaborate spraying rooms that minimize dust and blow back. I settled on the techniques above because of the final surface appearance and minimal problems with dust and wasted varnish.

Like anything we do in making photographs, varnishing is as much an art as it is a science. A change to any one part of the workflow (size of print, supplier of the varnish, a change in application method, etc) requires a re-work of the technique until you get used to the change. Be prepared to waste some prints, especially if you get into large prints.

Hope this helps. Let me know how it goes.


See more J. Riley Stewart images here.