About Hand-varnished Fine Art Prints


I've written an article about my technique for varnishing prints on rag papers here. Watch this video to see it in practice.

There are several benefits, both aesthetic and functional, by hand-varnishing fine art prints on cotton rag papers.

Hand-varnishing creates a beautiful painterly appearance, reduces many of the problems seen with exhibiting large-scale photographs under glass, and makes such photographs both distinctive and original.

History of varnishing artworks

Varnishing fine art prints on paper or canvas is an old technique to enhance the aesthetic quality of paintings and photographs and also to protect the surface of prints from soiling and other environmental contamination, such as UV light. Varnishing has always been more art than science.

The earliest photographs were made on glass or metal–or on paper coated with delicate albumen. These surfaces were very friable, and were quickly destroyed by the simplest handling. All tin-types and ambrotypes were varnished with laquer to prevent this premature destruction. And early printmakers used bee's wax to protect albumen photographs


Many painters still varnish their paintings for the same reasons 18th Century artists did, i.e., for protection. Not many photographers today varnish their prints, however, choosing instead to use mats and glass to protect them.
Besides protecting the print surface, varnishing has several aesthetic effects on the modern photographic print on cotton rag paper:
  • Enhances the vibrancy of colors
  • Darkens the deeper blacks and gives the appearance of greater shadow contrast
  • Reduces the need for glasing, thus avoiding glare
  • Can be framed without mats and glass, making the final framed artwork much lighter in weight
  • Varnished surfaces are easier to clean than glass or acrylic panels placed over the print.
  • Every hand-varnished print has its own variations, creating a unique and original presentation.

Making a print distinctive

Varnishing an art print can dramatically change the appearance of the image on fine cotton paper. The final appearance depends greatly on the varnish used and how it is applied. A varnished print can appear flat (or matte) or extremely glossy, and it can be completely smooth or it can have heavy textural effects.
Over several weeks and many test prints, J. RIley Stewart developed his own varnishing method that resulted in just the amount of elegant sheen and textural variations he wanted in his fine art prints. An example is shown in the image above, which is a highly magnified section from a print of his "Small Town Alley".

The example only suggests what a real print surface looks like. The actual print has a nice, clean semi-gloss appearance similar to the once-popular fiber-based glossy"F" surface of Kodak darkroom papers. The texture created by hand varnishing four coats of modern archival varnish is very subtle, yet produces an elegant painterly appearance with variations that only hand coating can produce. Each print is unique and clearly original.

Applying varnish to cotton rag paper prints is more art than science. Several environmental and procedural conditions can cause utter failure. But the beautiful effects it has on a print when it works is well worth the extra time, energy, and expense that varnishing a print adds to print creation. Don't expect every photographer to offer varnished fine art prints; they are actually quite rare, but very elegant.

Exhibiting hand-varnished fine art prints

Here's where varnished prints can sometimes have a huge benefit over glass-covered photographs. Adding mats and glass to large-scale photographs can make them very heavy. And when glass breaks for any reason, the print is often damaged beyond repair, not to mention the danger to anyone handling the broken artwork.

Varnishing a large-scale print removes all the danger and most of the weight issues from hanging and exhibiting prints. Because varnished fine art prints do not require glass for protection, they can be exhibited much like a painting (and many people will think they are), where the image extends to the frame edge. This is the preferred way of framing and exhibiting  hand-varnished large-scale photographic prints. Not only do they look beautiful with an elegant painterly appearance, but they are easier to clean and have none of the worries about falling off the wall, breaking glass, or ruined artwork.

The down sides to varnishing prints..

Like anything else we practice in making art, there are a few costs and risks involved in varnishing prints.

1. Added cost. As I do it, that is roll 3-4 thin coatings of Glamour II® glossy acrylic varnish to each print, the source and amount of actual varnish used (including wastage) costs from $2-3.50 for a 16x20 inch print (and 4+ times that for a 32x40 inch print).

2. Added time. You can't rush the curing time; the varnish must be completely dry before shipping a flat print or framing it. This may require up to 3 to 4 days or longer depending on ambient humidity and temperature. This delayed delivery is normally okay, but it's something I always warn those who buy a print on demand that it may require 14 days before I can ship the print.

3. Added risks in production and fulfillment. This is the big reason for not varnishing prints, and why I've discontinued varnishing altogether. First, you can easily screw it up technically. The larger the print, the greater the risk of technical failures. Most technical mistakes can be overcome, but that takes additional time and cost by either reprinting or simply re-varnishing. Poor rolling technique or debris falling on the wet surface is sometimes not correctable and will require reprinting and re-varnishing.  Second, handling a print wet with varnish is like handling any wet paper; any crinkling will be permanent and require reprinting.  And third, sometimes collectors might love the image but not when coated with varnish (I will always offer them an unvarnished version to satisfy their needs.) It's impossible to represent a varnished surface for images offered online, and sometimes, people don't realize the benefits, either aesthetical or functional. I've never had anyone return a varnished print, but I have seen some who frame them under mat and glass, defeating most of the functional benefits of varnishing.

4. Not all papers or surfaces are able to be varnished. I have only varnished heavy, 300+ gsm cotton rag papers and uncoated canvas papers.  Most of them all behave alike during varnishing and drying; canvasses are much easier then rag papers. But I highly suspect thin papers could be difficult to varnish, and also suspect that any paper with a pre-coating of baryta or plastic might also reject the varnish. You should experiment first. 

Please note. I've discontinued varnishing fine art prints, but left this information on the site for those who wish to know about varnished prints or who might be contemplating varnishing their own prints.

If you have questions about varnishing modern paper prints, please email J. Riley Stewart>