How to Remove Varnish From Acrylic painting?

By Mandy Moss

If you have owned an acrylic painting for any number of years, you may have noticed a discoloring effect on the surface of the painting from dust, sunlight, or dirt. Do not dismay.

How to Remove Varnish From Acrylic painting

Many varnishes are applied with the intention to be removed when this happens. The process is not simple, but it is effective at protecting the image beneath. 

To remove varnish from a painting, you must first identify the varnish used and find out which chemical is recommended for varnish removal. Collect your materials and prepare your space. Apply rags soaked in varnish remover to the surface of the painting and gently remove the varnish once it has liquified.

Read on and see my step by step instructions, notes and pro tips on Acrylic varnish removal.

Why Should I Remove Varnish?

Varnish is a layer of protection that adds a sheen to the surface of your painting. This can enhance the aesthetic of your painting, as well as protect it from dust and harmful sunlight.

High-quality varnish is actually made with the intention that the artist or owner of the painting will remove it when needed. Some sort of removable varnish type.

This is because, over time, some do get yellows or gets dust particles in it, decreasing the beauty of your art. When this happens, the best thing an artist can do is simply remove it and add a new coating.

By replacing your varnish, you can easily liven up and increase the quality of your artwork.

NOTE: Some varnishes are non-removable and water-based. Be sure to check which kind you used. Non-removable varnishes bond with the acrylic paint, so this type is impossible to remove.

What Is the Isolation Coat For?

Before you remove your varnish, take note of whether you applied an isolation coat to the painting before you varnished it.

It is safest to always use an isolation coat when you varnish your paintings to protect them if and when you need to remove the varnish. 

More in depth about insolation coat in my post: How to protect Acrylic painting?

What If I Didn’t Use an Isolation Coat?

If you didn’t use an isolation coat, it is not recommended that you remove the varnish. Your approach to this situation depends on the type of varnish you used and the manufacturer’s recommendations for removing it.

The chemicals used to remove it can adversely affect your painting underneath, so it is risky without an isolation coat. 

If you decide to try anyway, test out the varnish remover you are using on the side of the painting or on the edge. Use a very small area, and see how much pigment is lifted.

NOTE: Some pigment will invariably come up whether you used an isolation coat or not, but if the pigment is lifted too much, it will ruin your painting forever. 

How to Remove Varnish from Acrylic Painting?

For best outcome possible, follow below easy steps when removing varnish from Acrylic paintings:

Step 1

Wait until the painting has cured at least three weeks before attempting any sort of varnish removal. Otherwise, the pigmented paint will still be wet and it will come off more easily.

Step 2

Prepare your space.

  1. You will need a well-ventilated area and a mask of some sort since the chemicals used for removal are harsh.
  2. You will need about ten to twenty lint-free, cotton rags (enough to cover the surface of the painting twice)
  3. Container to soak the rags in.
  4. Gloves
  5. Disposal bucket
  6. Plastic sheet the size of one of the rags.

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PRO TIP: If this is your first time removing varnish, prepare a practice piece ahead of time that is similar to the one you will be working with. Remove the varnish on the practice piece so you have muscle memory for the project and so you can see how the painting will be affected.

Step 3

Consult the manufacturer of the varnish to figure out which varnish remover you should use.

You can use turpentine, mineral spirits, or white spirit to remove varnish from Acrylic paintings. There are also specially made varnish removers that will do the trick, too.

NOTE: The right chemical to use depends completely on the original varnish. 

Step 4

Put on your gloves and mask and lay out all your materials. Take one of the rags or clean cloth and place it in the tray.

  1. Saturate the cloth in the varnish remover, and wring it out gently before placing it over the surface of your painting. 
  2. Smooth the cloth piece over the upper corner of your painting, removing any bubbles or wrinkles.
  3. Once it is smooth, lay a plastic sheet over the cloth to slow the evaporation of the varnish remover.
  4. Lift up a corner of the cloth after two minutes to check if varnish has liquified.
  5. If not, check again after two more minutes and remove the cloth.
  6. Dispose of it in the bucket for now.

Step 5

Repeat the process with a second, fresh rag, and smooth it out over the same area you just did. The difference is that, this time, you can immediately remove the cloth after you smooth it out.

NOTE: This should lift a lot of the varnish in that area. If a good amount of the paint underneath transfers, then you should stop immediately. 

Step 6

Fold the second rag into fourths and softly rub the remaining varnish off of the painting. There may be very minimal pigment lift. 

It is important to keep using fresh cloths each time so you can keep track of how much pigment is lifting.

This also prevents you from transferring any varnish back on to the surface of the painting.

Step 7

Repeat steps one through four again until you have done the entire surface of your painting.

Once you have soaked and wiped down each section, take a new rag and gently wipe down the entire surface of the painting.

Feel for any stickiness or leftover varnish. If there is any left, soak it again for a couple minutes and remove.

Step 8

Let the painting dry. The varnish remover should be saved for later use or disposed of as hazardous waste. Let the rags dry out and then dispose of them, as well. 

You can see whole process below on video as well.

Is varnish removal process for Old Oil Paintings Any Different?

If the painting is of any sentimental or monetary value and you are not a professional conservator yourself, then it is best to consult an expert to remove the varnish.

If the painting is not valuable in any way, then the instructions are very similar. 

Identify the original varnish used and consult the manufacturer’s guidelines for varnish removal.

Apply the varnish remover of choice.

If necessary, there may be a deactivating agent that must be applied seconds after the varnish remover is used.

NOTE: Oil paintings also require the you to remove the varnish in much smaller sections.

Now you are equipped to restore your painting to its original glory!

It is best to apply another coat of varnish after the removal process in order to continue to protect your masterpiece throughout the years. 

You can read my post: How to seal your painting?

Related Questions

The only way to know if a painting is varnished is to consult the artist or an art conservator.

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