Making Your Artwork Last

by | Nov 30, 2008 | Blog | 23 comments

The word “archival” is tossed around quite a bit among painters. Archival can be a process, technique or material – when used or added to your artwork, helps extend the length of time that your art will look the way you intended. Some common aging defects in artworks that develop over time are yellowing, cracking, or dust embedding into the top layer and graying the colors. As professionals, it’s helpful to know there are a handful of easy inexpensive ways to keep those things from happening, or at least keep the odds on your side of keeping your artwork intact over time.

Here is a list of some key archival methods. I am sure there are some not included, but these are the main, most important ones. Please feel free to add other ones if you think I’ve missed any.

Before reading on….its important to note that it is not necessary to do every single one of these archival procedures. Adding any one of them will add longevity to your work. Feel free to select only those that work for you and your art.

(1) Selecting a Substrate or Surface:
Use a rigid and sturdy painting surface. A panel isn’t as flexible as canvas on stretchers, so with less movement, there’s less chance of cracking. There are many great commercial panels on the market. I like to use Ampersand’s Hardbord (, but they have many other types available. I also use a local cabinet maker to create customized panels when I work large or need an unusual size. I still enjoy working on stretched canvas, but I find the panels are a joy to work with.

(2) Stain Sealing & Priming:
Stain Sealing:
Before priming, there is an important step called “stain sealing”. Stain sealing is not necessary for oil painters, but is essential for acrylic painters, especially anyone working thickly or in several layers. Start with an unprimed surface if possible.

(*If it is already primed, then the primer is usually of cheaper quality – OK for oil painters – but not OK for acrylic painters. The cheap gessos can create adhesion problems later. Lets say months after your painting is finished, you send the painting to Florida where its moist and hot, then it goes to a cold climate, then back again. Your adhesion layer, or primer, is what keeps the paint sticking to the surface during all the fluctuations that happen, and if its of bad quality, your painting could flake and peel off.)

Stain sealing keeps any impurities from being absorbed into your acrylic painting layers. These impurities can create stains or cause your paint to yellow. The more thickly acrylic is applied, the more likely it is to pull any impurities up through the support and into the paint layers. There are two choices of products to use for stain sealing. Commercial stain blockers such as Kilz, are available at paint, hardware and home improvement stores. Kilz, similar to most commercial stain blockers, is formulated for walls and other rigid supports and should not be used on any flexible artist’s support, such as canvas. Golden has a stain blocker called GAC 100 which is specially formulated for fine art work, and can be used on canvas and other flexible surfaces. GAC 100 will work well on any surface and would be the more archival choice.

There are many reasons to prime your support. Oil painters need to prime canvas and other supports to keep the oil paint from destroying the natural fibers in those surfaces. Acrylic paint, though, is safe to use on most supports and can be painted directly without primers. Priming for acrylic painters is still recommended, though, for other archival reasons. Priming will increase adhesion, or the bonding of paint to support. Priming, then can make your painting last longer and ensure its stability. If your painting gets caught in a flooded storage area, or ends up moving frequently to different climate zones, the primer will strengthen the bond between painting and support, reducing cracking and other possible defects that can occur.

There are reasons you may not want to prime. For instance, let’s say you are painting over a beautifully patterned piece of fabric. You wouldn’t want to prime, or you would be covering over the pattern with the white primer (and clear primers aren’t a valid substitute – in my opinion).

(3) Using Light-Fast Pigments:
Select paints with a higher lightfast rating. The lightfast rating for each paint is often listed on the product label. This lightfast system was developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). If the rating is I (Excellent) this paint will be a great choice for outdoor murals and other archival painting needs. A lightfast rating of II (Very Good) means this paint should last for over 100 years and is therefore well suited for archival painting needs. Paints with a lightfast rating of III or more should be avoided in a painting, unless longevity is not desired. If you are working on a mural outdoors, then this is an important factor. When selecting the colors you will use on this mural, you can easily pick the most light-fast ones by using the charts available.

(4) Using Professional Products:
Cheaper products have filler and low quality ingredients. That means they may not look the same even a year after your work is complete. As an example, home improvement products, like paints from Home Depot or other home improvement stores, sell acrylic or latex paint that is much cheaper then fine art products. All paints are made of pigment (for the color) and binder (makes it into paint). So even though Home Depot paint is acrylic, the manufacturers know you will be painting on a rigid surface, and only need it to last about 5 years, whereupon your house wall gets repainted. Yellowing, flexibility and longevity are not factors for commercial paint manufacturers. By selecting professional “fine art” quality products you are adding a great benefit to the longevity of your work.

(5) Varnishing with UV Protection:
It is important to know about varnishing, as it is one of the best ways to protect a painting. It is also the only way to insure that the painting can be cleaned later. This is true for oil paintings as well as acrylic. First of all, due to environmental factors, paintings on any surface will expand and contract over time. Acrylic will soften in warm temperatures and stiffen in cold. This amount of movement will not crack or otherwise harm the painting, however, it will encourage the collection of dust on the painting’s surface to merge into the top layer of paint. The dust dirties the painting causing yellowing and haziness. The dust cannot be removed from this top layer of paint. An archival varnish, one that is appropriate for fine art paintings, is non-yellowing and removable. When applied as a final layer over a painting, this clear removable finish will collect the dust and being removable, offers a way to clean the painting. To professionally clean a painting in a museum, conservators remove the old varnish and apply a new coat.

Avoid using a varnish from a commercial paint store (generally formulated for household use like wood porches and patio furniture) which is not removable and will yellow over time. Using this type of varnish will ruin your work of art and you will not be able to remove it. Be wary of acrylic products labeled “varnish and medium” on the same container. A medium is permanent and a varnish is removable, so it is impossible for one product to be both. The paint companies that make these products are using the term varnish loosely for a craft market to mean “sheen”. Check the product label to see if there are any instructions on removing the varnish. If there are none, then this is not an archival varnish.

Damar Varnish, which is produced by many paint companies is a traditional varnish which can be used on oil or acrylic paintings. Damar tends to yellow slightly and is only available as a gloss sheen, but is removable, so it is a good choice. I prefer to use Golden’s varnishe
s, as they offer several advantages over Damar. They are available in varying sheens such as gloss, matte and satin; and have UV protection which will help protect the paintings from fading due to light exposure, making them a great choice for outdoor murals. The UV protection also makes these varnishes a good choice for ink jet prints which fade quicker due to the inks used. They will not yellow or crack.

Varnishing can be very easy and it can also get quite complex. Visit Golden’s website at for a great detailed instruction sheet on varnishing with lots of how-to details. I recommend reading this information before starting to varnish. I also recommend experimenting and testing on scrap work before trying it out on an important finished painting. Varnish should be applied over a non-absorbent surface. Applying an isolation coat on your finished painting before applying a varnish will insure that the finished surface is non-absorbent.

(6) Care & Storage
To properly care for your acrylic paintings after they are completed it is important to understanding the paint’s drying process. Acrylic is “dry to the touch” when the top layer of the paint skin has dried, but the acrylic is not completely cured until the entire thickness of the paint layer is dry. This may take several days to several weeks depending on the layer’s thickness and environmental factors. Until the painting is fully cured, waiting at least two weeks to be sure, do not wrap it up too tightly or store the work in a closed environment. In addition, especially during this curing phase, do not expose the painting to extreme temperatures below 35 degrees Fahrenheit. If your painting freezes during this curing phase it may never recover enough for the paint to form a strong paint film and bond. Even after this curing phase there are still some considerations to handling an acrylic painting. When wrapping your painting, be sure that you use smooth wrapping materials. As mentioned earlier acrylic paintings will soften in hot temperatures and stiffen in cold. Let’s say you use bubble wrap with the bubble side of the wrap in direct contact with the painting’s surface. If it gets hot while in transport the acrylic may soften and take on the impression of the bubbles. When the painting gets hot and softens it also may stick to other surfaces with which it comes into contact. Use a non-stick plastic such as HDPE in contact with the painting’s surface. When the painting surface is glossy it has more of a tendency to get tacky in hot weather and stick. Be kind to your paintings, they are worth it. Occasionally wipe the painting off with a damp cloth to remove dust and any other elements which may come through to the upper surface long after the painting is cured.

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  1. Megan Kind

    Hey Nancy!
    So I’ve come across a little bit of a problem. I never gesso my canvases because I like to do use my acrylics heavily watered down to create a layered water color effect for the pack ground. After that has completely dried I then add my character or image to the canvas. I have layered many colors, but thin applications. I am now noticing very small Imperfections popping through. I did finish the background w a gloss varnish but it wasn’t done before the image was added. In the past I have then done multiple light coats of spray matte varnishes to the images. I like the gloss to Matt finishes in my paintings. Is there a way to fix the little imperfections that are coming through. If I added a varnish to the pieces that have the unnoticeable imperfections will it seal them in? Or do u think covering the pieces with art Resin would help?

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Megan, It would help me offer suggestions if I could see what the imperfections look like. I am guessing the imperfections are places where the paint doesn’t sink into the ungessoed canvas? Canvas comes coated with chemicals, and so by not gessoeing your canvas the watery paints may be reacting to these chemicals. Sometimes the reaction may not happen right away, but may come out later. To resolve this, applying something OVER the immperfections will not help. To really resolve your issue, you can take your raw canvas, and before adding your washy paints, first apply a sealer coat using any gloss acrylic medium. I know this changes the surface, but stick with me here as I will address the fact you need something absorbent for your washes. After the gloss medium dries, then apply a coat of good quality (very important that you use a good quality gesso like Goldens for acrylic) gesso. Once the gesso dries apply an absorbent ground to bring back the absorbent quality you liked with the raw canvas. I recommend a Golden product called “Absorbent Ground” or you can apply another product by Golden called “Pastel Ground” with a little water to dilute. With all these coats I mentioned you will have no imperfections using washes of paint over it. These coatings are all thin enough so that you will still have your canvas texture visible. Once you do this, and add the washes of paint, you can add your image over that, then you can apply an isolation coat, and then finally any varnish you with – gloss, matte or satin. I can give you a suggestions for fixing the imperfection if I can see a clear picture of it. You can email me at [email protected]. If the imperfection you mention is that the paint resists being absorbed into the canvas, so that you see a small pindot of the canvas resisting the paint, then what I described above will fix it for the future. For the ones you already have with this imperfection, you could use a small brush and go through the process I just mentioned in just those small areas that aren’t working. Varnish is for the final coat, to add UV protection. It will most probably not help in any way hide the imperfection. Again, all this is a guess until I can see what you are talking about.

  2. Angel Fritz

    Hi Nancy,

    I’ve sealed an unfinished wood panel with GAC100. Can I varnish over the GAC100 if I want to keep the natural wood color? I use Kyrlon gallery series UV archival 375 Gloss spray.

    Thank you!


    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Angel, I think you are asking if you can skip the primer as it is opaque and will cover over the wood. Yes, you can just seal wood with GAC100, then skip the primer – so I would recommend at least 2 coats of the GAC100. Then I am assuming you are going to paint? So the Krylon would go over the paint, and perhaps areas of sealed unpainted wood? This is fine. Krylon will go over the GAC100, and/or applications of acrylic paint. Generally the Krylon varnish would be the last coat applied to your painting, and GAC100 would be the first coat. Hope this helps answer your question.

  3. Nancy Reyner

    Dear Annie,
    Good question. Even though you already applied a coat of varnish you can still apply more paint on top without any adhesion problems. You do not need to remove the varnish before applying paint again. However, when you finish making the paint corrections, you may want to then apply an isolation coat before reapplying another final layer of varnish. That way if the varnish ever needs to be removed, only the final varnish layer will be removed, and not your corrections as well. For an isolation coat apply a 1:1 mixture of Golden's Soft Gel Gloss and water for a brush application, or a 1:1 mixture of Golden's GAC500 and Airbrush Transparent Extender for a spray application.

  4. Annie

    Thanks so much for your blog and your books, they have really been helpful. I put a light spray varnish coat on an acrylic painting (Golden UVLS) and now I really want to correct a color on the painting. Do I need to try to remove that light coat of varnish before applying more acrylic paint and medium? Thanks so much!

  5. Nancy Reyner

    I like to encourage inspiration over imitation in my new book Acrylic Innovation, which is why I don't go into full detail on how artists have created the images you see there. That's not the purpose of the book. I do, however, offer a "featured technique" for each section, which shows a technique that might be of interest to someone who likes the artwork on the painting shown, such as the one you liked by Bonnie Teitelbaum. I would like to offer you some tips, though. To create her paintings she uses pouring techniques, such as the one I wrote on p. 127 "Illuminated Pouring". Try doing only step 3 in that technique, sustituting color instead of the interference paints I used, and do several of these pours while wet onto your surface.

    Regarding your wash question, I use any percentage of water mixed into my fluid paints without worrying about the paint losing it's properties. That is because I usually use the diluted paints on an absorbent surface, or I layer over the diluted paints when dry with acrylic, adding a protective layer. As long as the diluted wash isn't the last layer on the painting it should be fine.

    Hope this helps!

  6. Win Murray

    I have just purchased 2 of your books…Acrylic Innovation and Revolution. I have a daughter in Europe who is experimenting with abstract painting. I am hoping your instruction will be of help. I work with acrylics as well.

    In Acrylic Innovation, there are many techniques used to create wonderful end results. But, there are few "how to" suggestions accompanying some of the art work. I am especially interested in Bonnie Teitelbaum, Tidal Flow on page 137. Is there a way I can learn more about her process?

    Also, your paintings using Fluid acrylics are incredible. The watercolor type action and appearance is one I want to acheive. Except, after contacting Golden Paints a few years ago, I was told that if I wished to thin the Fluid Acrylics, I could only use, at most, 50% water or preferably, 30% water. If I wanted more flow, I had to add one of their thinning products. The instruction is made to keep the properties of acrylic (plastic) and to allow the bonding between support or other acrylic layers. If I add too much water, that property will be lost. I did use the lower percentage of water with Golden products but the paint never flowed, blended like watercolor.

    In your videos, DVDs you add 80% water for the first layer and then 50% to the fluid acrylics for the second layer.

    Has it the idea of too much water damaging the property of the acrylics (bonding) changed? The effect you acheive is so good. I do not want to run into a problem a few years down the road though.

    Thanks for all that you do.


  7. Nancy Reyner

    Acrylics work very well on walls. I would start with a coat of GAC100 or Kilz to keep anything from seeping into the painting from the walls and paint already on there. Then I would add one coat of a good gesso primer. After painting it apply 1 or 2 coats of a gloss varnish. The Polymer Varnish is less smelly and toxic then the MSA Varnish and dries faster so it won't drip as easily.

  8. nushi

    Thank you for a very informative article! I am painting on a wall and I am trying to find out what are the most suitable materials. It's a 4 x 4 mts wall made of plasterboard (or plaster) and painted (I would imagine) with household paint. Which primer would you recommend for acrylics on wall? It may be worth mentioning that it is an interior wall. Also, if you could suggest a varnish it would be greatly appreciated!

  9. Peter

    I like your attitude. Like you, I really love art. It really heals.

    Peter“ rel=”nofollow”>Canvas paint art gallery

  10. Nancy Reyner

    The easiest way to prime paper is to just brush apply an acrylic product such as gesso, or matte medium. Use a heavier weight paper, and a wide flat brush. Avoid adding any water, either from your brush or adding it into the product. After you apply the product to one side of the paper, you can turn it over after it dries and apply the same product to the reverse side to help keep it from warping.

  11. michael

    Dear Nancy:
    You provide refreshingly sound advice. So many artist mirror what they learned from poor sources and perpetuate the support of poor working techniques. I wish I had a dozen artists like you serving on my ASTM subcommittee D01.57, Artists' Materials. We create standards for the art materials industry and input by consumers is critical to the makeup of the subcommittee. Many artists know about ASTM D4236 for health and safety but we publish many more standards for quality and performance of art materials. Perhaps you might consider getting your "feet wet" by becoming an ASTM non-member associate. I can assure you that you will learn a lot more about the manufacture and properties of art materials. Contact me at my work email for more information.
    The address is [email protected]
    Thank you for considering this invitation.
    Michael Skalka
    Conservation Administrator
    National Gallery of Art
    Chair, ASTM D01.57

  12. Nancy Reyner

    Dear Ramesh,
    Here are some answers to your questions:
    (1) You can use any board for painting purposes. If the board is not a fine art product, though, you will need to clean it well (with solvents), stain seal, lightly sand, and prime. See my original post for details on those. It’s also in my book, and on Golden’s website
    (2) To create texture on a smooth board, you can (a) sand it, or (b) glue textured fabric, objects, dust, sand, etc. (c) apply a gel or paste and press objects, fabric, screens onto it or drag a comb through it.
    (3) About stain sealing – acrylic layers on any surface (yes, any surface) pulls any water soluble impurities from the surface into the acrylic paint layers. The impurities are in any surface and are within the material, so they exist front and back and all throughout.
    (4) I am glad you are enjoying my book.
    Ramesh I hope this helps.

  13. Ramesh

    Hi Nancy

    I have few questions on this subject, hope you can clarify them.

    1) You write: "..I also use a local cabinet maker to create customized panels when I work large or need an unusual size…."

    Does this mean I can use boards that are sold in hardware stores for painting purpose? AmpersandArt's Hard boards do look same as the ones sold in hardware store. In India, art stores do not sell any kind of hard surfaces at all, but Hard boards are available in hardware stores. So this is why I am trying to clarify this point.

    2) creating Texture on Hard boards

    Hardboard have dead smooth surface, what your suggestions on creating some kind of generic texture? I do not think etching the surface is a good solution. I can use Golden's texture Gels, but seems overkill.

    3) Stain sleaing
    You say "…Stain sealing keeps any impurities from being absorbed into your acrylic painting layers. …"
    Do the impurities come from front side or back side through the canvas? If the impurities are coming from back, 'boards' may not need Stain sealing. May be that is why you started saying "..Adding any one of them will add longevity to your work…".

    4) Your Book
    I read your book last year and it was inspirational, in the sense it forced me to look beyond color tubes, and after that I made painting using pastes(cracking & non-cracking :-)), Gels, Clear Tar etc. Now, Gels do not intimidate me.

    Golden representative suggested to start with 'Hard surface', if I were planning to use pastes, and this is core reason for to me leaning towards hard surfaces.


  14. Nancy Reyner

    Dear Monica,
    GAC100 can be used on both rigid supports (like Ampersand’s Hardbord) as well as flexible supports like canvas. GAC100 is a fine art product, and so this is your best choice for stain blocking on any support for a fine art painting. I also gave as an alternative, the idea of using Kilz (a commercial product) for stain sealing. Kilz should not be used on flexible supports like canvas, as it is formulated for walls. Commercial products are not as good as fine art products for paintings as they are not tested for fine art quality and longevity in the same way.

  15. Monica Kelly

    Hi Nancy-
    So if I am interpreting correctly, the GAC100 is for priming canvas prior to acrylics, but not for a hard support such as ampersand?

    Thank you for sharing such great technical information.
    Monica Kelly
    [email protected]

  16. Maria

    Thank you for sharing. I love painting but I don’t know much about the technical side. Great advice.

  17. Chris Frosztega

    I agree with you. Art can and does heal. Great tips!

  18. Nancy Reyner

    Hyde Glue will always reactivate when it comes in contact with water. If you want it to stop you will need to seal it better. I recommend applying a gel in a thick layer (at least 1/4″ thick. Let this dry about 3 days. That should stop any water from subsequent layers coming into contact with the Hyde Glue. You may want to seal the sides of the painting too – so water won’t seep into the glue from the sides.

  19. Darice Machel

    I have a question for you….When does Hide glue stop cracking? I have painted three layers on top and have varnished it, then I added another layer of paint on top of the varnish it cracked. I’ve also had a painting damaged in a flood. The water reactivated the glue and caused rippling. Does Hide glue ever dry? How do I make these paintings more stable?

  20. steve urwin

    I like your down to earth attitude,although I see you smile as you write! good stuff-where have I been until now to have only just discovered your page?


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Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner’s blog about art, painting and creativity. Her career spans over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe in the US. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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