Matte and Glossy Finishes in Oil Painting

Do you love being able to manipulate the finish in oil painting, making it matte, glossy, or somewhere in-between?  

There are some artists who believe in a very traditional approach to oil painting in that the finish should be consistently very glossy and well varnished.

There are others that prefer an all over matte finish and avoid varnishing at all. Still yet, there are some artists like myself who find it essential to have both matte and glossy areas within the same painting in order to add to the concept and dimensional quality of the rendering. What are your preferences when it comes to the finish of your oil painting? Here below are my thoughts.

I can appreciate a matte service from a scientific point of view. Dull areas absorb light rather than reflect light, especially when the color is of a dark shade. Therefore, I truly love deep dark matte colors lying within the crevices of a painting. In the same way, I find it even more interesting when matte colors are dramatically placed next to high gloss areas within a painting, or dispersed sparingly throughout a painting to suggest a deep dark dimension to the surface.

A matte finish is also lovely when it is used to parallel the tactile qualities of an object. For example, a matte or satin finish can make a velvet cloak seem irresistible to touch even if it is only in a representational, two-dimensional form.

Soft, pastel colors that are found in impressionist paintings can also be more beautiful when given a matte finish.

It’s always tempting to add more, and more, and more gloss to a painting! Traditionally, oil paintings are varnished with a nice glossy finish. Personally, I find an all over glossy finish distracting when viewing a painting, especially in a museum or gallery when the piece is under direct lighting. Instead, I appreciate subtler placement of glossy areas to objects or areas indicative of reflective light.

Just like a matte surface absorbs light, a glossy surface reflects it. It seems just natural to pair the two up with their metaphorical cousins in a painting! For example, a mirror or pane of glass in a painting could appear even more reflective if the bright areas were reflective in real life through a high gloss finish. Furthermore, glossy areas can help define different areas of a painting from one another.


About Gary Bolyer Fine Art

I am a New York City-based landscape artist.
This entry was posted in How to Paint in Oils and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Matte and Glossy Finishes in Oil Painting

  1. Richard says:

    I prefer an all over matte finish so is it better to avoid varnishing? The problem is I am paranoid about dust adhering to the surface of a painting! Obviously I understand that varnish would keep dust at bay, except I cannot bring myself to apply something ‘alien’ to the surface of a painting. Also the application of varnish presumably prohibits future modification of the image. My solution thus far is to wrap the paintings in cloth then store them inside the boxes in which the canvasses arrived. If I wanted to exhibit them would a sheet of glass be ok to protect them from dust, or should I be using some kind of varnish?

    • Hello Richard and thanks for your excellent questions. I think you are too concerned about dust sticking to your paintings. Once an oil painting is completely dry (usually this takes about a year) dust will not permanently stick to the surface. You can just wipe off the dust with a clean cloth. No dust will adhere to the surface itself because the dry oil paint surface will be very hard. It will be exactly like the finish on a piece of furniture. And you can just dust your painting like you dust your furniture.
      Also, varnishes are not permanent and can be removed with any varnish remover. But wait at least 18 months before applying any varnish to allow the oil paints to completely dry.
      Thanks again.

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