Matte and Glossy Finishes in Oil Painting

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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.

matte and glossy finishes in oil painting

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.

There are no hard and fast rules here. And so the finish of a painting is ultimately determined by the tastes of the artist.

What are your preferences when it comes to the finish of your oil painting?

Here below are my thoughts and preferences.

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Oil Painting Finishes - Quick Comparison Guide

Oil Painting FinishMost Effective Application
1) Matte - Having a usually smooth, satin, or even surface free from shine or highlights. A surface that does not reflect light.Gamblin Cold Wax Medium BUY NOW ON AMAZON
2) Gloss - A shiny, very reflective surface, with lots of highlights. A surface that reflects most light.
Winsor & Newton Dammar VarnishBUY NOW ON AMAZON

Grumbacher Glossy Spray VarnishBUY NOW ON AMAZON


I can appreciate a matte finish 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.

Gamblin cold wax oil painting medium is my choice for achieving a great-looking matte finish. Here's what I like about it:

  • Used to make oil colors thicker and more matte
  • It can be thinned to brush consistency by dissolving it in OMS
  • Add galkyd to cold wax medium to increase sheen and flexibility
  • It can also be applied as a wax varnish
matte and glossy finishes in oil painting
Gamblin cold wax oil painting medium is used to make oil colors thicker and more matte.


It’s always tempting to add more, and more, and more gloss to a painting!

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.

Traditionally, oil paintings are varnished with a nice glossy finish, using damar varnish. 

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.

If you want to eliminate the need for having to use brushes when varnishing, try the more convenient spray varnishes. I have used spray varnishes with good results.

Grumbacher glossy spray varnish is quick and easy to use.  Here are some reasons I like it:

  • Protective, uniform, glossy coating for oil and acrylic paintings; Made in USA
  • Non-yellowing, flexible, and quick-drying; Crystal clear when applied
  • Can be easily removed with Grumbacher Pure Gum Spirits of Turpentine, Grumtine, or Odorless Paint Thinner
  • Spray varnish should be applied to finished works that have dried for at least 6 months for oil paintings and 5 days for acrylics
  • Not for use in oil painting medium preparation

Do you have a preference when it comes to the finish on your paintings? Let us know in the comments below.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Richard

    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?

    1. Gary Bolyer Fine Art

      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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