Can I Use Polyurethane Over Acrylic Paint? Here's What You Need to Know

Can I Use Polyurethane Over Acrylic Paint? Here’s What You Need to Know


When it comes to preserving your acrylic painting projects, many artists and DIY enthusiasts ask, “Can I use polyurethane over acrylic paint?” The answer is yes, you can apply polyurethane over acrylic paint to shield and enhance your work. Polyurethane acts as a protective coat, providing a durable layer that safeguards against wear and tear while adding a touch of gloss.

Before mixing these two, however, it’s vital to understand the proper application methods to ensure that the polyurethane adheres well and that the end result is as enduring and beautiful as you envision. This guide will walk you through the steps and considerations for using polyurethane over acrylic paint, ensuring your painted creations stand the test of time.

A close-up view of a glossy paintbrush meticulously coated in polyurethane, gracefully moving over a colorful canvas covered in an acrylic painting.The Pros and Cons of Using Polyurethane Over Acrylic Paintings

Pros of Polyurethane as a Finish

Enhanced Durability

  • Protective Barrier: Applying polyurethane over acrylic paint adds a robust layer of protection, guarding the artwork against scratches, dings, and environmental factors.
  • UV Resistance: Some polyurethanes offer UV protection, preventing the paint from fading due to sunlight exposure.

Aesthetic Versatility

  • Glossy or Matte Options: Polyurethane comes in various finishes, from high gloss to matte, providing flexibility in the final appearance of the artwork.
  • Color Preservation: A clear polyurethane coat can enrich the colors of the painting, making them appear more vibrant.

Cons of Polyurethane as a Finish

Risk of Color Alteration

  • Yellowing Effect: Oil-based polyurethane may lead to a yellowing effect over time, which can alter the colors of the acrylic paint.
  • Difficulty in Removal: Once polyurethane is applied, it is very difficult to remove without damaging the artwork.

Mitigating the Drawbacks

Using Water-Based Polyurethane

  • Reduced Yellowing: Water-based polyurethane is less likely to yellow over time compared to its oil-based counterpart.
  • Easier Application and Cleanup: Water-based options also tend to have a simpler application process and clean up with soap and water.

Application Techniques

  • Proper Preparation: Ensure the acrylic paint is completely dry and clean before application.
  • Thin Coats: Apply thin layers of polyurethane to avoid drips and runs, allowing adequate drying time between coats.

Adding a Barrier

  • Varnish First: Applying a layer of varnish before the polyurethane can serve as a barrier, further reducing the risk of yellowing.

Understanding Polyurethane

Polyurethane is a versatile polymer that serves as a finish for a multitude of surfaces. It can be found in both water-based and oil-based forms, each with its own set of characteristics suited to different finishing needs.

Understanding Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint is a water-based medium known for its quick-drying properties and versatility. It adheres well to a variety of surfaces and once dry, it is water-resistant and maintains a vibrant pigment.

By weighing these pros and cons, and choosing the right type of polyurethane, you can significantly enhance the longevity and appearance of your acrylic paintings without compromising their beauty.

Understanding the Challenges: Why Polyurethane May Not Always Work Well with Acrylics

The use of polyurethane over acrylic paint can be likened to a dance between two very different partners—the success of their performance hinges on understanding their movements and anticipating their responses. Polyurethane is traditionally loved for its durability, but when paired with acrylics, you may encounter a few hiccups.

Adhesion Issues

Compatibility Hurdles

  • Bonding Battles: The chemical makeup of acrylic paint might resist the polyurethane, leading to weak adhesion. This could cause peeling or flaking over time, much like a poorly stuck sticker eventually curls up at the edges.

Flexibility Faux Pas

  • Expansion and Contraction: Acrylic paint is notably flexible, capable of responding to the ebb and flow of temperature changes. Polyurethane, however, may not always stretch and shrink in harmony, which can result in cracks or brittleness.

Chemical Composition Clashes

Diverse Drying Mechanisms

  • Polyurethane’s Rigid Nature: The rigid structure of cured polyurethane might be less forgiving compared to the accommodating nature of acrylics.
  • Water vs. Solvent Bases: Water-based polyurethanes might have an easier time bonding with the similarly water-based acrylics, while solvent-based ones may struggle.

Tackling the Technicalities

Detailed Deliberation

  • Type Matters: You’ll want to choose your polyurethane type wisely—water-based polyurethanes are generally more compatible with acrylic paint due to similar flexibilities and compositions.
  • Prep Work: Adequate surface preparation, such as light sanding, can improve adhesion. Testing on a small area before full application is a wise move.

Making an Informed Decision

  • A Little Knowledge Goes a Long Way: Understanding these potential challenges helps in making an informed decision about whether to use polyurethane over acrylic paint, ensuring the longevity and aesthetics of your project are not compromised.

By respecting the unique properties of both polyurethane and acrylic paints, you can better navigate the decision to combine them. Consider the environment in which the painted item will exist, and always test your chosen method on a small, inconspicuous area first to ensure a happy union between these two Testing for Compatibility

Ensuring that your acrylic paint and polyurethane are a good match is essential before you commit them to your main project. Here’s how you can conduct a compatibility test, which is like a dress rehearsal for your materials before the final show.

A magnifying glass zoomed in on a small sample piece with various symbols and objects visible within the magnified area.

Step-by-Step Compatibility Testing

Step 1: Create Your Test Piece

  • Preparation: Select or create a small sample piece that mimics the surface and texture of your final project.
  • Application: Paint the sample with the same acrylic paint you plan to use.

Step 2: Let the Acrylic Paint Dry

  • Patience is Key: Allow the paint to dry thoroughly. This could take anywhere from a few hours to overnight, depending on the thickness of the paint and environmental conditions.

Step 3: Apply the Polyurethane

  • First Coat: Apply a thin layer of polyurethane to your test piece just as you would on the final piece.
  • Observation Period: Give it the same amount of drying time you plan for the main project.

Step 4: Examine the Results

  • Inspection: Look for any immediate signs of trouble, like bubbling or separation, that might spell incompatibility.
  • The Waiting Game: Even if it looks good at first, give it a bit of time. Some issues, like yellowing, may not show up immediately.

Step 5: Stress Test for Durability

  • Gentle Prodding: After the polyurethane has cured, gently press and bend the test piece to simulate the flexibility of the painted surface.
  • Seeking Cracks: Be on the lookout for cracking, peeling, or any other damage that might suggest a lack of adhesion.

Factors to Consider

  • Surface Preparation: Ensure your test piece has been prepped just as your final project will be—clean, dry, and sanded if necessary.
  • Product Formulations: Use the exact brands and types of acrylic paint and polyurethane you intend to use for the final application.

Why Testing Matters

  • Prevention: It’s much easier to troubleshoot and make adjustments on a test piece than to repair a finished project.
  • Peace of Mind: You’ll be assured that your hard work won’t be marred by preventable chemical mishaps.

Taking the time to test the compatibility between polyurethane and acrylic paint is a step that separates the amateurs from the pros. It’s all about ensuring that your final piece will stand up to the rigors of display or use without losing its aesthetic appeal.

Alternatives to Polyurethane for Sealing Acrylic Paintings

If you’re hesitating to dance with polyurethane or just prefer to have multiple partners to choose from, there’s a variety of sealing alternatives that can protect and enhance your acrylic paintings without compromising their integrity.

Varnish: The Traditionalist’s Choice

Acrylic-Specific Varnishes

  • Tailored Fit: Varnishes made specifically for acrylics bond well and are less likely to alter the painting’s colors.
  • UV Protection: Many are formulated to resist UV rays, keeping your colors true for longer.

Acrylic Polymer Varnishes

  • Buildable Protection: Apply these varnishes in layers to achieve the desired thickness and sheen.
  • Custom Sheen: They typically come in gloss, satin, and matte finishes.

Innovative Sealants

Acrylic Resin Varnishes

  • Durability and Clarity: Offering durability akin to polyurethane, resin varnishes maintain clear finishes with excellent leveling properties.

Epoxy Resin

  • High-Gloss Finish: Epoxy resin provides a glass-like coating that’s both attractive and incredibly sturdy.
  • Seamless Surface: Ideal for artwork that will be handled frequently or requires a thick, glossy coat.

Acrylic Mediums

  • Built-in Protection: Some acrylic mediums include sealants that offer subtle protection while altering the texture or finish of the painting.

Choosing the Right Product

Brand Recommendations

  • Liquitex: A popular choice among artists, Liquitex offers a range of varnishes that are compatible with acrylic paints and provide a variety of finishes.
  • Golden: Another trusted brand that provides quality sealants specifically designed for acrylics.

Understanding Your Needs

  • Consider the Environment: Think about where the painting will be displayed. Will it be exposed to sunlight? Is it likely to be touched or cleaned regularly?
  • Longevity vs. Aesthetics: Decide whether your priority is protecting the painting from physical damage or preserving the colors and finish over time.

Choosing the right sealant is like selecting the right frame for a picture—it should enhance and preserve the beauty within without drawing attention to itself. Whether you go for the trusty varnish or experiment with newer alternatives, make sure your choice aligns with your artistic vision and the practical requirements of your work’s display environment.A hand holding a brush applies glossy polyurethane over a vibrant abstract painting, enhancing the colors and textures.

Guidelines for Applying Polyurethane on Top of Acrylics

When you’ve decided to proceed with polyurethane over your acrylic painting, it’s a bit like icing a cake—the process and the technique matter as much as the ingredients. Here’s a step-by-step guide to ensure that your work looks just as splendid as it is protected.

Step 1: Wait for Complete Dryness

  • Patience Pays Off: Verify that the acrylic paint is absolutely dry. Depending on the thickness of the paint, this could take several days.
  • Check Consistency: The paint should not only be dry to the touch but also have cured completely to ensure a stable surface for the polyurethane.

Step 2: Choose the Right Polyurethane

  • Water-based Wins: Opt for a high-quality, water-based polyurethane to reduce the risk of yellowing and preserve the colors’ vibrancy.

Step 3: Application Tools

  • Tool Time: Use a high-quality synthetic brush or a foam brush to apply the polyurethane. This helps to minimize streaks and ensures a smooth application.
  • Spray Options: If you’re experienced with a spray gun, it can provide an even coat without brush strokes.

Step 4: Apply with Care

  • Thin Layers: Apply the polyurethane in thin, even coats. Heavy-handedness can lead to drips and an uneven finish.
  • Steady Strokes: Maintain a consistent direction with your brush strokes for a uniform sheen.

Step 5: Drying Time

  • Layer by Layer: Allow each coat to dry completely before applying the next. Rushing could cause tackiness or an unclear finish.

Step 6: Sanding Between Coats

  • Smooth Sailing: Lightly sand between coats with fine-grit sandpaper to ensure a smooth base for the next layer.
  • Dust Off: Wipe down with a tack cloth after sanding to remove any dust.

Step 7: Final Coat

  • Last Look: The final coat should be your best—apply it as flawlessly as possible to end up with a professional-looking finish.


  • Curing Time: Even after it feels dry to the touch, give your piece time to cure completely before handling or hanging. This could take several more days.

Remember, applying polyurethane over acrylic paint is a meticulous process, but the result is a well-protected piece that maintains its beauty for years to come. With each careful stroke and each patient pause for drying, you’re not just finishing a project—you’re preserving a piece of your creativity.

A hand with paint stains holding a paintbrush and applying polyurethane on an abstract, colorful painting.


To encapsulate the journey of using polyurethane over acrylic paint, think of it as a protective embrace around your artwork. With the right approach and care, polyurethane can certainly enhance the durability of your painted surface, safeguarding your creative expression against time and wear.

Remember, patience is paramount. To ward off any problems with adhesion or bubbling, ensure that the acrylic paint is thoroughly dry before introducing polyurethane into the mix. Just like the final notes of a symphony, the conclusion of your painting process—applying polyurethane—should be approached with attention to detail and an understanding of the materials at hand.

While polyurethane is a viable option for sealing and protecting, it’s worth pausing to consider alternatives and conducting a compatibility test to ensure you strike the perfect balance between robust protection and the intrinsic qualities of your acrylic painting.

Embrace the process with caution, knowledge, and creativity. Whether you opt for polyurethane or another sealant, the final stroke is finding harmony between safeguarding your piece and showcasing the vivid, true colors of your artwork for as long as possible.nal, polished look.

While polyurethane is a popular and reliable option for sealing and protecting, it’s worth pausing to consider alternatives and conducting a compatibility test to ensure you strike the perfect balance between robust protection and the intrinsic qualities of your acrylic painting.

Embrace the process with caution, knowledge, and creativity. Whether you opt for polyurethane or another sealant, the final stroke is finding harmony between safeguarding your piece and showcasing the vivid, true colors of your artwork for as long as possible.