Tutorial: Using Fixatives on Your Artwork

Fixatives give you two choices: workable fixative or non-workable fixatives. Well, neither one is really satisfying by title alone.

Let’s get the bad news over with first: most of them come in spray cans. Some have fluorocarbons, some not. I’m not a fan of spray cans, they take up a lot of space in a landfill. I’ve never seen a fixative in anything else except a spray can, although I’d be happy to hear about another application.

The spray can creates the ideal delivery system–tiny drops in a wide spray. The purpose of most fixatives is to keep charcoal, Conte crayon, pencil, and pastels from rubbing off.

The other purposes of a fixative is to protect your work from damaging UV rays and other environmental horrors. The best ones protect with a sealant that can be removed by conservators.

Here’s the important part: unless you use fixatives correctly, you will not be doing your artwork any favors. And most people don’t use them correctly. Here are some tips:

1. Make sure your artwork is finished. Including your signature. Any work you do after using a fixative is going to rub the sealant around the page, and that’s not so great for the paper or the medium.

sand dollar2. Several light spritzes are better than one blast. I see people do this over and over. They slap their expensive paper down, then apply fixative until the paper is soaked. This isn’t a brownie pan and it’s not non-stick spray you are wielding. The key to success is several light, sweeping sprays.

3. If your paper is wet, you’re doing it wrong. Keep the nozzle about a foot away from your artwork. Push the nozzle down and mist the paper in a gentle sweep. Pretend you are applying a wonderful perfume, rather than waterproofing your sneakers. Let it dry. Really. Dry till the back of your hand doesn’t feel cool when placed against the artwork. Then repeat. With a light touch, three coats are just right. With a heavy spray, one coat is too much.

4. Give the spray a chance to spread out. If you hold the nozzle too close to the paper the propellant will blow off the top layer of charcoal or pastel, and mottle your work with moisture. Holding the can a foot above the paper will give you the best results.

5. Choose the finish you want. Read the label. There are matte, transparent and gloss fixatives. Choose the one you want, not the one that’s there. Dickblick.com has a big variety worth checking out.

6. Clear the nozzle when you are done. The stuff you are spraying is a type of varnish. If you don’t clear the nozzle you will never use up the can because the nozzle will be hermetically sealed with fixative. To clear the nozzle, turn the can upside down, make sure the hole is facing away from you, and depress the nozzle. It will begin to spray, but after about 3 seconds, only the propellant will come out. Let the propellant hiss out for at least two seconds. Yes, this wastes some of the fixative. But if you don’t do it, you’ll waste a lot more as it gets stuck in the can.

7. If you are not done, use workable fixative. Workable means you can continue to work on the piece without smudging. Non-workable means you are done. If you continue to work on non-workable, you will be rolling varnish over the surface of your paper, picking up tiny rough pieces of chalk or charcoal. You are now scrubbing the surface of the paper, and bits of the paper are rolling around in this mess, too. When you go to put more charcoal down, it will be on a different surface and it will not look the same. You’ll have thicker and thinner layers of color, and the surface, now more absorbent, will mottle when you go back with more fixative.

A light touch, and letting the work dry completely before doing anything else is the best way to use fixative. Even a light touch can change the tonal value of your work. Before you “fix” it, let the fixative dry completely. You won’t have to work so hard.

Note: The blog has moved to my website, QuinnCreative.com

The comments for this post, written in 2008, have been closed.  Your local art store is the best source for specific advice. They are current on the best products and application. I’m sorry, but I cannot answer specific questions about your artwork.

Image: Conte crayon on Canson 98-lb. Mi-Teintes paper. Quinn McDonald (c) 2008 Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach who has learned to wear shop aprons when working with glues and fixatives. See her work at QuinnCreative.com