If you are looking for a way to protect your drawings, spraying a fixative is a great way to prevent your pastel, graphite or charcoal work from smudging.
You may have heard the idea to spray artwork with hairspray as an alternative to fixative; after all it is much cheaper and can be easily found in many stores.
Ultimately, hairspray is not an artist quality material and should be avoided for several reasons.
You shouldn’t use hairspray to fix drawings. It is likely to yellow over time, often quickly. It may also change the appearance of your work, making it appear darker or even dissolving some colours completely. You should seal your drawings with an artist quality fixative spray instead.
Why do some people spray their art with hairspray?
When sprayed, the polymers in hairspray create a film over the artwork. Spraying a drawing with hairspray is sometimes recommended to students at school as a quick and affordable way to minimise smudging of the artwork.
Whilst many school pupils are not too concerned about the longevity of their artwork, for most artists this is not the case.
Hairspray often contains additives such as fragrances and oils, which may damage a piece of artwork. Contaminants such as these are likely to degrade paper, as well as potentially altering the appearance of the work.
Applying hairspray can also leave a tacky residue on the artwork. This increases the risk of leaving fingerprints and makes it more likely for dust and dirt to settle on the artwork.
Why use a fixative?
A fixative is a resin or casein solution in aerosol form which can be sprayed onto a piece of artwork, usually to prevent smudging and discolouration.
It is most commonly applied to dry mediums, such as graphite, charcoal and pastel.
Other mediums such as acrylic and oil paints are more often sealed with a varnish.
What kinds of fixatives are there?
Artists fixatives are frequently divided into two groups: Workable and Non-Workable.
Workable fixatives are applied to the artwork and additional layers of the artist’s medium can be added later. For instance a pastel drawing could be sprayed with workable fixative and additional layers of pastel could then be applied.
This is a popular technique artists use when they find the paper has lost its ‘tooth’. Often there becomes a point when pastel stops adhering to the paper or the colours begin to look muddy.
Applying workable fixative at this point can help add a little texture or ‘tooth’ to the artwork, allowing additional layers to be applied.
A non-workable fixative can only be applied once the artwork is finished; no additional layers may be added. This type of fixative is intended to prevent smudging and to give the finished piece some level of protection from dirt and dust.
Is applying fixative necessary?
Many professional artists do not apply a fixative at all.
Even some artist-quality fixatives can alter the tonal-values of a drawing, making it appear darker then intended. They instead prefer to take extreme care when handling the artwork to prevent smudging, this can be done by wearing gloves.
Some pastel, charcoal and graphite artists choose to mask off a plain border around their artwork with tape to allow it to be handled safely, so the surface of the art does not need to be touched directly.
If you choose to mask off a border, make sure the tape is acid-free and low-tack to prevent damage to the paper.
The potential for a fixative to alter tonal values of a piece can be particularly detrimental when light pigments are layered over dark. For instance if white charcoal is applied over a layer of dark charcoal, a layer of fixative may cause these lighter marks to be lost.
Likewise, if too much fixative is applied then the particles may soak into paper, darkening the piece and potentially causing details and highlights to be lost.
In some cases, a fixative’s ability to alter tones of a piece of work can be used to an artist’s advantage. Some artists apply fixative to their work to intentionally deepen the darker tones.
If a fixative is not used, it can be a good idea to frame the artwork as soon as possible. Archival standard mounting and framing behind glass will preserve and protect artwork from smudging or other accidental damage. If you have any questions about how to properly frame your art, check out or framing guide here.
Whether you decide to apply fixative may also depend on the paper used. The velvety surface of some papers such as Clairefontaine Pastelmat holds pastel pigments very successfully, reducing the need for fixative.
Should I apply fixative to my art?
When choosing whether to apply fixative it helps to weigh up the pros and cons:
|Pros of Fixative||Cons of Fixative|
|Helps prevent a drawing from smudging||Can alter the colours/values of the artwork.|
|Workable fixative can create extra ‘tooth’, allowing more layers of the medium to be applied.||Inconsistent spray can leave marks or droplets on the paper.|
|Offers some protection against dust.||Poor quality fixative may yellow over time.|
|Some fixatives offer UV protection against fading.||Should be sprayed in a well-ventilated area.|
Whether fixative should or should not be used is a hotly-debated topic amongst artists, and it very much down to personal preference.
If you do decide to take this route, there are a wide-range of artist quality fixatives available, and it could take some experimentation to find the right one for your work.
Daniel has tried and tested several brands and his favourite is Windsor and Newton Professional Fixative. He frequently uses this on his charcoal and pastel artwork and has found this to have very minimal effect on the tonal values and fixes both mediums well.
Each fixative will have different ingredients and compositions. It is a good idea to check and compare different products to find the best one for you and your work- and make sure to test before applying to important pieces!