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Fixatives: To Seal and Protect

Fixatives are a form of spay-on sealant. They are sold in cans like spray paint and formulated specifically for paper and art board. As the title states, the purpose of a fixative is to seal and protect artwork from fading and smudging. It is most commonly used to seal graphite, charcoal, chalk, and oil pastel.

Types of Fixatives

Fixatives come in two varieties, workable and permanent. Workable fixatives offer the advantage of allowing you to edit your art work after they are applied. For example, if you have completed a portion of your work and want to prevent smudging, you can seal the finished portion with a workable fixative and then finish the piece. Some workable fixatives erase and allow editing of the already sealed portion. Permanent (or non-workable) fixatives are used for the protection of finished art work. As the name implies, once treated with these the artwork cannot be edited. You can purchase permanent fixative in either matte or glossy finishes. Even if you use a workable fixative during the creation of your art, you can still seal it with a permanent, non-workable fixative once it is complete. Fixatives range in price from 4 dollars up to 15 dollars per can, depending on brand and variety. When purchasing fixative, be sure the label states that it is clear and non-yellowing. I have found fixatives tend reduce the reflective qualities of graphite, making the treated piece slightly more matte. Some fixatives are low odor, making them less offensive to apply.

How to Use Them

Always follow the directions on the can of fixative. However, here are some basic tips that will help you apply fixatives:

  • Apply in a well ventilated area, going outside if necessary.
  • Lay your artwork completely flat.
  • Ensure there are no eraser shavings on the piece.
  • Stand back from the artwork (the can should specify an appropriate distance) and spray in slow sweeping motion.
  • Apply light coats. Normally it's better to apply a few light coats than one heavy one.
  • Let dry completely. Pay close attention to the drying time stated on your fixative.

A Common Myth

A myth that has been propagated is that hair spray works as a cheap fixative. Truthfully, hair spray should never be considered an option for protecting your work. It can remain sticky, turn yellow, and ultimately ruin your drawing. Please, never use hair spray as a substitute for fixative. Hair spray was designed for hair, not paper. You will not be pleased with the results.

My Take on Fixatives

Some artists choose not to use fixatives, and there is no rule that says you have to. Stored properly, even mediums that smudge easily can last for years. I have used workable fixatives on some of my drawings, and did find it helpful, especially when layering pastel chalk and powdered graphite. However, in recent years I've stopped using fixatives for a couple reasons. One, it was a hassle to use. You must be in a well ventilated area, and for me that meant going outside to spray the artwork. If the weather was windy or wet, that meant waiting for a good day. I also continually had issues with a clogged nozzle, so the spray would not come out evenly.Two, I did not like using the harsh chemicals, and I always noticed the film it left on the paper. As I mentioned earlier, it tended to make the graphite more matte. I often wondered about the reliability of the anti-yellowing promise. Three, even with repacking and framing, the artworks I did not seal with fixative showed no smudging. Therefore the benefits of fixatives did not outweigh the drawbacks for me. These were my personal experiences, and may have had to do with the brands and types of fixatives I tried. Some artists use them regularly, and they do have their place. For example, if you sell your work, and the buyer may be unaware of how to properly handle it, a fixative could prevent the artwork form being damaged.

In conclusion

When choosing a fixative, invest in a good quality spray and give it a try. Keep in mind the difference between workable and permanent fixatives. It may take some practice to learn the best way to apply the fixative, so experiment by applying your medium to a separate piece of paper and then treating it with the fixative. Follow the directions and apply the fixative carefully, and you will see some nice results.

In the next article . . .

Improve your understanding of drawing the human eye in the next article The Eyes Have It.

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All content and original art works © Nicole I. Hamilton.

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