The best charcoal and pastel fixatives will depend on your individual needs as an artist. Some fixatives will give a glossy finish, whereas others will give you a matte finish. There are some fixatives that are water and UV resistant and others that are workable, so artists can build charcoal on top of the previous fixed layers.
It’s not completely necessary to fix a charcoal drawing. Artists may opt to fix a drawing to prevent smudging, while others will avoid fixing a drawing because some fixatives can cause shifts in value.
Charcoal and soft pastel are naturally dusty mediums, so if you feel that your finished piece needs to be sealed, read on to find the best fixative for your drawing practice.
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Lascaux Fine Art Fixative
Attributes: Lightfast, UV resistant, workable, museum standard, fast drying, water resistant
Compatible mediums: charcoal, pastel, chalk, ink, pencil, tempera, gold leaf, prints
This fine art fixative is a reliable, multi-purpose sealant that can be used on a number of different surfaces and with a range of different mediums.
It protects against weather damage, dust, dirt and UV. One way that this product can be used, is to seal a drawing to paint over. For example, if you were to draw in charcoal or pastel on canvas, you can fix it in place, then paint over with acrylic.
The fixative preserves colours, so there should be no shift in value or hue before and after sealing. The Lascaux fixative has been tested in many different settings and applications, such as fine art, printing and architectural draftsmanship. This particular fixative is a strong favourite amongst professional artists.
Sennelier Delacroix Charcoal Fixative
Attributes: matte, non water-resistant, good smudge protection, 3 layers needed, fast drying
Compatible mediums: charcoal, graphite
The Sennelier Delacroix fixative will protect and seal charcoal and graphite pencil drawings. It has a matte finish and is non-yellowing. The fixative is also fast drying with a low odour. It’s not completely water resistant, so finished drawings should be kept away from wet surfaces. Spray several coats to achieve optimum smudge protection.
Winsor & Newton Professional Fixative
Attributes: workable, fast drying, water-resistant
Compatible mediums: charcoal, pastel, pencil, resin acrylic
Called Winsor & Newton Professional Fixative in the UK, this same formula has the name Winsor & Newton Workable Fixative in the USA.
This fixative is workable, so you can spray between layers of pastel to prevent colours from mixing into one another.
Only two coats of this spray is needed for good protection against smudging and moisture. It dries to a low sheen, so it is not completely matte.
SpectraFix Spray Fixative
Attributes: workable, matte, non water-resistant, slow drying, low odour, smudge protection
Compatible mediums: charcoal, pastel, casein, gouache, watercolour
This fixative spray is water based and made from milk casein and can be used with dry media or wet media like gouache and watercolour.
When sprayed onto the surface it can wet the paper, it’s also much thinner in consistency compared to other sprays. Follow the instructions on the product website when using this spray, as the directions for use are different compared to other sprays. It’s a good idea to tape paper down on each side to a board to prevent warping when using the spray and to keep it fixed to the paper until it has dried down.
The matte and workable properties of the fixative enables artists to create multiple layers and render separate colour layers with pastel or watercolour. The spray takes about two minutes to dry down.
Due to the low odour and toxicity, this fixative can be used indoors and is classroom safe. Make sure to open a window to ventilate however, as it does have a slight alcohol smell. Another great thing about this fixative is that it is 100% archival and non-yellowing. So it will preserve charcoal and pastel without dulling over time.
This fixative is more suitable for use with pastel than charcoal. Three coats is enough to protect against smudging with pastel, but heavy charcoal may still smudge. Another feature that is slightly different about this fixative is that it comes in a spritz bottle, so it’s trickier to get an even coat than with the aerosol bottles.
The great thing about this spray is that it has minimal effect on the values and colours of a pastel drawing, it preserves details fantastically.
Sennelier Latour Pastel Fixative
Attributes: fast drying, low odour, needs 3 coats, not water-resistant
Compatible mediums: soft pastels
This fixative spray comes in an aerosol can and produces a matte, uniform finish. The colour and value change before and after spraying isn’t significant.
Spray a thin layer to your drawing, then wait for it to dry and spray another, thin uniform layer. Multiple thin layers of fixative gives better, more even looking results.
Sennelier HC10 Universal Fixative
Attributes: water-resistant, non-yellowing, versatile
Compatible mediums: pastels, charcoal, watercolour, ink, acrylic, gilding, acrylic
Made from acrylic resin, this is a highly concentrated, non-yellowing fixative that can be used with a range of media and for a range of applications. The spray has minimal effect on the values of drawings and paintings. It’s a permanent varnish that is easy to use, simply turn the yellow nozzle and spray with the desired spray pattern, either horizontally or vertically.
This spray can be used indoors with proper ventilation and can even be used on surfaces like porcelain, glass and walls.
Golden Archival MSA Varnish
Attributes: archival, protects against UV, three finishes, acts as a final layer
Compatible mediums: charcoal, pastel, tempera, gouache, watercolour, acrylic, oil paint
This varnish comes in three finishes, satin, glossy and matte. It comes in an aerosol bottle, is archival quality and preserves colours and tones with clarity. The bottle allows precise, even coverage when used properly.
The varnish layer remains flexible, resistant to breaking or cracking and is removable for conservation purposes. The UV light filters and stabilisers will protect drawings from fading over time due to exposure to sun.
This is a great choice as a final layer of varnish for works you are planning to sell or send to a gallery. The price is fairly affordable relative to the quality of the product.
The varnish not only protects against UV, but it also protects against dirt, dust and moisture. This varnish comes in two different formats, spray and liquid. The brushable liquid format is not compatible for use with dry media.
Grumbacher Final Fixative
Attributes: workable, flexible finish, non-yellowing, fast drying
Compatible mediums: charcoal, pastel, pencil, gouache
The Grumbacher Final Fixative is a fast drying fixative designed for use with charcoal, pastel and pencil. Artists can use it on paper and ceramics and it comes in both a gloss and a matte finish.
This fixative is relatively cheap and prevents dry media from smudging or rubbing off the page. The matte version can be used as a toothy base for additional layers of drawing.
Krylon Workable Fixatif Spray
Attributes: prevents smudging, archival, workable
Compatible mediums: pastel, charcoal, pencil, india ink
This archival, workable fixative prevents smudging and can be used on numerous different surfaces, such as wood, metal, plastic, paper and ceramics. The sprayed surface will feel dry to the touch in around 30 minutes, but it will take around an hour to be dry enough to handle.
The finish is clear and non-yellowing and provides a good level of permanence. This spray doesn’t tend to darken colours as much as some of the other spray fixatives do.
What is a fixative?
A fixative, which usually comes in a spray format and occasionally comes in liquid format is applied to artwork to fix the media in place and prevent smudging. Some fixatives will protect artwork against other environmental damage like moisture, scratching and UV. As each fixative will have its own set of features and properties, you should check your chosen spray to see how it will perform before using it.
What is a workable fixative?
A workable fixative allows artists to fix layers in place then continue to work on top of these layers, without the worry that the layers will smudge into one another. Create separate layers to render hard edges, or pastel colours that appear cleaner. Another great use for workable fixatives is for when the tooth of the paper has filled up, spray a little matte fixative over the top to renew the toothy texture of the surface and allow more layers of pastel or charcoal to adhere.
Do you need to use a fixative?
A fixative is useful to prevent charcoal and pastel pieces from smudging. Pastel and charcoal are both inherently dusty and fragile mediums, one touch on the paper and it could skew the subject. Consequently, fixing a drawing is especially useful for final pieces that you plan on selling, keeping to hang on the wall, or for sketchbook work. Working in sketchbooks with charcoal and pastel can get messy, as the particles can transfer to other pages. To maintain a more polished look, spray a few coats of fixative on each finished sketchbook drawing. Whilst it’s not essential to the drawing process, as some artists may opt to avoid using it for practice pieces, it can have many uses.
What different uses can fixatives have?
Aside from preventing smudging and protecting a drawing, fixatives can have a few other uses, especially with mixed media applications.
Spray workable fixative over an underdrawing to fix it in place and prevent the sketched out layers from mixing into consecutive layers of paint, charcoal or pastel.
Use a fixative to bring clean colours to your work. Spray a workable fixative over the layers you want to seal, then draw with clean, colours over the top. This way, they won’t be muddied by previous layers. This can work for layering contrasted highlights on top of dark areas, for example.
Use fixative to increase the layering potential of the surface. Surfaces like Pastelmat will accommodate multiple layers of pastel or charcoal, but other, less toothy surfaces will hold fewer layers. When you feel like the paper won’t take any more charcoal or pastel, spray a little workable fixative over the paper, wait for it to dry, then continue layering your drawing media on top.
Workable fixatives can prevent loss of fine particles in charcoal drawings. However, if your fixative alters colour or value profiles at all, make sure to limit usage.
Can you use hairspray as a drawing fixative?
It’s not advised to use hairspray as fixative for professional work, or work you want to keep or hang on the wall. This is because hairspray is non-archival. Whilst hairspray will make charcoal adhere better to the paper and may prevent smudging, it may also yellow over time and have other unpredictable effects on the drawing. It’s not formulated for use with drawing media. Hairspray is often cheaper than art materials, but it’s possible to find inexpensive drawing fixatives. For example, the Krylon Fixative is inexpensive. It’s worth using dedicated art materials to preserve pieces that you have spent a lot of time working on.
How do you use fixatives and varnishes?
Either get a very soft brush or tap the drawing surface to get rid of loose particles of charcoal or pastel. If there are lots of loose particles that you would rather be incorporated into the drawing, get some glassine paper and press it over the top to fix these in place.
Test the fixative on a scrap piece of paper with some of your chosen medium on the surface. Make sure the spray doesn’t splatter any excess and that it works with your chosen surface and medium combination adequately.
When spraying the artwork, stand around 30cm away, and spray in a smooth, even motion. Make sure that you’ve not left any sections uncovered. You may need to apply several coats to achieve optimum results. Make sure to wait for each layer to dry before applying the next. Check the instructions on the product label or the product page on the website to make sure that you are using it correctly, because usage can vary between fixatives.
To clear the nozzle, hold the bottle upside down and spray. Wipe the end to remove any residue, place the cap then store the bottle in a cool, dry place.
Some varnishes and fixatives should be used outside, especially if they have a strong odour. However, other fixative sprays allow artists to work indoors, as long as the space is well ventilated. This depends on whether the spray fixative is toxic or not. Some fixatives are formulated to be less toxic, or non-toxic which means they can be used indoors. Make sure to check the instructions before using to be sure, as using a toxic spray fixative indoors can be damaging to people’s health. For a more in depth guide, check our tutorial on how to seal a charcoal drawing.
Some papers suitable for use with pastel and charcoal will reduce the need for fixative, whilst others are unsuitable for use with fixative. Check our pastel paper and charcoal paper reviews to find out more.
Trying to find the best supplies to use when just starting out with charcoal or pastel can be confusing, read our soft pastel brand review and our charcoal supplies guide to learn more about your materials.
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