In this guide, learn how to seal a charcoal drawing to protect your artwork. Depending on the method and product that you choose to seal your drawing, you can protect it against smudging and other environmental damage such as UV, moisture and even scratches on the surface.
Many artists will choose to use a fixative or varnish to seal the drawing and keep charcoal particles in place. Charcoal is a naturally fragile medium. One accidental touch to the surface of a finished drawing could wipe a section away or skew the subject.
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Checks to do before sealing your drawing
One important thing to note before you start sealing the drawing is that not all fixatives perform in the same way. For example, the SpectraFix spray is a unique, non-toxic formula that is water based and comes in a spritz bottle. As with all fixatives, but especially if you’re using a fixative with a unique formula, check the usage instructions on the bottle, or on the website product page.
The second thing to note is that not all papers tolerate fixative in the same way. Using the example of the SpectraFix fixative that wets the paper with its water based solution, some thinner papers may buckle and warp when sprayed. To solve this problem, make sure to tape paper down on all edges to secure in place and stick to using thicker papers for charcoal drawing.
To test how your fixative will perform on your choice of charcoal paper and with your choice of medium, whether that’s charcoal or mixed media, spray some fixative on a scrap piece first and conduct and smudge and moisture test. Spray a few coats, and test by smudging with your finger, then with a wet finger to see if the charcoal stays in place.
However, some artists avoid using fixative due to the fact that certain sealants and fixatives can darken the values in a drawing slightly. To find out more about which fixatives preserve values and which can darken values read our review of the best fixatives for charcoal drawing.
How to seal a charcoal drawing: Step-by-step
Brush away loose particles
Get an ultra soft brush, like a goat mop hair brush and swipe any loose particles away. Make sure not to brush over any areas that you want to keep intact. Another option is to gently blow particles away, tap the paper, or even press particles into the paper with an acid-free glassine sheet.
Set-up your workspace
Most fixatives should be used outdoors, however some fixatives have been formulated to be less toxic or even non-toxic. Check the safety advice on the product page or bottle. If the fixative advises that you only use the spray outside, set up a station outdoors. If the fixative is safe to use indoors, make sure to ventilate the space by opening two windows or a window and a door to allow air to circulate properly. Wear a respirator mask, if you can get hold of one, to protect you from the toxic fumes.
Secure the drawing to a surface
To ensure the paper doesn’t buckle or warp whilst spraying, tape the paper, using artists’ masking tape to a board. This could be an MDF panel, or slice of wood you have lying around. Prop the drawing secured to the wooden panel up at an easel, so that it’s almost at a vertical angle. Keep the drawing secured to the board during and after spraying, for around half an hour to prevent warping from the spray.
Test the spray
Shake the can, some sprays may require you to shake for around two minutes before spraying. Make sure the nozzle is clean by spraying on a scrap piece of paper to ensure that there is no splatter. If the fixative creates droplets of splatter on the scrap paper, you may need to hold the can upside down and spray for a few seconds until no product comes out, to clean the nozzle.
Apply the first even thin coat
Hold the can around 30-60cm away from the drawing and with a smooth and continuous motion, move the spray across the drawing overlapping strokes. Make sure to spray over the edge of the drawing to ensure coverage of the edges.
Wait for the layer to dry
Wait for at least 30 minutes for the first layer to dry fully. Make sure not to handle the paper whilst it’s drying. One coat of fixative is probably not enough to protect against smudging, so wait for the first layer to dry then apply either one or two more coats.
Apply a second coat
Repeat step 5, but change the spray direction. For example if you sprayed left to right for the first layer, spray from top to bottom for the second coat. You could flip the board around so that it’s on its side to make spraying in a different direction easier.
Most fixatives will require applying a third coat in order to achieve optimum results. Repeat these steps again and wait until the finished piece is dry before handling and framing.
When should you seal a charcoal drawing?
Artists can seal layers throughout the drawing process with a workable fixative, or seal the finished piece with a permanent fixative. Once the drawing has been sealed with a final fixative, you won’t be able to work on the drawing anymore, so make sure you’re totally finished before spraying.
How do you use workable fixatives?
Workable fixatives can be used to seal previous layers of a drawing, this can be useful if you want to draw with a white charcoal pencil over dark layers. Workable fixative also provides extra tooth to a paper. When you feel like charcoal layers aren’t adhering anymore, spray the paper with a little workable fixative. This will provide a matt and toothy surface to continue layering on top of.
How to choose the right fixative
Fixatives can vary in their working properties. Some fixatives with be workable, whilst others will be permanent. Certain fixatives will protect against UV damage which can fade charcoal values and others will provide a glossy finish. The fixative you select will depend upon your personal preferences and how you want the finished drawing to appear.
The best fixative for sealing charcoal drawings?
The Lascaux Fine Art Fixative is perfectly lightfast, UV resistant and made to a museum standard. This fixative is used in many professional settings, including graphic arts, fine art and architectural draftsmanship. It comes in an aerosol spray format and can be used with charcoal as well as mixed media, such as ink and gold leaf.
Read our guide on the best charcoal fixatives to find a review of 9 charcoal fixatives.
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