Fixative Spray - is it safe for coloured pencils?

Before using fixative spray on your coloured pencil artwork read on...

Very few liquids in the Art world are manufactured specifically for wax coloured pencil.

Watercolour pencils are, of course, designed to be used with water, but for the non-soluble varieties there is a need for caution! Before using any fixative sprays or solvents it is important to first check the manufacturer's instructions. 

If it does not specifically say that the product is made for coloured pencil use, then it probably isn’t. That doesn’t mean that the product cannot be used. Simply that before use, you need to test the liquid thoroughly on a similar surface which carries similar media to the one you wish to treat.

Do not risk your carefully worked artwork to experiments!

The treated area may not be archival, the treatment may result in colours fading. It is all a bag of worms.

HISTORY tells us we get nowhere without experimentation, and the use of Pastel fixatives and varnishes for wax coloured pencil is generally a safe area. Do be cautious, though, in spraying any soluble pencil media.

The notes below are offered without any guarantees of effectiveness. They should simply guide your own research.

Background to fixative spray

Soft pastel artists and those using pastel pencils are familiar with the use of fixative spray to hold down the powdery surface and enable the picture to take more layers of colour.  

Pastel fixative tends to darken the colours so care is needed to be modest with the amount of spray and the artist will need to go back into the painted surface to return the extreme lights and darks to maintain the contrasts of the picture.

Coloured Pencil artists in the USA will also be familiar with the use of sealing sprays to provide a new matt surface where pigment has reached the limit of saturation, and also to fix the final picture with a permanent ‘varnish’ which will also provide some extra UV light filtering and protect delicate colours in the picture.

Some of these fixative sprays are unique to the USA and postal and shipping restrictions stop any export of the highly inflammable spray canisters for retail customers in Europe.  

Krylon manufacture a range of varnishes and fixatives and a look at the Krylon web site will provide more information for readers in the American sub continent.

Most fixatives are sold for the use of Pastel artists and it is rare to see a fixative marketed for use on wax type coloured pencil. For this reason, anyone using  a spray over wax based media will need to test the product out themselves as indicated in the ‘Caution’ at the head of this page.

For European readers (and those elsewhere in the World where Krylon is not available) there will be equivalents, but outside Europe I have no personal experience or information on products.

Workable fixative

In June of 2011, we received an enquiry from a resident in France which asked about ‘workable’ fixative to seal the wax in a coloured pencil picture so that further layers of colour could be added. The question was...

‘I have a question about workable fixatives for CP drawing. That is to say a fixative that can be used between layers as opposed to a final fixative.

Could you tell me which brands of fixatives would be suitable?’

My initial research took me to Gildow and Newton’s excellent Coloured Pencil Solution Book. Page 19 - ‘Useful Tools’ -  which refers to Krylon Workable Fixative.

They say that the Fixative can be used to prevent Wax Bloom. They also say that fixative may alter the appearance of the colours in your work (as it does when using fixative with Pastels). If you use it be sure to test first on a sample test patch before using it on your work . The Solution Book goes on to say ‘Workable Fixative allows you to spray your work, fixing the colour at convenient intervals’.

Fixative spray brands

As it seemed to be impossible to source Krylon workable fixative in the UK, I explored which other fixative sprays might be available. I wanted to discover if any of those might be suitable for coloured pencil work - to fix the surface during the painting process and enable extra layers of colour to be added when the surface became saturated with wax colour and will take no more.

I had Winsor & Newton’s Artists Fixative, Daler Rowney Perfix, and Talens spray fixative, all in my cupboard.

Other brands were clearly available judging by the catalogues, and I set out to test the different sprays over coloured pencil.

I found neither the Daler Rowney or the Talens brand products left a suitable fixed matt surface for further CP work.

The surface was too smooth and had too little tooth to take more media.

Winsor & Newton’s  non-removable Artists Fixative (‘with UV filters’ ) as sold in the UK, is listed as ‘suitable for pencil’ and it is said by Winsor & Newton to be identical to the spray they sell in the USA labelled ‘Artists Workable Fixative’. 

This spray was confirmed by a reader in Israel to work well in protecting finished work from strong sunlight, so we had a positive for the W & N product. However,  I have not found it to be the complete solution for interim fixes as the dry sprayed surface also seemed too smooth to take even coats of additional wax colour.  This has subsequently been confirmed by other readers of the site.

Other readers of this site offered comments on the topic and Lascaux Artists Fixative was suggested as a suitable product for CP use.

This is available in the UK from the Great Art Group (Gerstaecker) who also market their own brand of Fixative spray.  I asked Great Art about the suitability of their own brand for coloured pencil and received the following reply :

"We tested our fixative and think it is not really good for wax pencil. The customer would be better off using the Sennelier fixative d´Artigny  (item 21281) or the Lascaux fixative."

This takes us back to the French fixative spray.

Our original enquirer in France ordered up a can of the Gerstaecker fixative to test and came back with the following report

"I have received the Gerstaecker fixative and done a small test with CP as to its efficacy  as an intermediate workable fixative. I must say that I am not disappointed.

Having sprayed a very light coating on saturated CP layers, I was able to add a further 3 layers of CP. To be honest I did not expect to achieve more layers than this."

It dries fast to a very slight sheen. Although it may seem obvious to most of us, just a word of warning for those who wish to go down the route of workable fixative - remember that once used, it permanently fixes the colours already in place, thus they cannot be reworked.

The Gerstaecker fixative is widely available and extremely reasonably priced.  In the UK is is certainly available from Great Art, and from Great Art's equivalent in France "Géant des Beaux Arts" ..............and from Gerstaecker in Germany.

A side issue

During the examination of fixatives, I was contacted and advised that someone had problems with using a final fixative on Derwent Pastel pencils worked on black paper.  It seemed that having used the Winsor & Newton spray, the pastel colour was reported as having virtually disappeared. This highlights the problems of using fixative spray on dark papers.

The pigment is bedded down into the paper with the liquid spray and is provided with a hard varnish coat.The sparkle of the dry pastel pencil medium sitting on the surface of the paper is lost and the dark paper comes through, killing the effect of the pigment.

I suggest that any fixative sprayed on to dark paper should be sprayed only lightly and you should be prepared to add several additional layers of pigment to build back the picture layer and re-emphasize the areas of extreme light and dark.  I would also suggest that if you are using pastel pencils on a dark paper, you should be prepared to  fix the surface regularly so that a good depth of pastel is established.

The only other benefit of fixatives is the fact that many of the more expensive brands also offer a built-in UV light filter in the spray, which can assist in stabilising low lightfast colours.  I wouldn’t like to have to rely on spray fixative for UV protection for lightfastness!  I would rather use the pigments known to be stable in the first place.

Spectrafix

Spectrafix was introduced into the uk market in 2012. 

This is a casein based fixative which comes in a non-pressurised container with a pump action spray.

This ‘new’ Fixative spray is sold for Pastel use, but also lists itself as suitable for pencil, charcoal, watercolour and mixed media.  

I was alerted to its possibilities for coloured pencil by comments made from the USA where the fixative has been on sale for some time and has been used by coloured pencil artists.

Unlike the other brands this is sold in a pump action bottle (non-aerosol) and contains no hazardous ingredients  - the contents being water, alcohol and milk sourced casein.  The final surface is matte and has been found to take coloured pencil quite well.

For more comprehensive information on the brand see the website at www.spectrafix.com. The UK and European supplier is Jacksons Art Supplies in London. 

Testing Spectrafix over pastel pencil

Peter decided to do his own test on this product to see how it compared with other fixatives, and the results are shown below. There are tests below on pastel pencil work and wax pencil work. As this fixative is water based it is certainly NOT suitable for fixing aquarelle pictures!!

The first test  starts with a base picture of an old doorway completed in pastel pencil on a grey/brown pastel paper with a typical grained pastel surface. The paper has no sizing so will buckle if it is wet

ORIGINAL
RIGHT HAND SIDE FIXED

The first image shows the unfixed pastel pencil surface of the base picture

The second shows the effect of spraying the right hand side with Spectrafix

The first thing to note is the fact that the liquid in the spray is a mixture of water and alcohol and therefore there is some wetting of the backing paper. 

The effect of this can just be seen from the image 3 (below)  which is of the reverse of the paper after spraying the picture and drying off with a hair dryer.  

NOTE that there is marginal darkening of the pastel and that the fixative IS effective in holding the pastel surface 

Adding a further spray of standard Winsor & Newton Pastel Fixative to the LEFT HAND SIDE we can see that the W & N spray has a greater darkening effect than the Spectrafix, though the actual level of increased darkening is only small.

W & N FIXATIVE ON LEFT - SPECTRAFIX ON RIGHT

Adding coloured pencil over the pastel

The next step in this test is to use coloured pencil over the pastel and then compare a further fix.

In this next image, Derwent Coloursoft has been applied over the fixed pastel surface to punch in some detail and lighten some of the woodwork and gravel.  

AFTER ADDING COLOURED PENCIL

This is then sprayed with a layer of Spectrafix.

DROPS OF SPECTRAFIX VISIBLE AFTER SPRAYING

Note in the photo, above, how it can be difficult to get a fine spray from the pump action spray head.  The visible drops shown are the wet fixative, fortunately they virtually disappear when dry and this uneven spray does not seem to adversely affect the final dried finish. Once again, a hair dryer was used to accelerate the drying process.

DROPS NOT VISIBLE ONCE DRY

The picture after the Sectrafix fixative had dried. There is no obvious difference in colour on the surface from uneven spray.

Some further wax coloured pencil is now added over the fixed surface. I noticed no obvious difference in the handling of the colour for this second treatment. It seemed to go down as well as if it was on the original surface.

Certainly it was possible to add lights over darks and vice versa, to the usual limits of coloured pencil.

Bearing in mind that the test was over pastel paper and was not intended to be a detailed marketable picture, the result was satisfactory.

The Spectrafix worked well as a fixative.  However, it didn't seem to be greatly superior to the Winsor & Newton one in protecting values in the pastel picture, and the spray head left something to be desired.

The end result was good, though, and the spray had the huge advantage of being environmentally friendly and without smell.  And the finished surface took further layers of coloured pencil after spraying, which would be difficult with the Winsor & Newton fixative spray.

Testing Spectrafix over pure coloured pencil picture

The next test for this fixative was to spray it over a saturated detailed coloured pencil image on watercolour paper and see if the result became a workable surface.

Peter tested the Spectrafix on a landscape of Hallstatt in Austria - a picture with a saturated and polished surface that had been sidelined as too smooth a surface to accept further pencil to complete.

The image was worked in oil based pencils (Pablo and Polychromos) over a foundation of washed in Caran d'Ache Supracolour. The full sized picture is shown below.

PROBLEM PICTURE SPRAYED - BUT NO FURTHER WORK DONE AT THIS STAGE

This first image is shown after Spectrafix has been sprayed, but before further pencil work has been attempted. 

The problem area is on the right hand side where the trees need further work and the paper will take no more. 

CLOSE UP OF PROBLEM TREE AREA

The final version of the full picture (below) shows how more colour has been added to the tree cover (and more detailed shadow) as well as more colour to the reflections in the water.

More colour has also been added to roof areas and shadows have been detailed in on balconies.

The whole exercise has enabled a picture to be worth completing and therefore the left hand side of the picture ( mainly water and mountain ) is now finished to a reasonable standard.

COMPLETED PICTURE

The picture was given a heavy fixative spray coat over the right hand side, and it was noticeable that the casein granulated over the heavy layers of coloured pencil as it dried. This did not prevent further layers adhering, but it was obvious that the fixed surface was less secure over the medium than elsewhere.

Peter considered the test to have been a success, and whilst not perfect, the use of Spectrafix was a great improvement over the results with other fixative sprays.

The Manufacturer’s website suggests that the irregular spray pattern can be reduced by spraying the picture horizontally so that larger drops of the fluid fall away before hitting the working surface, but the fixative seemed to dry evenly anyway when sprayed normally. 

Spectrafix a cure for wax bloom?

A reader of the site has asked whether the Spectrafix is a cure for Wax Bloom.

The test shown above is NOT a check for this, as the saturated surface of the Hallstatt picture was completed in oil based pencils which do not naturally produce a bloom.  

I can only say with some assurance that the Spectrafix works well over pastel pencil (and pastel), and also is of use over oil based pencils to get back a workable surface.

Spectrafix has been used by many coloured pencil artists in the USA and the guessing is that many of these will have been using Prismacolor pencils that are known to produce a wax bloom with heavy colour applications.  I have not read of any results of the use of the fixative spray to prevent bloom, but if I get any feedback, I will report it here.

Comments from a pastel artist

You might find it useful to read a guide note from the famous pastel artist, Jackie Simmonds. She wrote in her blog the following in relation to using fixative spray on pastel paintings.

TIP: Fixative should NOT be thought of, and used like, a varnish, sprayed heavily and soaking the painting.  

If you want to fix between layers, then you can use as much as you like, because you will be working over the top....all the fix will do is give you back the  tooth of the paper (texture) to grip more pastel.  If the colours change, it won't matter at all if you intend to work over them anyway.

BUT if you have completed your painting, and want to use the fixative to protect it, spray very lightly, then go have a cup of coffee. This will stop you from being impatient.

Come back when the painting is  bone dry, and spray again.  Again, leave to dry thoroughly.  You can do this many times, without spoiling the colours, and your painting will have a marvellous protective coating.   

Of course, all pastel paintings need to be framed under glass eventually - but until that moment, several coats of Spectrafix will protect your work from accidental smudging.

Summary of findings

Fixative sprays are useful when working with pastel and pastel pencil to lock down the loose surface and enable further media to be applied.

When Using a fixative spray on any surface DON’T FORGET - the surface then becomes locked down and you can’t go back and correct mistakes. ‘Workable’ does not mean ‘removable’. You may be able to go over the top and correct but that will depend on the media.

There is no fixative marketed in the UK as suitable for Coloured Pencil use ( as far as I know).

HOWEVER, Two brands of fixative spray have been found to be helpful in securing wax type coloured pencil surface to enable more colour to be added to an otherwise polished and saturated surface. - Lascaux and Spectrafix.

Of the two, Spectrafix is more environmentally friendly, the spray head can be removed and washed out to cure blockages, and it finishes with a matt surface . It also has no smell.

Spectrafix has a reputation for an irregular spray pattern (the spray pressure is entirely dependant upon your finger pressure) but I am advised this can be minimised by keeping the nozzle clean and slightly warming the bottle before use.

As it is water based, the paper surface will get wet, so there are advantages in taping down paper before fixing to reduce buckling.  A hair dryer can also help to speed drying.

Do not try Spectrafix over Aquarelle colour.

Be cautious using it over a pastel paper with a granular surface that loosens when wet

Lascaux Fixative spray gets a strong vote from some contributors with one writer saying that she ‘Highly Recommends’ it for cp.  It also had a strong vote from Great Art who sell several brands in Europe. I haven’t tried the Lascaux myself.

Krylon workable fixative spray gets a warning from some quarters, over the chance of picking up lint fibres from the air which will show up on dark backgrounds. I am told this can be more of a risk when there is higher humidity.

Blair Fixative spray ( sold in the USA ) is clearly a ‘No No’ as it is reported to dissolve the wax based pigments so that they can bleed into each other, ruining your picture.

Fixative sprays can be helpful - but unless you can find a brand that is sold for coloured pencil use, assume that your fixing is experimental and don’t try it out on anything valuable or irreplaceable. Test first on similar surface and similar media. Check for changes in colours ( some brands are reported to affect colours ) and dissolving surfaces.

HAVING SAID ALL THAT...

I have found it possible to finish a picture that would otherwise have had to be scrapped.

Fixing has its uses, but use with care.

As far as fixing the coloured pencil surface to prevent ‘Bloom’ is concerned, I have insufficient information to be able to advise.