Prevent Your Drawings From Smudging: The Ultimate Guide

How to prevent your drawing from smudging header image. A drawing with various pencils and a sheet of tracing paper.

Believe it or not, this is one of the most common questions I’m asked. Problems occur mainly because we get into lazy habits, but there are many ways to prevent your drawings from smudging, such as:

Spray your drawings with a fixative to seal the surface. Place a clean sheet of paper or cellophane beneath your hand as you draw. Rest your drawing hand on a rod (mahlstick), use tracing paper dividers, mounts, and plastic sleeves to separate your drawings. Even frame them.

But above all – KEEP YOUR HANDS CLEAN!

We will cover all the methods, the best erasers, and explore the use of fixative sprays. There is far more to it than you may think.

Let’s crack on.

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Prevent Your Drawings From Smudging – best practice

The best solution and only surefire way to prevent your pencil drawings from smudging is to not touch the surface of the paper in the first place. 

Don’t fool yourself that if you’re very careful that all will be well. Sometimes the smudging is so subtle that you don’t notice it’s happening.

To check for damage, take an eraser and rub the paper where your hand has been resting. You’ll see the results immediately. Even the mildest grey will dull the ‘life’ out of the paper.

It’s all a matter of habit. Get into the mindset of protecting the surface every time you work. Laziness is your number one enemy when it comes to smudging your drawing.

Place Some Paper Under Your Hand to Stop Your Drawings from Smudging

The classic way to guard against smudging a drawing is to place a piece of CLEAN paper under your hand whilst you draw.

Use plain smooth paper, something like photocopy paper, wax paper, or tracing paper. Avoid creased or heavily textured paper, they don’t work.

Caution: Paper guards only protect your pencil work if you are careful enough to keep the paper dead still. If all you do is rub the paper over the surface, instead of your hand, you won’t achieve very much.

Flip the paper guard over now and again and see if any graphite has ‘lifted’. This method is far from foolproof, if you see any graphite replace it with a clean piece of paper.

Get into the habit of holding the paper guard in place with your free hand at all times and use a careful hand motion. You might even consider securing the edges with low-tack acid-free masking tape to keep it in place.

If choosing drawing paper is confusing read this: What’s the Right Paper for Pencil Drawing?

Do you lack confidence? Take a class and get into the habit of drawing. I found this class on Udemy, 115,028 students can’t all be wrong!

Use Cellophane to Protect Your Drawings From Smudging

Cellophane is one of the most practical solutions that no one else talks about. I use cellophane to protect my work more than anything else. I buy A3 self-sealing cellophane bags with the same wrappers you see displaying greeting cards, except they’re much bigger.

I pop my sketch in, seal it, and tape it to my drawing board. Then I tear a hole where I want to draw. 

When I finish drawing in one area, I tear out a larger hole or use a new bag and start afresh.

Not only can I rest my hand at will, but I can see the rest of the drawing at all times. I realize this won’t work unless you have a slower meticulous style like mine but the advantages are huge, I can work outside without worrying that my drawings will get spoilt.

Kevin Hayler drawing through a hole in the cellophane to prevent it from smudging
If you work outside you must take extra care

I haven’t seen anyone else do this!

You may be wondering what can go wrong outside. Birds for one thing! I’ve been hit many times and if it’s a seagull you’re in trouble!

Insects are the next problem. I’ve squashed countless bugs on my paper without thinking.

But one of the most important reasons to have a cellophane wrapper is to guard against stray fingers.

Believe it or not, the first instinct of many people, when they inspect the work, is to touch the surface, rub it, and look at their fingers to see if it smudges! I kid you not.

Before I discovered cellophane, it used to drive me mad.

Use a Rod as a Support to Prevent Your Drawings From Smudging

An artist’s support is called a Mahlstick. It’s an old-fashioned word for a stick with a cloth or leather ball at one end. The old masters used them to lay across their paintings to support the hand.

You can buy a mahl stick on Amazon if you like buying all the kit but they aren’t cheap.

You don’t need to go that far. You can use a length of dowel with a rubber ‘bung’ on the end. For extra peace of mind, you could tie some cloth around the end too.

The advantage of having a soft tip becomes more obvious if you ever drop the stick. I’ve had a few near misses when I’ve let my ruler slip and scored the paper.

I’ve seen some artists use a stick tied to the easel to keep it safe and handy.

Alternatively do as I do and just use a very long metal ruler

I use supports only when I draw upright from an easel. It prevents me from smudging my drawing completely. On a flat surface, I don’t bother, I lean on my left hand instead.

That’s how you stop your drawings from smudging while you work, now you need to know how to repair pencil smudges.

How to Erase Pencil Smudges Safely

You would think that rubbing out would be self-explanatory, but nothing is as simple as it sounds. There are many kinds of erasers and they’re used for different reasons.

A kneadable eraser is the most practical eraser for cleaning purposes. They remove the marks without ruining the paper surface and leave fewer crumbs behind. 

NB: Be careful blowing the dust away, you might spray spittle!

I often use a fan blending brush to flick the bits away. It works well with hard pencils but will smudge very soft graphite, so be aware.

Blu-Tack kneads to the finest point possible and can lift off graphite with precision. If you have smudged some detail that can’t be redrawn, use Blu-Tak to dab the paper. You’ll be amazed at how well it works.

Various erasers needed to correct drawing mistakes
The best erasers

Plastic erasers clean the paper but use them with caution. They are useful for erasing dark graphite, but it’s way too easy to overdo it and buckle the paper. Hold one side of the paper and rub it away from you. 

Rubber erasers are softer than plastic ones but crumble more.

Eraser pens are plastic but great for precision line work.

Battery erasers are fantastic for insanely detailed work. If you lose the sparkle in the eye and want to recover the white paper. Use this tool for the best results.

Make sure you have a clean eraser before rubbing. Dirty erasers leave heavy oily smears and they never come out. I always clean my erasers by rubbing them on my trousers before I use them. After all these years I do it automatically. It’s a good habit.

Using a Fixative to Protect Your Drawings

Personally, I don’t fix my graphite drawings. I can’t see the point, but I know many people do, so I can’t ignore fixative spray.

There is a very good argument for using a fixative on dry powdery media, such as charcoal and soft pastel. The final drawing can be so delicate that unless you store it well or frame it straightaway, it will get damaged.

The only time I’ve ever used fixative spray regularly was when I used soft pastels. I used a workable fixative to seal layers before applying more color on top. Never as a final coat.

This is what happens when you spray fixative.

Applying a light spray layer doesn’t work very well, especially so if you are sealing charcoal and pastel drawings. Unfortunately, applying a heavy spray changes the tonal values and there’s a degree of color shift.

That’s fine if you are using it as a tool for deliberate effect, but no good if you’re only adding a final protective coat.

Plus there’s always the chance of getting random blobs of varnish on the paper.

I’ve written about fixative in detail: How to Protect and Preserve Your Drawings

It’s a gamble. One I don’t like taking.

I haven’t painted with pastel or used charcoal for years. I use graphite pencils these days, but my reasoning remains the same. if you’re going to frame your artwork anyway there’s no need to spray it in the first place.

Graphite and charcoal are as permanent as any media can be. They don’t fade, they’ll probably outlive your paper.

I’ve also written about fading here: Does Art Fade?

Professional pastels mostly have good UV ratings, and besides, the pigment binds over time, effectively fixing itself.

Does Hairspray Fix Drawings?

WHAT? ARE YOU CRAZY?

A coat of hairspray is not a clever inexpensive alternative to professional fixative, but it is an effective way of devaluing your artwork.

If you want to fix some throw-away sketches, fine, but why would anyone spray hair lacquer over delicate artwork that has value?

The chemical makeup of hairspray will not preserve your drawing long term. It has a short term use for someone’s hair!

It is not an archival varnish, it has no UV rating, and it’s likely to cause yellowing of the paper over time. I hope I’ve put you off.

Respected brands make professional art fixatives that are archival, stable, and spray evenly. Yes, it costs more but the price per drawing is pennies.

There are different types of fixatives and as usual, the companies bombard you with too many choices. If you want to fix a layer and continue to work on top, choose a workable fixative.

I will list a few reliable fixatives. I won’t lie and make out I’ve done my own testing because I haven’t. Because I have only ever bought fixative from my local art shop.

I have used two brands in the past, Winsor and Daler but they might not be so easy to obtain in the States. They are two of the top picks from Jacksonsart.com who have tested ten brands.

These are the 3 they liked:

Other available art fixatives I would add to the list are Krylon Workable Fixative which is easy to find in the States, and Spectrafix because it is the only non-poisonous option.

Spectrafix is a water-based spray and uses a pump-action plastic spray bottle instead of an aerosol. I like the eco-credentials but I would have concerns about spraying water onto thin paper. I’d like to try it sometime.

How to Prevent Your Drawings From Smudging in Storage

Most of the problems I have with smudging drawings occur when I get complacent and store my work poorly.

Drawings cannot be stored without a protective layer over the surface. It is vital to both cover the surface and to secure the paper firmly in place. Just leaving them in a hardbound sketchbook is not good enough. They will ruin over time. I know this to my cost.

This guide goes into more detail: How to Store Drawings Safely: The Ultimate Guide

This is what happens. You put your drawing pad safely away in a container and assume that all is well. What you fail to realize is that any movement or vibration smudges the drawing very subtly.

It’s unnoticeable at first, but over time hundreds of tiny movements take their toll, until one day you notice a bland dull grey drawing that was once high contrast.

The best way I’ve found to protect loose drawings is to lay tracing paper over each drawing and clamp the pad between two acid-free boards with strong bulldog clips. It works a treat.

I traveled for months and still had good drawings when I got home.

A word of caution: Proper storage is not an optional extra. If you want to keep your artwork in excellent condition you must do things properly.

Everything you store against paper must be archival and acid-free, and that includes the interleaving paper. Do not use parchment paper or wax paper as permanent dividers.

Use tracing paper, archival tissue paper, or glassine paper. It’s cheap enough.

This is how I do it: How Do You Travel With Art Supplies? (A Practical Guide)

The other option is to store them in clear sleeves in a portfolio. The graphite will lift if you allow them to vibrate so just to be sure you are wise to follow the clamping method.

Another way to solve the storage issue is to mount (mat) the drawing and cover it in a clear polypropylene wrapper. You can buy it in a roll. It’s the same stuff florists use. If that’s environmentally out of the question cellophane is better, but still not 100% eco-friendly.

Framing Your Drawings For Ultimate Protection

This is the most drastic option for protecting your drawings if you have a large portfolio. Framing isn’t cheap and who has the wall space?

This is my Quick Guide to Framing on a Budget

I don’t store my work in frames, it’s impractical for me, I haven’t got the space. Instead, I frame them only upon request from a buyer.

If you are keen to frame them you need to know the pitfalls and take them into account.

Store your frames on a shelf or rack above the ground. Any number of mishaps can occur and if your art is above ground they are likely to escape the worst.

Not only that, I know from experience that careless handling creates problems. Frames chip, especially the corners and glass cracks. Many artists choose to frame their drawings with plexiglass as an alternative but acrylic scratches very easily. You have to be so careful.

When you store your framed drawings make sure they are in a dry environment and wrap them in clingfilm. To be extra safe it’s a good idea to cover them in bubble wrap too.

Finally, Clean Your Hands!

It’s a bit cheeky including this one but it’s amazing how lazy we get. I end up using my fingers a great deal and it’s all very well smudging deliberately but intensely annoying when you leave a dirty great fingerprint behind just because you didn’t wipe your hands. 

Keep a cloth or wet wipes handy and keep your hands nice and clean. It’s an essential habit.

Prevent Your Drawings From Smudging: Final Thoughts

Even professional artists get lazy and form bad habits, so this will probably be an ongoing problem. Even so, make your drawing routine habit-forming. The more actions you take on auto-pilot the easier it will be to keep your artwork clean and fresh. 

Fixative has its place with dry media artwork but it should not be central. Used wisely it’s an aid, used rashly it will ruin your work.

Most damage will occur in storage, or whilst in transit. Always store your art in a dry place above the ground, and pack your drawing tightly when you move them around.

Just remember it’s far easier to prevent your drawings from smudging than it is to backtrack and rescue your work later.

Male orangutan drawing by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Enigmatic Ape’ by Kevin Hayler

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How to prevent your drawings from smudging. Cheetah drawing and pencils for pinterest