How to Protect and Preserve Your Drawings and Avoid Disaster

how to protect and preserve your drawing header image. Fixative, cockatoo drawing and art materials

You need to protect and preserve your drawings but there is a lot of poor advice out there and I want to put it right.

The only way to fully protect and preserve your drawing is to frame it behind glass. Fixative can be used to build workable layers of pastel in the drawing process but not as a final coat. Pencil doesn’t need a fixative. Graphite will not fade. Protect pastel behind anti-static glass.

Everyone writes about fixative as if it’s an essential part of your kit, it’s not, and no one tells you why. And there is precious little written about storing your drawings safely either, so let’s find out.

How Do You Protect Your Drawings in Storage and in Transit?

If you allow anything to touch the surface of your drawing you risk lifting some of the medium. In fact, it’s inevitable. All you can do is limit the damage.

The reason the drawing smudges is vibration. Every time you move the work there is friction between the drawing surface and the cover.

Every time you remove the protective cover you disturb the surface. Every time a thoughtless observer touches the clear plastic display sleeve the drawing will ‘lift’.

All these micro-movements, insignificant in themselves, add up over time. You don’t realize the extent until one day you remove the art from its sleeve and your eyes roll in horror.

You would think that any observant artist would be aware of their own work but it’s not always so. If you store your drawings in a dedicated clear display sleeve inside a portfolio folder, you will not see any damage.

Further Reading: Repair Damaged Drawing Paper – 8 Ways to Rescue Your Artwork

Not until you slip out the work and see the impression of your drawing as a shadow on the underside of the plastic. It looks fine before you remove the art.

Take an eraser and rub the highlights. The chances are, what you saw as white paper, is now a light grey. What was once a drawing with some ‘zing’ is now flat.

There are two ways to tackle this issue.

The first is to mount (mat) your drawings with an acid-free backing board and cover them in florists cellophane wrap. Lay another board on top. As long as nothing touches the surface of the drawing you will be fine.

The other way is to clamp the paper firmly together. I use this method when I am traveling. Cover every drawing with a flat sheet of tracing paper and clamp the paper between two rigid boards and clamp them with strong foldback bulldog clips.

This method prevents the paper from vibrating and smudging.

Do You Use a Fixative Spray to Preserve Your Drawings?

Simple answer, NO.

There is a lot of nonsense talked about fixative sprays. In my opinion, they are an expensive red herring.

Let’s look at the facts,

  • Graphite is lightfast.
  • Fixative doesn’t fix 100%
  • Fixative alters the tonal values (regardless of claims on the tin)
  • Fixative is expensive

So why do people go on about it? Well, I think it has become an unchallenged orthodox means of ‘finishing’ off the drawing. It’s unquestioned. What’s more, I have a sneaky feeling that it’s in the interest of the brands to promote its use.

Framed pencil drawing of two African Penguins by Kevin Hayler
‘Push and Shove’ A Pencil Drawing by Kevin Hayler

Fixative is only an acrylic plastic coating in a spray can and it’s massively overpriced. The margins must be huge. Why not scare artists into insisting that its use is essential? Makes sense commercially.

N.B. Don’t believe the claims that any spray is clear and will not affect the color or tone of the drawing. I have not found this to be true.

Besides fixative doesn’t even fix the medium. Run your finger over a coated drawing and the medium lifts. Not as much maybe, but it is far from permanent.

And the protection from UV? How does that stack up? Well for starters, since when did graphite and charcoal start fading? It’s not the drawing that degrades, it’s the paper! If you don’t use acid-free paper, fixative won’t help much.

Further Reading: What’s the Right Paper for Pencil Drawing? (How to Choose Wisely)

Chalk pastel is different. Some pigments are more stable than others. The only way to gain permanence is to use UV protected glass and use the most lightfast colors.

If you use pastel pencils these charts might help, but take into account that each brand uses its own grading systems.

Top-quality soft pastels are the most lightfast of all the pigment mediums. That said, you must never hang a painting in full sunlight anyway.

It’s tempting to spray a soft pastel painting to bind the pigment before framing. It’s understandable. Pigment dust can fall from the surface of the work and no one wants to find specks of paint inside the frame.

All pastels should be tapped before framing, to dislodge any loose flakes. This should suffice but here’s the thing no one says. Pastel binds as it ages. The surface will stabilize.

I personally never apply a final coat. I use fixative to fix layers that can be painted over. I know that spraying the underpainting will both darken and flatten the colors. I use this knowledge to create more depth and vibrancy when a new layer of pastel is applied.

I use fixative as a tool, not as a finish.

How Do You Apply The Fixative and Preserve Your Drawings?

If you feel the need to apply a final coat, and I perfectly understand why you might, you must be careful how you do it.

Always test the spray-can before you aim it at your work. The nozzle can get blocked and ‘spit’ varnish at the paper. You want a fine even spray.

Shake the can for a minute or so.

Spray in a steady sweeping motion. Start spraying before you hit the paper and carry on past the paper on the other side. Start with horizontal lines and make the next layer vertical. Let each layer evaporate before commencing with the next one.

Male orangutan drawing by Kevin Hayler
‘Enigmatic Ape’ A Pencil Drawing by Kevin hayler

How many layers you spray is up to you. The more you apply the darker your image will be, and it will get smoother. If you overspray the surface you may lose the tooth entirely and be unable to draw over it.

Some brands now market workable fixative (e.g. Krylon), designed to let you paint and draw in layers. How good they are I can’t tell you. To be honest I have yet to try them out and that’s because I suspect them to be marketing gimmicks and I don’t want to spend the cash to find out.

Further Reading: How to Prevent Your Drawing From Smudging. ( 5 good tips, especially number 3 )

Hold the can about 12″ (30cm) away. Better to be further away than too close. Multiple light coats are always better than a single heavy coat.

Spray in a well-ventilated area, the chemicals are strong and some fixatives stink. I wouldn’t spray indoors, certainly not without a mask at least and well away from the furniture.

When you have finished, hold the can upside down and spray the nozzle one last time to keep it from clogging.

Can You Use Hairspray to Preserve Your Drawings?

This not a clever hack. Do Not Use Hairspray.

For one thing, branded hairspray is not much cheaper than fixative and they add conditioners, scent, and oils. Add to that, the design of the nozzle may not deliver a fine, even mist. Why take the risk?

If the hairspray ingredients list oils such as silicone, dimethicone, vitamin A or E, or chemicals ending in “glycol,” don’t use them.

Cheaper hairsprays may have less harmful content. Look for acrylate suspended in alcohol. Even if you find a basic hairspray with ingredients that appear to be the same, you still don’t know if the spray will be even.

And finally if that wasn’t enough, hairspray will go yellow over time. It is not UV resistant.

If you value your work, use a dedicated fixative.

What Fixative Spray Do You Use to Protect Your Drawings?

I’m a creature of habit and use Winsor and Newton fixative. As I mentioned before, I only use fixative to lightly bind a layer of pastel before applying more pastel on top.

Your main concern is the delivery of the spray and of the darkening of the tone. These things vary between brands

I won’t lie and tell you that I have tested and compared all the brands out there, I haven’t. I chose Winsor and Newton because it was easily available where I live and I got used to the high degree of darkening and adapted to it.

Photo-realistic framed drawing of a Nile crocodile
‘Monster Croc’ A Pencil Drawing by Kevin Hayler

I did experiment with using a bottle of fixative with a diffuser. I won’t do that again, blotches everywhere. The only fixative I’m keen to try, in the future, is one called Spectrafix.

I’m interested because it doesn’t alter the tone as much as other sprays. It’s only made of casein, water, and alcohol, so it’s non-toxic, safe to use indoors, and doesn’t PONG!

If I have a reservation, it’s only because it is a pump action spray. That would be a positive thing normally but in this case I don’t know if it delivers the spray evenly. Only one way to find out.

Conclusion

Now you know how to protect and preserve your drawings. The best solution is to not allow anything to touch the surface. If that is impractical clamp your drawings together so tight they can’t move.

Use fixative sparingly and with caution. I advise you to avoid spraying a top coat if at all possible. Use fixative to build layers in pastel only. I can’t see a reason why you would use it at all for graphite and charcoal, if you do, you’ll destroy the tonal values you worked so hard to achieve in the first place. It rather defeats the purpose.


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