How to Protect and Preserve Your Pencil Drawings Properly

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

You need to protect and preserve your pencil drawings but there is a lot of poor advice out there and I want to put it right. This is my advice in a nutshell:

Use acid-free tracing, wax, or parchment paper dividers between loose pencil drawings. Clamp your drawing pad shut with bulldog clips. Wrap mounted drawing. Store finished drawings in water-tight plastic containers. Frame your best artwork and use fixative spray sparingly.

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

Let’s go into more detail.

(I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)

How To Preserve Your Pencil Drawings in Storage and in Transit

If you allow anything to touch the surface of your pencil or charcoal drawings you risk lifting some of the media. In fact, it’s inevitable. All you can do is limit the damage.

Protect Your Graphite Drawings in Transit

The reason the drawings smudge is vibration. Every time you move your artwork there is friction between the drawing surface and the protective cover.

Even a thoughtless observer who touches the clear display sleeve protecting your drawing will disturb the surface, and the same happens each time you remove your artwork.

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.

All is not lost. This is How to Repair Drawing Paper: 8 Ways to Rescue Your Artwork

You would think that any observant artist would be aware of damaging 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 always see the damage.

That’s not until you slip out your precious pencil artwork and see the impression of your drawing as a shadow on the underside of the plastic and your eyes roll in horror. 

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

There are two ways to tackle this issue.

The first thing you can do is to mount your drawings with an acid-free mat board and cover them in florists cellophane wrap as a protective layer.

I like to tape up every fold to prevent any possible moisture damage. I lay another board on top to protect the drawing. As long as nothing touches the surface of the paper you’ll be fine.

The other way is to clamp the paper firmly together between two firm boards. I use this method when I am traveling.

I cover every drawing with a flat sheet of tracing paper and place a rigid acrylic sheet on top of my board-backed drawing pad, and I clamp it into place with strong fold-back bulldog clips.

This method prevents the paper from vibrating and hence, smudging. It works even when I go backpacking.

If I’m worried about the weather I will seal the drawing pad inside a ziplock polythene bag. It hasn’t failed yet.

How to Preserve Your Drawings in Storage

I don’t leave anything to chance. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. For that reason, I assume that humidity is my worst enemy.

I store my drawings in plastic lockable containers and away from direct sunlight. I buy extra strong containers that can withstand the knocks and bashes of everyday life. Cheap containers tend to crack and fracture very easily.

Check this out for more info: How to Store Drawings Safely: The Ultimate Guide

All my drawings are wrapped in one way or another, either in portfolio sleeves within a case or fully mounted and wrapped, and my prints are bagged in polythene. But that’s not all.

I have enough room to add two tubs of silicon desiccant inside each container to absorb any atmospheric moisture that might seep through. And if that is not enough, when I go away for extended periods, I wrap the containers in clingfilm.

As I said, I don’t take chances.

Frame Your Drawings to Protect Them

The best way to protect your original drawings, and keep them in the best possible condition, is to hang them in a sturdy glass frame, preferably using UV filter glass. That’s if you have the space, I don’t.

It’s not practical if you have a large body of work.

Read this: How to Frame your Art on a Budget

If you decide to frame your drawings don’t forget to scan your finished work first. Even if you don’t intend to print your art immediately, you’ll still need a Hi-Res file for your records.

Use only quality materials, all your tapes and boards must be acid-free and use anti-glare glass if your drawing has any graphite shine.

If you intend to store your frames make sure they are above the floor. Damp is your enemy. If I had the room for a picture rack or cupboard I would wrap my frames in bubble wrap too. I know from experience that picture frames damage easily.

Framing glass is super thin and fragile and the frame corners chip easily, that’s why I gave up framing my drawings for sale. I damaged the frames too often.

Now I mount them and let my customers do the framing themselves. I want an easy life.

Do You Use a Spray Fixative to Preserve Your Drawings?

The short answer is generally no for pencil work and yes for pastel drawings.

There is a lot of nonsense talked about fixative sprays. In my opinion, they are mostly an expensive waste of money.

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

If you are worried about your art fading read this: Does Art Fade?

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

How to protect and preserve your drawings. Penguin drawing by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Push and Shove’ From 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. Then again maybe I’m too cynical.

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

Fixative doesn’t even fix the medium properly. Run your finger over a coated pencil drawing and graphite particles lift off. Not much maybe, but it is far from perfect, and not a protective barrier.

And what about 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! Use acid-free paper and you eliminate the problem entirely.

If you are confused read: How to Choose the Right Paper for Pencil Drawing

Soft pastels are different. Some pigments are more stable than others, and the only way to gain permanence is to use UV-protected glass and use the most lightfast colors.

If you use pastel pencils, I found these color charts for you, but do take into account that each brand uses its own grading system:

Top-quality soft pastels are the most lightfast of all the dry 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 as a final step 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 picture frame.

All pastel drawings should be tapped before framing to dislodge any loose flakes. This should suffice but here’s the thing no one tells you, pastel binds together as it ages and the surface will stabilize.

I personally never apply a final coat. I use fixative to fix layers that can be over-painted. 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 finishing touch.

How to Apply Fixative to Preserve Your Drawings

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

Use a scrap piece of paper and test the spray can before you aim it at your work. The nozzle can get blocked and ‘spit’ random drops of varnish at the paper. You want a fine even spray varnish.

Shake the can well, for a minute or so.

Spray with a steady sweeping hand motion. Start spraying before you hit the paper and carry on spraying 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.

How to protect and preserve your drawings. Mother and baby orangutan drawing by Wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Baby on Board’ From a Pencil Drawing by Kevin Hayler

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

Krylon fixative is marketed as a workable fixative and designed to let you draw in layers of graphite, or more commonly, in layers of pastel.

This is the companion post. Check it out: How to Stop Your Drawings From Smudging

Hold the can about 12″ (30cm) away from the surface and for best results apply multiple light coats rather 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, and well away from the furniture.

When you’ve 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 is not a clever hack. Do Not Use Hair spray.

For one thing, branded hairspray is not much cheaper than fixative, plus they add conditioners, scents, 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 aerosol spray will be even.

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

A good professional artist would never devalue their work with hairspray.

What Type of Fixative Protects Your Drawings Best?

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

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

This post is related, check it out: 9 Ways to Stop Pencil Shine in a Drawing and Save Your Work!

I won’t lie and tell you that I have tested and compared all the brands out there, because 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 my techniques to it.

How to protect and preserve your drawings. Photo-realistic pencil drawing of a Nile crocodile by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Monster Croc’ From a Pencil Drawing by Kevin Hayler

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

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.

Protect and Preserve Your Pencil Drawings: Final Thoughts

Now you know how to protect and preserve your drawings. The best solution is to not allow anything to touch the surface. Framing is ideal, if not get them mounted and wrapped.

If that is impractical clamp your drawings together so tight they can’t move.

Use fixative sparingly. I advise you to avoid spraying a final top coat if at all possible. Use fixative to build layers in pastel but be cautious with graphite pencils and charcoal.

Personally, I can’t see a good reason why you would use fixative at all for graphite and charcoal drawings. You’ll risk destroying the subtle tonal values you worked so hard to achieve.

It rather defeats the purpose.


If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit:

If you want an alternative to Amazon, check out ARTEZA art supplies or BLICK


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How to protect and preserve your drawings