Charcoal Art Fixative: The Controversy Explained

Man sketching with charcoal

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Charcoal is a delicate medium that, while fun to work with, is not without its problems. Chief among those problems is the fact that it's easy to smudge or lose detail. Even the most careful handling can cause damage and this leads artists to wonder how they can protect their charcoal work. "Fixing" is a common way to do so, yet it comes with some controversy.

A spray fixative can alter the look of a drawing, hence why its use is controversial. The effect may be minimal, but it is noticeable to the trained eye—yet it is the best way to protect charcoal from future damage. As an artist, you need to weigh the pros and cons of this finishing technique and decide for yourself.

Why Fixing Charcoal Is a Good Idea

It can be difficult to find a definitive "expert" answer on this subject, as opinions seem to vary. There is no question that fixative does slightly change the appearance of a charcoal drawing and some artists dislike it for this reason. However, when used correctly, a fixative can actually strengthen your drawing. It allows for greater layering and ensures that fine dustings of charcoal aren't lost. So in my opinion: yes, you should fix your charcoal drawing.

In my experience, unfixed charcoal drawings are extremely vulnerable to surface damage. The slightest movement can dislodge particles and reduce the intensity of tone and dirty the highlights. Also, an accidental touch can leave a noticeable smudge.

Even if a drawing is framed, movement, vibration, and temperature changes can still affect the drawing. Besides, the drawing must still be transported to, and then handled by, the framer.

You have put a lot of work into your charcoal drawing—do you really want to risk it? This is the question every artist must answer for themself.

Tips for Fixing Your Charcoal Drawing

The hardiness of a charcoal drawing can be slightly improved by choosing a toothy, velvety paper that grips the particles well. Willow and vine charcoals tend to be very delicate, while compressed and pencil charcoals are a little stickier.

For best results, carefully apply a couple of very light coats of spray fixative. If need be, retouch the drawing afterward as the fixative can act as a "glue" underneath the charcoal.

The major error that people make when using fixative is to apply a heavy coat that saturates the paper. This makes the particles of charcoal float into the grain of the paper and compromises the finer details.

If you have not sprayed fixative before, choose a few practice drawings to spray first. This will give you a good idea of pressure, distance, and the amount of spray to add in each layer. It's best to make all your mistakes on a drawing you don't care about than on your finished masterpiece.

No matter your experience level, it's always a good idea to do a practice spray before every session. The nozzle on your fixative may be clogged up from the last use or the can may have been exposed to temperatures that ruined the spray. Any number of factors can cause the first spray to come out in spurts or globs and it's a quick way to ruin a great drawing.