How to Fix a Pastel Painting Using Spray Fixative

Ensure the pastel stays on the paper!

Soft pastels needs fixative
Protect the hard work you've put into a pastel painting by applying fixative!. Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Pastel should be fixed, as otherwise there's not much holding it to the paper. Think about what a pastel is made from -- pigment with very little binder. You apply it to the surface of the paper with a little pressure, with the paper abrading the pigment from the stick. There's no "glue" keeping it attached to the surface of the paper nor has it soaked into the paper as happens with paint.

Arguments against using fixative do exist, with the darkening of colors being the most prevalent, but the risk of the pastel falling off the paper into a pile of dust at the bottom of a frame outweighs everything (and darkening can be minimized by correctly handling of fixative. A second advantage of using fixative is that it can improve the lightfastness of the final painting.

Types of Fixatives

Before you start, be sure what you're using is pastel fixative, not spray varnish nor an oil pastel fixative nor a colored pencil fixative. Sometimes it's sold as "workable fixative", meaning you can continue to apply pastel or charcoal on top of a coat once it's dried (which takes seconds). Also check whether the label says anything about leaving a glossy finish, which is something a pastel painting doesn't usually have. Always read the label so you're sure what you're using!

Don't use fixative close to other people and don't use it in a confined space. Ideally, go outside. (If it's windy, stand with your back to the wind so it doesn't blow onto you.) Remember too that the fixative probably has alcohol in it and is, therefore flammable.

Using hairspray to fix pastel is an option, and can save a lot of money. Look at the cheaper options as you want to buy one without any added conditioners or oils. Get an unscented one if at all possible as a portfolio of paintings that reeks of various scented hairsprays is never pleasant! It is also possible to use a watered down (say 10 percent water, too much water may warp the paper) acrylic matt medium in an emergency, applied with a diffuser or misting spray.

How to Use the Fixative

There are two main schools of thought on how you should apply the fixative to the picture: holding the picture vertically or horizontally. If you go for the vertical school of thought, make sure you do it back and forth across the picture horizontally, dropping from top to bottom on subsequent sweeps -- the reason for this is that you can use the temporary darkening of the picture to indicate where a continuous layer of fixative has already settled and spray beneath it. And as you work down the painting, the already sprayed regions do not receive further layers of fixative. (If you spray from the bottom to top you risk adding additional fixative to those areas you have already sprayed because gravity will pull some of the spray down.)

The alternative approach is to lay the picture flat on the ground and spray into the air above it, allowing gravity to pull the fixative down onto the surface. The area of dispersal with this method can be greater, reducing the overall impact of the fixative and creating a thinner layer.

A light touch with fixative is the best approach. Don't soak the painting, but rather apply a second coat when the first is dry (or if you're using reworkable fixative, using some during the creation of the painting, in "lower layers" as it were).

For both approaches spray around a foot (25 to 30 cm) away from the painting and make sure that you shake the fixative well before hand (to give an even mix of contents). If you prefer not to use aerosols, see if you can find a brand that comes in a pump-action diffuser.