Pastel Fixative Options

A. I recently learned that some people use a handheld clothes steamer to help fix pastels after the painting is finished. Apparently, the pastels return to their normal color once they dry and are less likely to create dust. Do you have any recommendations pro or con about this method? Are there other ways to fix pastels?

Q. A spray can of old-fashioned pastel fixative (resin dissolved in alcohol) is an essential tool in my studio. I primarily work on large sheets of paper, and fixing the finished pastel increases the odds for the long-term survival of the work without causing surface damage.

The goal in using a fixative is to stabilize the pigment, not to render it impervious to touch. Let your eye and your touch determine how much fixative to apply. Applying too much of any fixative will darken the color of the medium. When a fixative darkens the value or renders a color transparent, touch up the affected colors, but do not apply another layer of fixative. The fixative will strengthen the archival foundation of the work while the final layers of colors remain untouched and vibrant.

Some fixatives may also be used between pastel layers. Daler-Romney and Sennelier are my two favorite brands of resin-based fixative, which can be used both between layers and as a final protective coating. Krylon Workable Fixative, which adds a slight tooth to the surface, can also be used between layers.

Lascaux spray, an acrylic-based fixative, should not be used between layers, but it’s a first-class choice for a final protective coat, being both archival and nonyellowing. Be aware, however, that spraying too heavily with an acrylic-based fixative entombs a pastel under a suffocating layer of plastic.

An alternative to spray fixatives is to steam fix the final layer of pastel. (Steam fixing is not an appropriate technique to use between pastel layers.) The steam softens the gum binder in the pastel and causes the pastel particles to bind to the ground, reducing the free-floating dust particles of a framed pastel. Although steam stabilizes the pigment, the pastel will still come off when rubbed.

To steam fix a pastel, fill a household iron or clothing steamer with distilled water (not tap water) and lightly steam the pastel about two inches above the surface. Be sure there’s no dripping water. The pigment particles will darken and swell with moisture, but the original color returns as the pigment dries. Let the work dry completely overnight.

Remember, whatever your fixing method, the final step for preserving a pastel is to frame it under protective glass.

Note: This article first appeared in the November 2008 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, available at www.northlightshop.com.

Jimmy Wright is a master pastelist of the Pastel Society of America. Visit his website at www.jimmywrightartist.com.

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