Are Fixatives Right for Watercolorists?

Ask the Experts: Are Fixatives Right for Watercolorists?

by James Toogood

Q. Is there a fixing agent for watercolor that will set the paint?

A. Watercolor is often erroneously thought to be an overly delicate and fugitive medium, causing some artists to look for a way to affix their watercolors to the paper. Fixative is the term used for a variety of transparent materials, such as varnish or shellac, that are applied by spraying and have, at times, been used with media like charcoal, graphite and pastel to keep them from smudging. There’s an ongoing debate about the wisdom of using fixatives at all.

Regardless of that debate, using a fixative or any fixing agent on your watercolors is not recommended. Fixatives inhibit the process of expansion and contraction necessary to stabilize works on paper. What’s more, fixatives can dry to a hard finish and can even cause your watercolor paper to buckle and the paint to crack.

To protect your watercolor, simply mat and frame your painting, glazing it with glass or plexiglass.

James Toogood, a signature member of the American Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society, teaches at the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts, in New York City; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia; and Perkins Center for the Arts, in Moorestown, New Jersey. Visit his website at

Watercolor Tips: Ask the Experts author James Toogood gives advice on lifting watercolor as he paints clouds.


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