Ask any pastelist whether or not they use fixative, and you will undoubtedly get a most fervent opinion. Some see it as an essential part of their pastel layering technique; others utilize it only at the end to add stability to a finished pastel painting; and many avoid its use altogether due to the potential for altering the appearance of pastel.
When using fixative, it’s important to remember that its purpose is to add stability to the fine pastel pigment, not to render it hard as a rock. A few light applications are often better than a heavy application. One consequence of fixative application can be a general weakening of color brilliance, diminishing (sinking) of white, and darkening of the overall value range. If this occurs, wait for the fixative to dry and gently reapply the desired pastel.
The term “fixative” signifies a chemical substance used to fix or stabilize something. Various fixing ingredients—such as casein (milk protein), varnish-based (resin dissolved in alcohol), and acrylic (plastics)—have been used for fixing experimentation since the origin of pastel as a fine art medium. The commercially available fixatives of today, just like various brands of manufactured pastel sticks and surfaces, have distinct characteristics. Some are better suited as workable fixatives; others are best as final fixatives; and a few work well for both purposes. In advance of any serious painting, it’s advisable to experiment with how a fixative will interact with a specific pastel brand and surface. A certain amount of appearance shift is to be expected but can vary greatly depending on these factors. (A helpful overview of commercial pastel fixatives is available at Dakota Art Pastels website.)
An artist I greatly admire that relies heavily on fixative for his pastel painting process is Pastel Society of America president and Master Pastelist, Jimmy Wright. Known for his large, emotionally charged portrait/figurative work and expressive, textual sunflower portrayals, Jimmy relies on frequent applications of casein-based SpectraFix or varnish-based Daler-Rowney Perfix fixative to help in the buildup of multiple layers of pastel that produce his stunning end results. His paintings are done on the smooth-side of large sheets of watercolor or etching paper, which may or may not include an acrylic pastel ground. Jimmy says, “Keep in mind that my work method involves spontaneity, forceful application of color, numerous layers and large-scale grounds. Both Redon and Degas used fixative as part of their painting process. I find that it works that way for me too. Beware of other artist’s experiences, especially if you are being told to never use fixatives. You have to use a variety of brands before finding what works for you.”
After seeing the results of fixative use in the experienced hands of Jimmy Wright, we should all be encouraged to heed his advice and give it a try. Ultimately, it may not be the technique injection you require, but, then again, it might just be the fix.