Whether or not to use a fixative is one of the most discussed issues in the pastel community. It ranks right up there with rubbing pastel. As I discussed in the 9/16/08 blog post, this is a very personal issue that can affect technique, appearance and conservation.
Historically, fixatives were made of natural resins suspended in alcohol and blown onto the surface. Currently, most fixatives utilize an aerosol propellant and are frequently acrylic-based. Depending on the resin and the means of application, a variety of appearance changes can occur. Individual pastel brands and surface choices also play a role in how the fixative reacts. The most common effect is a general darkening of the overall appearance and a dulling of bright colors. Many painters have simply opted to avoid the use of fixative altogether unless their technique relies on it to facilitate multiple layers of pastel.
Recently, I’ve learned about a new product on the market called Spectrafix. Based on research into the working methods of Edgar Degas, Della Heywood discovered that the most likely fixative he used was casein-based. Casein is milk protein, non-toxic, and considered extremely archival. By suspending it in pure grain alcohol and utilizing a pump mist sprayer, Heywood managed to avoid the environmentally unfriendly aerosol can for this product. The product is available in a 12-ounce pump bottle or in a 2-ounce concentrate that accommodates air travel. The concentrate can then be mixed in a small pump mist bottle with a variety of alcohol-based products. This is a great way for the fixative-utilizing pastelist to travel to those exotic locations without having to compromise their technique.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve put both the premixed and concentrate version of SpectraFix through a series of tests with very satisfying results. First, I wanted to see if it created any major color shifts and darkening effects. After testing the premixed version on a variety of surfaces using various pastel brands, I found little to no change in the appearance of the pastel once it dried. Even when the mist pump bottle created the appearance of larger wet blotches, they disappeared after drying.
Then I experimented with the concentrate, diluted in pure grain alcohol, available from most liquor stores. The information provided with the product as well as on their website list appropriate solutions that can be readily found when traveling. Stronger or weaker dilutions can easily be made with the concentrate, providing a variety of technique possibilities. This will become part of my travel kit in the future, providing flexibility when working away from the studio.
After years of avoiding fixative, I can say with confidence that I have found a new tool for pastel painting.