Fixatives for pencil drawings

A reader wrote to me a week ago (apologies for the delay) and asked:

What exactly is a fixative for pencil/graphite drawings? How and why should it be used? Is there a special kind?

There definitely is a special kind! So forget the use of hairspray as championed by a few artists. Why use a product designed for gluing hair together, with its unknown future problems, when you can use a product carefully formulated by scientists for just the purpose in hand.

I am by no means an expert on this matter but I do always use a fixative on my drawing on completion. In my case I use Winsor & Newton’s “Fixative for Pastel, Charcoal and Pencil”.

A good fixative not only fixes the loose graphite to the paper to prevent smudging, it also contains a UV filter to help to prevent yellowing (or aging) of the paper by sunlight.

I would always recommend its use…

…and here’s how…

    * Place scrap paper at either side of your drawing
    * Spray on one sheet until you are certain it won’t spit
    * Pass the spray across your drawing
    * Repeat in the other direction.
    * Many light coats are better than one heavy coat.

The most immediate effect is that the sheen will disappear from the drawing and your blacks and darks will noticeably deepen in tone. They are not actually altered but just retuned to what they should have looked like had the flat plate-like graphite grains not reflected stray light.

Mounted or Unmounted paper?

Michael Benee wrote to ask:

“I have just finished my first dog portrait, and I mounted the cartridge paper onto a mounting board before I started. I notice that you use a heavy weight Mellotex paper is this so that there is no need for mounting, and is this how you supply your originals to your clients i.e.unmounted?”

You don’t say how you mounted your drawing paper to the stiffer support. I’d recommend vacuum mounting by your local framer, because other methods (spray adhesives, for example) may not be permanent or may bleed through to the surface with time.

I don’t ever mount my drawing paper mainly because I detest any “bounce” in the paper as I’m drawing. A smooth and hard surface beneath my Mellotex means that the mark I make is the mark as I intended it – not one that sinks into a soft surface that interferes with my control. If your paper is lightweight, change to a heavier weight and place it on a melamine or similarly hard surface, such as a drawing board. Even tabletop drawing boards usually possess such a surface.

Another reason why I don’t mount my paper is that most of my work is destined to be released as limited edition prints. That means it has to be scanned and, in my opinion, you can’t beat a laser drum scanner, which demands that the paper be sufficiently flexible to wrap around the scanner’s drum.

When (rarely these days) I present a commissioned original to my client it is always in its raw state – trimmed to a suitable size and displayed in a custom-made matboard folder. The folder protects the drawing and doubles as a presentation easel, further protecting the drawing from being handled.

Michael added:

“Please find enclosed a pic of my first attempt at drawing my dog, any comments would be welcomed with open arms”

Copper by Michael Benee
Copper by Michael Benee

For a first attempt (even for a tenth) this is admirable! Weimaraners suit graphite so well. The eyes are beautifully studied and executed and sufficient directional facial hair suggests the texture. My only criticisms are that the texture does not extend to the muzzle, which appears to be too smooth; that the dog overall is too tidy (it’s the out of place hairs, flecks of foam etc that add a sense of reality); and the nose has a highlight suggesting a shine, although Weimaraners have quite a dry, non-reflective nose.

Finally, just a personal preference, I would have feathered the bottom edge of the neck to suggest an unseen continuation.

That said, well done!