Soft pastels are easy to blend, mix, and apply, and are a great dry medium when you need to work quickly or paint outdoors. They require no brushes, water, or blending mediums, and their brilliant colors create beautiful, bright works of art.
Unfortunately, pastels can also be quite messy to use, and for this reason, many artists shy away from it. Yes, one of the tools available to pastel artists is spray fixative, but using a spray fixative has its pros and cons. . .
Here are a few tips to help you decide if you should “fix” your work as you paint with soft pastel:
When you SHOULD use fixative
Pastel is very easy to apply, but it also has a tendency to “move” on the paper, or rub off if the painting is touched. Spraying an occasional light layer of fixative over your painting as you work can help your pastels stay in place, so that you can build your painting in layers without feeling like you’re wiping the chalk back off as you go.
You may also want to use your fixative to deepen your dark values, especially during the middle point of a painting (that’s when I usually worry that my darks have gotten a little lost in all the color).
Maybe you don’t like the idea of using fixative during the painting process—that’s OK! Many artists and framers will use a fixative spray before putting a pastel work into a frame, so that the dust doesn’t rub off onto the mat and glass.
If you’re comfortable using fixative (either during or after painting) it can definitely be an effective tool to help “bind” your pastels in place so that you end up with a finished piece that feels like it will stay put even as it goes through the slightly bumpy journey of framing or traveling.
When you SHOULDN’T use fixative
Using too much fixative can quickly ruin a pastel piece. You’ll know if too much fixative has been used because it will be difficult or impossible to add more pastel to your painting. The surface will be slippery, and won’t hold any more chalk.
Using a spray fixative can also pose a risk to the artist’s health. It has an extremely strong odor that lingers, and it comes in a highly flammable aerosol can. Many artists also do not like the effect that spray fixatives have on the colors and values in their paintings—it tends to darken a painting, and can give the pastel a grainy texture if not used sparingly or covered with a new layer of pastel.
If any of those “side effects” worry you, fixative may not be for you. OR, you may want to use it very sparingly.
I went through a period of several years where I wouldn’t let fixative touch my pastel (even though I’d been using it regularly as I learned to paint with pastels). Although I’ve returned to using fixative in some of my pieces, I always recommend that buyers do not let a framer spray fixative on the finished piece if it’s going into a new frame.
I make that recommendation based on the fact that the buyer usually likes the look of the finished piece, and a layer of fixative over that finished piece is likely to dull the colors and change the look of the painting.
Obviously, once the painting is out of my hands, I don’t have any control over what happens to it. I do however feel that buyers should have fair warning that what seems like a quick spray of a chemical made to preserve the pastel and keep it in place will in fact permanently change the look of the painting.
If you use pastel regularly, you’re probably going to develop your own preference regarding fixative, and may find yourself changing your mind as you change your process. One very important thing to remember, however, is that spray fixative should always be used outdoors. It has a strong odor and is not something you should breathe if you can help it.
You should also be sure to follow ALL safety directions on the can. If you’re painting for a demonstration (or just painting around other people) you need to take your pastel far away from others before you spray it—the fumes might not bother you, but they could be dangerous to those who are sensitive to them.
8 tips for using spray fixative
1. Take your piece outside, and prop it up if possible. Stand a couple of feet back, making sure the can is at least a foot away from the painting. Shake the can and give it a light, even spray, working from left to right.
2. Remember, you can always add more fixative as you need it, but if you overspray it your pastel painting it can quickly turn into a sticky mess.
3. Be mindful of wind as you spray, as this will affect where the fixative lands.
4. You can let the pastel dry in place or gently wave it to help it along (I do this if I’m painting a demo). If you have time, leave it outside for a while to let it completely dry—this will help reduce the odor when you bring it back in to work on it.
5. I’ve found that spray fixative works best on toothy surfaces made for dry media (such as textured pastel paper) and becomes difficult to use on surfaces made for wet media (such as watercolor paper). I’ve used it successfully on flat canvas, as long as it was done sparingly.
6. Be careful if you are using a spray fixative on mixed media. I’ve used a touch of it when combining pastel with acrylic, but painting mediums such as oil pastel and oil paint need to breathe, and will suffer under a spray fixative.
7. Fixative tends to stain watercolor, so I wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve painted pastel on top of watercolor. In general, if you’ve combined pastel with the mediums listed on the can of fixative (charcoal, pencil, etc) it will probably work fine.
8. Remember that a spray fixative will not “seal” your work. Fixative is made to hold the pastel in place so you can continue to paint, or to prevent some of the dust from easily rubbing off when you handle the painting.
There are some options out there for spraying a pastel painting to seal it (such as those done on canvas), but spray fixative that comes in a can is really just a quick tool to help “control” your pastels. It may help your painting process, but expecting more of it than that will probably just leave you disappointed.
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