Varnish vs. Fixatives - Should I Use Them?

I've finished my art. Should I use a varnish or a fixative on it? Is there a difference between the two?

Featured art by Sophie on Strathmore 400 Series Toned Gray Mixed Media Paper

Varnishes and fixatives are two different things. 

A spray fixative is used to "fix" or seal the drawing material (usually graphite, charcoal or pastel) so that it does not smear as easily. There are "workable" fixatives that allow you to spray or seal a certain part of a drawing, then continue to work on the paper with more mediums. 

A varnish is used to change the sheen of the artwork and protect it from absorbing pollutants from the environment. It often is available in a variety of finishes including gloss, satin and matte. 


Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference.

Fixative: If you work in charcoal, pastel or graphite, you may like to use a workable fixative to seal one part of the drawing and work over the top of it for another part. If you're worried about your finished piece smearing, a fixative may be for you. Others feel once the art is in a frame, it will be securely in place and safe from any potential damage.

Varnish: Many like the way their art looks as is on paper or canvas, so no varnish is needed. Typically if art is going to be framed, a varnish is not necessary as the glass will cover the piece and create it's own sheen. If you think a gloss, satin or matte finish would complement your art and make it look more complete, a varnish may be just for you.

There is also a difference between varnishing a painting on canvas or board versus varnishing a drawing on paper. If you are varnishing a drawing on paper, you will probably need to use a spray varnish. When varnishing a drawing on paper, the varnish will absorb into the fibers of the paper and into the various drawing materials. If the drawing materials are dry (i.e. graphic, charcoal, pastel), the drawing will smudge when the varnish is applied with a brush, which is why a spray should be used. 

You may need several coats. The spray varnish on paper is not removable, as it sinks into the paper fibers and possibly drawing materials. It is advisable to do a test with a "scrap" drawing using a spray varnish. This test scrap drawing should be on the same paper and with the same drawing materials as the artwork you want to varnish. This will give you a good indication of finished results and help you determine whether or not the drawing should be sprayed.

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