By Carmi Weingrod
Pastelists have been debating about fixatives since the eighteenth century. Now, after more than two hundred years of dialogue, the questions are still unresolved. Ask any group of pastelists about the topic and you’re likely to hear a volley of responses.
Some use fixative sparingly in the painting process to obtain certain color effects, some use it as a protective finish on completed paintings and others never use it at all. At least there’s agreement on one thing Pastel is a structurally fragile medium susceptible to mechanical injury and that makes paintings created with it difficult to store, frame and transport. Although a final coat of fixative appears to keep some pastel particles intact, it also obliterates the unique color and textural qualities that distinguish pastel from other painting mediums.
Unfortunately, the fixative dialogue delivers no clear cut answers, leaving the ultimate decision up to each pastel artist. Although I can’t you when to use fixative or how much to use or whether to use it at all, I can provide information to help you make the most educated decision possible about using fixatives in your own work, either in the painting process or as a protective coating for the completed work.
Of all the medium available to artist, soft pastel is the closest to painting with pure, dry pigments. Traditionally, soft pastels are made by mixing dry pigment with water gum binder, but the dry pigment never become saturated with a liquid vehicle as they do in the manufacture of paints. Whether extruded from a machine or rolled by hand, the mixture contains just enough binding material to hold the dry ingredients together in stick form, which allows them to be applied without crumbling or breaking.
The marks left by soft pastel on paper don’t actually constitute a true paint film as we know it in oils or acrylics. Rather, pastel forms a loose irregular collection of color particles that settle casually on top of each other. Pockets of air resting in and amongst these particles produce the characteristic light and texture that distinguish pastel from other mediums. This structural feature gives pastel its unique brilliance and beauty but also makes it fragile. Only those color particles that can be held within the texture, or tooth, of the paper will remain intact unless a fixative is applied.
What Happens When You Fix
When you spray a completed painting with a coat of fixative, you permanently alter the delicate structure of loose pastel particles, essentially destroying the unique optical effect that existed in the unfixed state. As each particle becomes saturated with fixative, it collapses until eventually all the particles unite to form a smooth color layer similar to a paint film. The pockets of air and light that Were present in the unfixed collection of particles are now gone, and the resultant pastel layer is darker and flatter. These changes are simply inevitable with fixing. In order for pastel to retain its brilliant, airy quality, it must remain unfixed. If you look at fixed and unfixed pastel samples under a strong magnifying lens or a microscope, that Will clarify what I’ve just described.
Most pastelists never use fixative on a finished painting because it obliterates delicate highlights and causes too great a change in color and texture. Many other pastelists do spray fixative on finished, paintings because the degree of color change is not critical to their imagery or because the paint like look of moistened pastel suits their particular style, the choice is personal.
Although museum conservators stress that permanent color change is unavoidable with fixatives, they’re hesitant either to encourage or discourage their use. Conservators who work with pastels and charcoal drawings, however, are closely monitoring the status of contemporary acrylic-based fixatives for signs of fracturing or yellowing. So far, these fixatives have remained clear on the works to which they were applied up to thirty years ago.
What Happens When You Don’t Fix
Conservators will also attest to the fragility of pastel paintings, supported by the fact that most American museums won’t loan these works for exhibition due to the high risk of damage encountered during transport. For pastelists who exhibit nationally, that’s an issue worth nothing. But over the years, pastel artists who don’t fix their works have developed a variety of solutions to compensate for the medium’s delicacy.
One of these is careful paper selection. Using rough, toothy papers that hold large amounts of pastel particles can eliminate the need to apply fixative. Sanded pastel papers, manufactured by various mills in the United States and Europe, are available in many colors.
Not all are neutral pH, however, so if that’s a concern, check before you buy them. Sennelier’s La Carte Pastel, which comes in fourteen colors, is a 200-lb neutral-pH board with a special abrasive coating that many pastelists find very receptive.
(Schmincke’s Sansfix is another pastel board.) Some pastelist paint on cold-pressed and roug watercolor paper, and others prepare their own grounds-with combinations of gelatin, pumice, and pigment-and brush them onto board. These are by no means the only papers suitable for pastel; traditional light and medium-weight past papers or other textured colored papers can make fine surfaces for pastel paintings. It’s just that papers with particularly rough surfaces have been quite effective in enabling some pastel artists to avoid fixatives and maintain the adherence of pastel particles.
Many “nonfixers” also compensate for pastel’s fragile nature with their framing methods. The most critical factor in framing pastels is allowing sufficient breathing space between the painting and the glazing. The use of double and triple eight-ply mats, as well as invisible frame spacers, can help create a breathing space within the frame, thereby reducing the effects of static and protecting the pastel from damage due to impact.
Both glass and Plexiglas possess static charges that can attract loose pastel particles over time. Plexiglas has the greater static charge, and although you can temper it with a static remover, it does return. Unless you work very large and weight is a factor, glass is actually the recommended glazing material for framing pastels.
Although thoughtful paper selection and framing techniques have helped many who don’t fix their pastels cope with the medium’s delicate nature, only you can decide whether to go this route or apply a fixative to your Work, even though it
permanently alters the color and texture of the pastel structure.
If you’ve never experimented with different fixatives or with varying degrees of their application, here’s a test to determine the degree of color change they’ll cause in your work. Try it and decide how much change you can live with.
I’m familiar with Eve brands of fixatives for pastel: Blair, Krylon, Lascaux, Rowney, and Sennelier (Latour). The active ingredients in each are slightly different, as are the nozzle sizes that distribute the fixative. I suggest you try them all. While it’s difficult to spray each sample exactly the same way, some pastelists swear that one brand produces less color change than another.
Cut twenty scraps (about 4" x 5") of a paper you generally use for pastel. Divide them into five groups, one for each brand of fixative. Label them for each brand as follows:
unfixed Blair #1 Blair #2 Blair #3 Blair. Pick a simple lmage such as an apple Using two or three colors, paint roughly the same apple on all twenty scraps. Set the five unfixed samples aside. Spray the five #1 samples very lightly with each of the five brands as marked. Give the five #2 samples a little heavier spray with each of the brands. Give the five #3 samples a generous spray with each.
When all the samples are dry, pin them to the Wall. Put the unfixed samples in one row and the #1s, #2s and #3s in subsequent rows, Compare the fixed samples with the unfixed ones and see if you can correlate greater changes in color with greater doses of fixative.
Although this test isn't scientific It will allow you to see if one fixative changes color less than another.
Using Fixatives as a Painting Technique
For some years now conservators have been studying the techniques of French pastel masters Edgar Degas and Odilon Redon and have speculated that they might have mixed fixatives during the painting process to obtain color briliancy. Degas who sometimes painted on thin, smooth tracing paper, might have used fixative to create a transparent barrier like a fresh working surface to bu1ld up subsequent layers of color and obtain more brilliance.
Many pastel artists use a similar technique when they see that a particular area doesnt yet have the color intensity they're after but that the paper simply won't hold any more pastel particles.
A very light coat of fixative sprayed in the selected area will sufficiently set the underlying particles so that subsequent layers can be applied and greater intensity can be achieved If no fixative applied to the final layer, the highlight, color intensity, and airy quality of the painting will remain.
Note on Studio Safety
Painting with pastels disperses loose pigment particles into the air so although wearing a respirator all day doesn't sound very comfortable, it may be smart If you use fixative to any extent, at least wear a respirator while spraying even in a well ventilated studio. Fixatives are made from acrylic resins dissolved in organic solvent, and you really don't want to breathe them in, Be sure to buy a NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety Health) approved respirator and check the fit carefully, to test it, block the air inlets inhale and hold your breath for thirty seconds. if the face piece doesn't collapse around your face, the respirator doesn't fit properly. (Women with small faces may not find a good fit and men with facial hair won't get a suficient seal).
The Debate Goes On
It appears that the fixative controversy will move along with us. Some pastelists will continue to fix their painting and live with the changes it brings to their original conception, others will leave their paintings unfixed and with the risk of mechanical injury.
Hopefully you'll pick the option that works best for you.
"Carmi Weingrod has been involved with the art-materials industry since 1986 and has written about the manufacture of art products from all over the world".