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Pastel drawings and fixative

I like to think that the internet has a positive side. I ask my new students each quarter to define the internet. What is it? The best answer I ever got was this:

“It’s the consciousness of the modern world”

I like that explanation. When we google stuff we are basically asking the world, via the internet. I sometimes frequent websites devoted to art. On one of those today someone asked  if they should spray fixative on a pastel drawing. This is a common concern, especially in the frame making community.

No one wants to frame a pastel and then have  it returned to the shop because the pastel dust slid down and got trapped between the matts and the glass. It makes an unsightly mess. It’s easily fixed, but takes about an hour each painting. It involves opening up the frame and carefully vacuuming and or erasing with a sticky gum eraser until the matt and glass is clean. An easy fix is to use matts that have some speckle in them. And to build in a ‘dust catcher slot’ in the frame. This is basically a 1/8″ slot of air between the pastel and the first matt. So if pastel dust falls, it drops into the slot and doesn’t make  a mess.

Here is the message I wrote on the art website explaining all this:

Spray fix is important for a pencil drawing. However, if you care about your pastel drawings, never, ever spray them. The fixative turns a bright white pastel mark to dull gray. Something about the fix kills the highlights.

To store a pastel, get some shiny paper, such as the kind that glossy magazines are printed on. You can get this from large print shops, probably for free. They use it to get their printing presses ready for a production run. It’s called ‘make-ready’ stock, 80# enamel gloss. Use removable tape and tape the shiny paper to the top edge of the pastel drawing. The pastel won’t stick to the shiny paper…or, at least, not enough of it to matter.

This allows you to view the pastel by lifting – hinging up the protective shiny paper, and then flop it back down when you want to store the pastel. I typically tape two sheets of cardboard together and carry a dozen pastel paintings in my plein air backpacking kit. When I want to frame a pastel, I pull the shiny paper off, wipe it down and use it for another pastel.

Also, when you do go to frame them behind glass, hold the pastel up and smack it sharply on the back numerous times with your thumb. This knocks off all the loose pastel dust. Examine the pastel, make sure it doesn’t need touch up, and then smack it again. Once it’s framed under glass, it’s good for hundreds of years.

If a few pastel specks float down off the painting after framing, they will drop down into the ‘dust catcher slot’ between the pastel and the first matt, which should be about 1/8″.

Appropriate uses for fix on a pastel drawing might be where you have overpainted a section and the paper won’t accept anymore pastel because you’ve covered up the ‘tooth’ of the surface. Your options are:
(1.) to brush the pastel off with a stiff brush like a toothbrush, which gives your paper back it’s tooth, or
(2.) to spray fix on that area, which glues the pastel down and creates tooth from the glued down pigment.

But fix is smelly, and it’s better to use a paper with high tooth (Rives BFK) or one of the sanded papers, and be careful not to overwork the tooth.


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