Fixative and varnish uses

fixative and varnish spray

Fixative sprays and varnishes

Fixative is a liquid made with either resin or casein. It can evaporate quickly. A transparent media that it is, when used onto dry artwork, it stabilizes the pigment or graphite on the surface, thereby protecting it.
Whereas varnishes alter the surface of finished work and it also protects the work from dust.

When to use varnish and when to use a fixative spray

When working on paper, the surface is absorbent by nature. Hence the best method to protect the work from dirt and dust is to use a fixative spray instead of a varnish—reason being which, the varnish can sink into the fibers of the paper, thereby causing smudging.
When your work is on canvas or board, you can go ahead and use a fixative spray.

Two types of fixative sprays and their use.

Workable fixative spray: A workable fixative spray application is where you can use it more than one time. In between layers of work, fixatives sprays play an essential role. At times the paper can’t accept the medium beyond a certain level. 

Drawing/coloring paper’s accepting capacity breaks when we apply a lot of pressure on the paper to lose its tooth. Paper or surface breaks, it’s tendency usually because due to the application of high pressure during initial layers. During this stage of a painting, workable fixative spray can work wonders. When used on this toothless surface, it regains the ‘tooth’; thereby, the surface becomes viable again.

Final fixative spray:  Use a final layer of fixative to seal your work and avoid smudging. Use workable fixative when you have multiple layers. It is put to use at the end. When misused, it can dissolve the pigments or change the color of the paper significantly. 

Hence it is always recommended to hold it at a particular distance, which we will discuss shortly.

What mediums require fixative spray

  • Graphite/charcoal/pastels: Fixative sprays hold an essential role in these mediums. During these mediums, you should use final and workable fixatives.  
  • Watercolor: Yes! You can use fixative sprays on watercolor paintings. It’s best to avoid using these as users have experienced cracking of paints in the later stage. It is better to seal the paintings with glass instead.
  • Acrylics: Artists have reported success while using Sennelier D’Artigny Oil Pastel Fixative(designed for varnishing pastel work) and also Krylon Kamar spray varnish for acrylics.

Best practices while using a fixative spray

  1. Fixative sprays are to be put to use under proper ventilation. Hence make sure that you have enough air supply.
  2. Shake your spray bottle a few times. Hold your artwork vertically.
  3. Stay away from your artwork 2 feet away, at least. 
  4. Hold your fixative bottle and artwork vertically and spray very gently like a mist across the entire artwork.
  5. Leave this layer for drying for about 5-6 minutes. 
  6. Now you can go back and add further layers in the same fashion.

 Store the bottle upside down and away from children

Mediums that use varnish

  • Acrylics: Acrylic painters often use either gloss or matte to varnish their work. We will discuss further the differences between them.
  • Oils: Varnishing in oil painting is rather a tricky process. As oils undergo oxidation, they need to cure completely. If the process stops midway, then the oxidation process is stops resulting in cracks. Hence precaution, you need to take complete care.

Varnish: When to use gloss and when to use matte variants

It is a matter of choice, and they both have their shares of pros and cons.

If a matte surface is the choice of preference, matte varnish can be the right choice. Matte varnishes are better in terms of the clean look, and its photographs without glare. But there is a drawback. Matte varnishes are surface absorbent. When applied onto a surface, they sometimes give a milky effect – This is mainly due to the separation of polymer agents and matte. 

To avoid this occurrence, an initial coat of gloss varnish has to be there, followed by matte varnish. As gloss varnish is non-absorbent, it provides a flat surface for the matte varnish.

For gloss finish, the surface can be directly coated with the medium.

The inability to have photographs of the work without glare or sheen(at undesirable places) is the drawback of using gloss varnish.

Best practices while using varnishes

  1. The first step is to lay the surface flat in a place where it can lie undisturbed for a long time until it dries up.
  2. It is always advisable to have a wooden board to allow the varnish drip onto the surface below. It is usually easy to remove the varnish, but it might cause damage to the work.
  3. Dip your brush into the varnish and move your brush in a parallel. Make sure your strokes are from one end to another.
  4. Tilt your head at an angle to see if the coating is even. Go back and varnish it if you notice any left out spaces.
  5.  Allow the varnish to dry for some hours – preferably 2-3 hours before you can give the second coat. In most cases, two layers of varnish are sufficient to seal the work and provide the required sheen.
  6. You can use freshly washed fingers to touch and confirm if your latest coat has dried up.

Quick FAQ’s about fixative and varnish spray

Out of varnish and fixative, which one is best suited for the dry medium?

Fixative sprays are the right way to go about sealing the dry mediums. They don’t tend to smudge out or interfere with the medium when it is put to use, unlike the varnishes.

How to have a more controlled method of using a fixative spray?

The best way is to shake the bottle well and spray briefly for a few seconds to clear the nozzle before the actual application can happen.

Is it possible to differentiate between varnished and unvarnished surfaces?

With gloss varnish, it is possible with the sheen that it gives whereas Matte, in most cases, dries up without a trace.

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7 thoughts on “Fixative and varnish uses

  1. Noah Enholm says:

    My favorite fixative for pastel is Sennelier. The label says it is a soft pastel fixative but I’ve got a nice experience using it with oil pastels. I would spray it on my pastel artwork with a couple of light coats, and it gives off a beautiful, colourless matte finish every time.

    1. ayushpaper says:

      Hey Noah!

      Thank you very much for sharing your feedback. I’m sure whoever is in search of fixatives that can be used on oil pastels your reply will help them.

  2. Simcha says:

    Do i understand correctly. Workable fixative can be used safely on acrylic paint on canvas? Same way as kamar varnish and krylon diversified matte finish?

    1. Nahid says:

      Hi Simcha,

      Workable fixative sprays are generally used for dry media. They are usually light and meant to be used in between layers. As mentioned in the blog, a final sealant should be used in the end; in addition to workable sealant as workable sealant are not long lasting.
      As far as I know, workable sealant don’t help to seal final acrylic paintings as they are not permanent.
      Hence it is not advisable to use them here.

      I hope your query has been clarified. Do let me know if you’ve further doubts.


  3. Ed Bohon says:

    I used a matt varnish over a thoroughly dry oil painting. It did not give me the matt look I desire, but looks glossy. Is it safe to use a matt fixative on top of the varnish, or do you have another suggestion?

    1. Nahid says:

      Hi Ed,

      The recommended way to use a Matte varnish is to apply 1-2 thin layers of it on a thoroughly dried painting, with a minimum gap of 3 hours between each thin coat.
      Matte varnish is surface absorbent. The cloudy/milky appearance is due to the separation of polymer agents and matte.

      For matte effect: It’s generally advisable to use a gloss varnish first and after it dries up, we can go ahead with matte varnish.

      Please refer the article given below

      Fo fixing the current situation, please do check with instructions given in the specific brand of varnish that you’ve used. Check if it is removable and do follow the steps given.

      After it has been removed, you can go ahead with the gloss->matte approach that I had mentioned earlier.

      Please let us know if you have further queries.


      1. Ed Bohon says:

        Thanks for your reply. I’ll do as you suggest.

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