How To Preserve A Pencil Drawing
Drawing can be an incredibly time-intensive activity, and a lot of effort goes into getting them just right. I began drawing with graphite as a teenager, and like so many pencil illustrators, I made one of the most common beginner’s mistakes. I forgot to preserve my work!
After spending countless hours perfecting my linework and obsessing over the realism of my shading, I threw my finished work on a shelf and forgot about it. Imagine my surprise and disappointment, when a few months later, I pulled down my masterpieces only to find them smudged, faded, and unrecognizable.
Preserving a drawing is a relatively simple and easy process. It should be done both while in the process of drawing and once the work has been completed. One of the simplest ways to do this is with an artist-grade fixative spray.
How do you preserve a pencil drawing?
For preserving pencil drawings one has multiple options. The most common option is to use so-called fixative sprays to apply either while or after working on an artwork depending on the spray. Alternatives would be laminating or framing.
Let's get more into detail concerning the usage of said fixative sprays. What are the different types of sprays and in what ways should you apply them? Let's dive right in.
I. What Are Fixative Sprays?
Fixative sprays are used widely in the art community, and they are inexpensive and very easy to find. You can pick them up at your local craft store, order them online, and you can even find them at big box stores such as Walmart and Target in the crafting sections.
A fixative is a clear liquid that consists of two main components.
The first is a resin or something similar that will preserve your artwork. The second, is something that will evaporate quickly like alcohol. Most drawing fixatives are sold in aerosol cans and sprayed directly onto dry media artwork.
The reason that fixatives are used has to do with the mechanics of drawing itself. When a pencil artist creates a picture, they do so by depositing graphite particles onto the surface of a piece of paper. Though paper looks smooth to the naked eye, its surface is rough and made of fibers. The roughness of the fibers catches the graphite. The more particles that are deposited into the fibers, the darker the picture appears.
Unfortunately, graphite particles are smooth and flat. This means that they can shift easily on the paper’s surface. This is good when using techniques that call for smudging, but not so great when an artist is trying to preserve their work. Fixatives adhere the graphite to the surface of the paper and prevent the shifting from happening.
When choosing a fixative spray, you should keep a few things in mind. The first, is that there are different types:
The first type is used while the drawing is still in the process of being completed. This is called a workable fixative. The second type is called the final fixative and is meant to be used after a drawing is finished.
Workable fixatives are generally lighter in consistency than final fixatives. They have a matte finish, which essentially creates a new surface to the drawing and allows artists to continue adding medium. This is useful for a few different reasons.
Because, there is a maximum amount of graphite which can be added onto a paper’s surface, creating a new surface using fixative increases the amount of graphite an artist can deposit. This allows for additional layering and detail, especially if the surface of the paper becomes unworkable from too much graphite.
It also allows for a smoother finish when shading. Graphite does not adhere uniformly to paper when drawing. If you look closely at a line drawn with a pencil, you can see where the flakes of graphite have missed the surface of the paper. By creating an additional surface, you can cover these areas, which creates a more even and lifelike appearance.
Workable fixative sprays also don’t have to be applied evenly to an entire drawing. This means you can preserve different parts of your drawing as you work towards the finished product. This is helpful when trying to avoid smudging.
The second type - final fixatives - are exactly what they sound like. They are the final step to completing a drawing, and they should only be applied after you are sure that you are completely done making any additions or alterations to your work. Unlike workable fixatives, final fixatives come in both matte and glossy finishes.
II. Using Fixative Sprays
Before using any sort of fixative spray, you should always test spray it on a scrap surface with the same media you are using in your final work. This is because fixatives tend to darken your pictures, and this can take away from the highlighted areas.
When using a workable fixative, you can simply erase through the fixative to lighten the area. When using a final fixative though, you should make sure that the brand of fixative you are using is one you are familiar with. This makes it easier to predict how much you can expect your pencil work to darken with each coat.
Be sure to use the specific instructions for the brand of fixative you are using. However, the following are some good general practices to go by:
Fixatives should always be used in a well-ventilated area and away from open flames.
Fixatives work best when used at a temperature above 65 degrees Fahrenheit and when the humidity is below 60%.
When spraying a fixative, be sure that your artwork is flat and that you have protected the surrounding surfaces. I tend to spray my artwork against a concrete floor. Garages and driveways work well for this.
Please be sure to shake the can for 1 to 2 minutes before use. This is very important for matte finishes as it mixes the solution and makes for an even application.
Remember to check the nozzle of the spray can before using it to make sure that it's clear. You can do this by spraying a few times onto scrap paper first. This is to make sure that the fixative does not come out in clumps, and it also ensures an even application.
During application, make sure that you hold the can at least 12 inches from the paper. Any closer and the spray can form droplets on your artwork which will dry unevenly. These droplets can also pool and run down your artwork’s surface leaving streaks.
Keep in mind that it is best to apply light coats. You can always go back and apply more fixative, but it is almost impossible to lighten a piece of work where too much fixative has been applied.
Finally, many websites suggest using hairspray as a cheap and easy alternative. While this can work in the short-term, you should keep in mind that hairspray often has a damaging effect in the long term. This is because the chemicals used in hairspray, while similar to art grade fixatives, are not designed to preserve your work over time.
Oftentimes, these drawings end up yellowing and fading. Furthermore, if the hairspray you use happens to have added oils you are setting yourself up for a ruined piece of artwork.
III. Alternative Methods For Preserving Your Pencil Drawings
Though fixative is probably the most reliable way to preserve a piece of pencil artwork, there are other approaches.
Plastic sleeves can work well for storing pencil drawings in the short term. This is especially useful for pictures that are still a work in progress. It is important to remember, however, that over time the graphite may begin to rub off on the plastic sleeve. This leaves pictures looking dull and somewhat cloudy.
Some people laminate their artwork or use thin film tapes to protect it. This leaves drawings with a very reflective finish, and it prevents any further alterations to the picture. It also prevents the artist from accessing the piece of paper in the event of trapped moisture. If moisture is trapped under the lamination, it will also be absorbed by the paper. This causes the paper to expand and contract which can cause warping.
Framing a drawing in a good double glass frame is another way to keep it safe. If you frame them, ensure that they are properly framed. If you are planning on hanging the picture, make sure to keep it out of direct sunlight. Though graphite doesn’t fade over time, the paper itself can be damaged.
Here's a little bonus method for you:
Preserving a pencil drawing isn’t hard, and with minimal effort, you can improve your pieces while also making sure that they stand the test of time.
V. Related Questions
1. Can You Use Hairspray To Fix Pencil Drawings?
Hairspray can definitely be used to preserve graphite artworks from being erased or smudged. However, fixative sprays tend to be more effective due to them being produces especially for the purpose of fixing pencil drawings.
2. Will Pencil Drawings Fade?
Pencil drawings won't fade by themselves until something or someone smudges them or erases them partly. If a graphite drawing won't get touched or rubbed on, the color intensity won't fade but will stay the same over time.