In a previous post, I shared three professional reasons to consider using fixative or varnish on your colored pencil artwork and three reasons not to.

You read that post and decided to try varnishing your finished work. The next logical question is which type and brand to use. There are so many on the market. How do you choose?

Fixative and Varnish: What’s the Difference?

Before we go further, though, let me take a moment to define terms.

“Fixative” and “varnish” are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.

Fixative is only a temporary “fix”. It’s a light coating you use as part of the drawing process. Fixative sprays are not designed to be a final coating because it doesn’t provide protection from ultraviolet light (UV), environmental dirt, or rough handling. It’s generally applied lightly and between layers of color.

Varnish is a final coating designed to provide protection from environmental dirt, UV, and—to some extent—rough handling. It is applied more thickly. It is not designed to be used as part of the drawing process since it can easily saturate and discolor the paper and darken both the paper and the colors already on the paper.

Another term frequently used for varnishes is final finish. Not all final finishes are useful for colored pencil work. Many of them are produced for oil paintings and contain damar varnish. When purchasing final finishes, make sure to check the contents label. If it lists damar, leave it on the shelf.

So You Want to Varnish Colored Pencil Art: What Should You Use?

John Ursillo uses workable fixative throughout his drawing process and varnishes finished pieces when he works on canvas (yes, canvas for colored pencils). John says:

I use intermediate layers of workable fixative along with solvent-enhanced CP and water-based CP. The finished piece is coated with two layers of Krylon Archival Series UV protective gloss acrylic spray. There are other brands but I’ve not tried them – happy with the Krylon. This goes on very shiny but after a week or so the coating dries completely into the weave of the canvas resulting in a pleasing semi-gloss coating.

The net result is that these colored pencil drawings on canvas can be framed without glass.

For works on paper, he uses workable fixative before adding the final color, then gives the finished drawing an additional coat of workable fixative.

When I use workable fixative, it’s usually late in the drawing process, when I need to restore a little tooth in order to finish the drawing. I have Krylon Workable Fixatif and Prismacolor Premier Fixative on my shelf. I’ve never done a side-by-side comparison, so I don’t know that one is better than the other. Both are good both for controlling wax bloom and for working over.

I also use Krylon Gallery Series Conservation Retouch Varnish. It’s more suitable for finished work on either paper or canvas. Prismacolor produces a non-workable fixative that I have yet to try but that’s worth a look.

In the past, I’ve used Blair products and Grumbacher products and have had good results.

Best Practices for Using Varnish or Fixative on Colored Pencil Art

Look for a fixative or varnish made for colored pencils or, if you can’t find that, one that’s made for dry media. Not all varnishes are created equal and what may work for an oil painting may not work as well—or at all—on colored pencil. Prismacolor makes a final coating made specifically for colored pencils and I recommend it whole-heartedly.

Since each brand of fixative or varnish comes with instructions for use, check those instructions first. Follow them, too, in order to get the best results.

Here’s how I do my varnishing.

  • Work in a well-ventilated area
  • Position the artwork in an upright position. It doesn’t have to be perfectly vertical, but it shouldn’t be flat, either
  • Shake the aerosol can a few times to properly mix the contents
  • Hold the can in a vertical position about twelve inches from the artwork (check the instructions on the can for the ideal distance, as there may be some variation).
  • Holding down the nozzle, move the spray across the artwork horizontally in a slow movement.
  • Start just past the edge of the drawing and spray across the drawing to just past the opposite edge, then back in the opposite direction until you’ve covered all of the drawing, top to bottom
  • Let the artwork dry for a minimum of 30 minutes. Personally, I prefer to err on the side of caution and usually wait 45 minutes or longer
  • Give the drawing another coat (optional).

Two or three coats should be sufficient. Just make sure you don’t soak the paper with varnish. When a heavy coat of varnish dries, it could become brittle, making it necessary ship unframed art flat, instead of rolled.

So You Want to Varnish Colored Pencil Art. What Should You Use?

The Bottom Line

What it all comes down to is finding the best product for the type of work you do and the results you want. Generally, the best place to start is with a brand known for high quality in other products. Grumbacher and Krylon, for example. Products produced by or for companies that also make colored pencils is also a good idea. I can’t guarantee you’ll like Prismacolor workable fixative as well as you like Prismacolor colored pencils, but there’s a better chance the fixative will work favorably with the pencils.

Whenever you try something new, try it first on scrap paper or on a drawing that won’t hurt your feelings if it gets damaged. Talking to other artists about what they use and why they use it is another excellent way to find a good product.