Carrie L. Lewis, Artist

Teaching Drawing and Painting One Student at a Time

Do You Really Need to Varnish Colored Pencil Art?

Some artists swear by it.

Other artists would never do it.

Many are undecided and most of us are somewhere in between.

Still the question remains.

Do You Really Need to Varnish Colored Pencil Art?

Aside from personal preference, there are good reasons to varnish colored pencil artwork and there are reasons not to. Personal reasons for varnishing colored pencil drawings or not varnishing them are as varied as artists are. The purpose of this post is to look at some professional reasons for and against varnishing colored pencil art.

Do You Really Need to Varnish Colored Pencil Art

Reasons to Varnish Colored Pencil Art

Controlling Wax Bloom

Some colored pencils are made with a wax binder that allows the pigment to be formed into a core during manufacture and that allows you to put color on paper while drawing.

Some of the wax is left on the paper, too. If you use heavy pressure or lots of layers, you may end up with a lot of wax on the paper.

The wax slowly rises to the surface of the color layers and gives the drawing a foggy or cloudy look. This is what’s known as wax bloom.

Wax bloom is easy to remove. Simply wipe the surface of the drawing very lightly with a piece of paper towel, a tissue (without lotion), or a soft, clean cloth. The wax bloom will return however and you probably won’t ever be able to totally eliminate it.

Giving your finished drawing a light coat of fixative or varnish does more than keep the color in place. It keeps the wax binder in place, too. That means little or no wax bloom.

Of course, if you use oil-based colored pencils, you have no wax bloom worries!

Protecting the Surface

Even a light coat of fixative or varnish will provide protection for your colored pencil drawing. Environmental dirt, dust, and other similar substances will come to rest on the varnish instead of on the drawing itself. A light dusting with a duster or dry clothe is all that’s necessary to remove the dust.

It’s recommended that any artwork on paper be framed under glass for the best protection and that includes colored pencil drawings. But even then, a coat of varnish provides added protection.

Restoring Tooth

Up to this point, I’ve talked about using fixative or varnish after you’ve finished the drawing—that is, after all—the focus of this article.

But you can use fixative or varnish on a drawing that isn’t quite finished. Doing so will give the surface a little more tooth for additional work if that’s what you need.

How much tooth is restored is debatable and depends in large part on the type of fixative or varnish you use and on how heavily you use it. While it merits mention here, it’s really a topic for another discussion.

Reasons Not to Varnish Colored Pencil Art

Discoloration

Some artists have had drawings discolored and some have had them ruined by an application of fixative or varnish. If you happen to be using a cheap varnish or fixative, there is the risk of discoloration. That’s why I generally advise artists to do a test on a piece of scrap paper or an old drawing first.

Damage

Anytime you use an aerosol, there is the risk of some of the substance coming out as droplets. This is a special concern if you don’t use varnish very often and the can has been sitting on the shelf for years. Again, the best way to avoid this is to test the varnish first. If it produces droplets after a couple of sprays, don’t use it on anything else.

Unnecessary Effort

I admit that I don’t finish every colored pencil drawing with a coat of fixative or varnish. Sometimes it just isn’t necessary.

Drawings I don’t varnish are either:

  • Drawings I didn’t burnish or use heavy pressure on
  • Predominantly light value or color (wax bloom shows up better on dark colors)
  • Drawn with oil-based pencils

You may also simply not wish to add varnish to a drawing because you like the look of unvarnished drawings. That is a perfectly acceptable way to finish any drawing.

Next week, tips on types of varnishes to use and how to get the best results.

Do you varnish finished drawings? Why or why not?

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4 Comments

  1. Judith

    The information was very beneficial. Thanks .

  2. Carrie:

    As you know, I mostly work CP on canvas and display the finished pieces without glass. This, of course, requires that a finish be applied to protect the artwork and provide UV protection to impede fading (despite my use of all-lightfast pencils). I’ve been doing this for a decade and have had very good success. Viewers like the appearance of CP done and exhibited this way – it’s different and draws attention to itself on a gallery wall.

    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.

    When I do work on paper, I nearly always coat the final drawing with a workable fixative, adjust colors then a final coat of fixative. The fixative, as you mentioned, keeps the “bloom” away but also allows me to add top layers of color that do not blend with what is beneath – very good for reflected light and creating colors that act much like an oil painter’s glazing technique.

    I do not use “matte” or “semi-gloss” finishes since, by experience, these tend to cloud the surface of the work, especially those on paper.

    Cheers!

    • John,

      Your method is definitely one that requires a fixative or varnish of some kind. Thanks for the detailed description. I’m sure other readers are as interested in learning new techniques as I am.

      I’ve thought about alternating layers of color and fixative just to see what it looks like. I really like the look of paintings painted with the Flemish method, but it’s next to impossible with colored pencil. Varnish or fixative between each of the steps was the only way I could think of to get the same look.

      Thanks for taking the time to share your method!

      Best wishes,

      Carrie

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