Do You Really Need to Varnish Colored Pencil Art?

Do You Really Need to Varnish Colored Pencil Art?

You’ve finished your latest piece. Now you want to know if you really need to varnish colored pencil art.

Some artists swear by it.

Other artists would never do it.

Many remain 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.

Reasons to Varnish Colored Pencil Art

Controlling Wax Bloom

All colored pencils are made with a binder that allows the pigment to be formed into a core during manufacture. The binder is a combination of oil, wax, and other ingredients, and it allows you to put color on paper while drawing. As you put pigment on the paper, you also put the binder on the paper. You can’t avoid it.

Some pencils are made with a higher percentage of wax than oil in the binder. These are wax-based colored pencils. They’re are usually softer and go onto the paper more easily than oil-based pencils.

So when you draw, you leave wax on the paper as well as color. 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 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


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.


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?


  1. 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.


    1. 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,


  2. Susan Eng

    I found your tips very helpful. My question is: how do you use the water base varnish in pencil form? I use Prismacolor and I found that the water base varish tend to separate on my colors. Is that normal? Thanks!

    1. Susan,

      Thank you for your question.

      I’ve never before heard of a water-based varnish, so the first thing I did was do a search. There are, indeed, water-based varnishes but most of them are for non-art uses. Things like painting interiors, or crafts.

      The only water-based varnishes for art that I found were for acrylic or oil painting and all of those were brush-on varnishes.

      Varnish is a blend of chemicals designed for a specific purpose. Most varnishes need to be used in a specific way. For example, the varnishes I use require a certain temperature for best results. So you might be using the varnish when it’s too hot, or too cold.

      If you’re brushing the varnish onto your drawing, you’re very likely to get the results you describe. I don’t think that’s the problem since you mentioned Prismacolor fixative, and they make aerosol fixatives only.

      The pencils you’re using and the paper you’re putting them on also play a role in how things turn out. The smoother a paper is, the more the color sits on top of it. If the paper is also sized so it’s not absorbent to moisture, it may actually shed color under certain circumstances. It is possible to have a liquid varnish totally destroy a drawing when it dissolved the color.

      But I wonder, are you having problems with the colors separating after they’re varnished, or with the varnish itself separating?

      I don’t feel I’ve answered your question. Please let me know more about your problem. I’d like to help.

      And if anyone else has the answer, please feel free to join the conversation!


      1. Susan Eng

        Thank you so much for your detailed explanation. I found it very helpful. My question concerns the water base varnish made my Faber Castel. It is in pencil form and from all the comments by others, which were helpful, no one mentioned this form of varnish. I wonder if it is meant be used on particular areas.

        Thanks again!

  3. Michael Urban

    Hi Carrie,

    I really enjoy your articles! I recently read another article of yours focused on using graphite under colored pencil. In that article, you referenced using a fixative or retouch varnish before switching to colored pencil to circumvent graphite pickup/smearing. In this particular case, would you recommend using a final fixative or varnish after layering the colored pencil? If so, what would you recommend?


    1. Michael,

      Thank you! I’m glad to have you as a reader.

      Definitely workable fixative. A final fixative is going to make it very difficult to add color the graphite under drawing.

      For the finished drawing, a final fixative made for colored pencil is best. I use one made by Prismacolor and have never had poor results.


  4. I do most of my colored pencil pieces on stretched canvas. Once finished, I give them a couple coats of a spray final fixative, then after a day or two, I do a couple coats of a brush on water based, satin varnish. I love the look of the finished varnished canvases, and they always get a lot of attention at showings as people can’t readily figure out the medium. I find it a plus to not need glass in my handmade frames, as well.

    1. Cristopher,

      Acrylic varnish will stick to the acrylic parts of the painting, but probably won’t stick to the colored pencil portions long-term.

      If you’re going to keep the drawing, you can always try varnishing it, then checking it periodically to see what happens.

      If you’re going to sell it or give to someone, it would be better not to varnish it. Neither medium really needs to be varnished unless you want to change it’s appearance, such as give a glossy surface.

      A good rule of thumb to remember is that water-based mediums should never be applied over wax- or oil-based mediums. Acrylics and colored pencils work very well together so long as the acrylics are on the bottom and the colored pencils are applied over that.

      I hope that helps.


  5. Genie Chow

    I am new to colored pencil in regards to treating it as an art form equal to watercolors, oils and acrylics. I had to stop painting because I have allergies to them. I love the medium of colored pencils because it blends pencil drawing with colors. When you say you spray a workable fixative and adjust the colors, what is it that you adjust? I’m not familiar with this description of the working process. Could you please explain?

    1. Genie,

      Welcome to colored pencils, and thank you for reading. Thank you also for your question.

      When I use a workable fixative part way through the drawing process, I use it to restore surface texture. After a several layers of colored pencil, the surface of the paper becomes so smooth and slick that it’s impossible to add more color. A light coat or two of workable fixative adds enough surface texture, that I can then add a few more layers of colored pencil.

      Sometimes that means I continue working over the entire drawing.

      Sometimes it means making final adjustments, as mentioned in this post. Adjustments include darkening or lightening an area, changing the color somewhat, or just adding more of the same color to improve color saturation.

      I hope that answers your question.

      Thank you again for your comment.

  6. Zach


    Thank you for this post. I am working on a CP drawing in which I would like to adjust a small section of. Would it be possible to apply matte gel medium with a brush to that section to give it tooth and work over it with CP again?


    1. Zach,

      Thank you for reading this post and for your question.

      I’m not familiar with matte gel medium, so I can’t give you much advice on that beyond trying it on a test paper and see what happens.

      The best answer depends on a couple of things.

      First: What type of paper are you using?

      Second: What type of pencils are you using (artist grade or other, oil-based or wax-based)?

      Third: What type of adjustment do you need to make?

  7. Paula Guy

    Lana Gloschart Art on YouTube shows how she varnishes her colored pencil drawings. I’ve done a couple small pieces that I want to try this technique. Framing with matting and glass is so expensive!

    1. Paula,

      Thank you for reading this post and taking the time to leave a comment.

      A lot of colored pencil artists due use a final fixative on their work and for a number of different reasons.

      I looked up Lana’s video on varnishing and I like the way she’s mounting her work. That certainly gives her work a more “painterly” appearance.

      She is also using sanded art paper, and that makes a huge difference, too. Traditional drawing papers could be mounted to a rigid support as she’s doing, but it would be more difficult. A final fixative, even as she’s using it, also might not provide sufficient protection for the paper, so if you’re drawing on traditional paper, you might want to reconsider.

      Also consider your working area. Lana mentioned watching out for dust, dirt and debris before you seal your work. That is vital, since once you apply the sealant, those things are on your artwork forever!!!

      Since I live in Kansas, known for wind and dust, and I live with cats, so using a sealant like this doesn’t make good sense for me inside or outside. If you have a good place to work with good ventilation and a limited level of dust and dirt in the air, then this process will probably work for you.

      In the end, however, it all comes down to personal preference. Other than the glossiness of Lana’s finished work, I like the overall look.

      Having said that, the amount of time, tools and supplies needed for this process end up being more expensive to me than framing artwork in the more traditional manner. Especially since I purchase frames and glazing from a reliable online supplier with excellent prices.

      Long story short, if this process works for you, great! I’d love to see some of your finished work.

      For me, I get better value ordering frames and glazing online and framing the artwork myself. I just have too many other demands on my time to spend the amount of time Lana spends varnishing her work, preparing the mounting board, and mounting the artwork.

      Thank you again for leaving a comment and for mentioning Lana’s video.

  8. Paula Guy

    You are right in that the amount of layers is very time intensive. My problem is that my framer is very expensive so I was looking for other options. I’m going to give it a try when some of this humidity breaks. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

    1. If I were oil painting, my “standard sizes” would be 5×7, 8×10, 11×14, 16×20, 18×24, 20×24 and 20×30. The largest portrait I’ve painted was 24×30.

      For colored pencil work, I usually do 8×10 or smaller, and not always standard sizes.

      I get frames from PictureFrames dot com because the prices are good and because they don’t charge an arm and a leg for custom sizes. They also do mats and glazing and when I buy a package, it comes with hanging wire, the devices to assemble the frame and everything but a screwdriver and pair of pliers! The box is also usually suitable for shipping artwork in!

      I think you’re best solution is to visit an art supplier like Dick Blick and look at their stock, pre-stretched canvases. The chances are that if they offer a size of canvas, there’s also a stock frame for that size. A lot of times, you can get both from Dick Blick.

      I know you’re not interested in canvases, but the is a good way to check standard sizes.

      Of course you could also look at their frame section to see what standard frame sizes they offer.

  9. Paula Guy

    I am familiar with the standard sizes. My problem is making the drawing to fit a standard frame. It never seems to work out. I will check out Thank you for all you do!

    1. Ah! I understand you now.

      I either tape my drawing paper to a drawing board in such a way that the tape leaves the size of my drawing, or I work with a working mat over my drawing. A working mat is a pre-cut mat that I lay over my drawing paper after I mount the drawing paper to a back board. Then I can draw inside the mat.

      When the drawing is finished, I remove the mat and have a drawing with a nice border for matting and framing.

      You can also do the same thing with masking tape.

      I spent so many years doing portrait work that it’s almost automatic for me to think in standard sizes, even though I’m now using colored pencils. I plan my compositions to whatever size I want to draw, and when I start drawing, I use either a working mat or tape to isolate the area where the drawing will be.

      I hope that helps!

      Sorry for the confusion!

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