Varnishing Colored Pencil Art

Varnishing Colored Pencil Art

Is varnishing colored pencil art necessary?

There is a lot of debate about this issue, so it’s no surprise I get questions on this topic on a fairly regular basis. Here’s today’s reader question.

Hi Carrie,

Firstly may I say how informative and helpful your tutorials are.

I am currently working on my first art drawing with Prismacolor pencils, it’s a picture of my daughter’s Beagle which I hope to have finished in time for her birthday next month.

What I wanted to ask is do you recommend spraying the picture with a fixative spray before framing?

Kind regards,


This is an important question for a couple of reasons. First, it gives me the opportunity to talk about why varnishing could be important.

It also gives me the opportunity to talk about when and how you might want to varnish.

Varnishing Colored Pencil Art

Varnishing Colored Pencil Art

Why Varnishing Artwork is Important

Some time ago, I wrote a couple of articles on varnishing colored pencils. Do You Really Need to Varnish Colored Pencil Art discussed the advantages and disadvantages to varnishing colored pencil art. In brief, the primary reasons to varnish colored pencil artwork are controlling wax bloom, protecting the surface of the artwork, and restoring tooth.

Since Dave is talking about finished work, the third reason doesn’t apply. So let’s look at the other two.

Oil painters have varnished their work for centuries. A good coat of varnish on an oil painting seals the surface of the painting and keeps dust, dirt and grime off it. All that dust, dirt, and grime settles on the coat of varnish. When a painting needs to be cleaned, the varnish is carefully stripped away and replaced with fresh varnish. The painting itself is not damaged.

Since more colored pencil works are framed under glass, the glass keeps the dust, dirt, and grime from reaching the surface of the artwork. So in one way, the glass serves the same purpose as the varnish. You don’t need varnish to protect the surface of colored pencil art framed under glass.

A light coat of varnish is also helpful in controlling wax bloom. But the only time wax bloom is really a problem is when you apply color with heavy pressure and/or when you use a lot of dark colors.

Wax bloom happens when the wax binder in colored pencils rises to the surface of a drawing. In the illustration below, the misty looking section on the right is wax bloom.

Wax bloom is easy to remove. Just wipe the drawing lightly with paper towel. For a finished drawing, a light coat or two of varnish helps prevent wax bloom.

So Should You Varnish Your Colored Pencil Art?

Yes. Sometimes.

If you draw with a naturally heavy hand, or a piece has a lot of dark colors, then you may want to consider varnishing the finished piece. You’ll still want to frame it under glass if you used traditional drawing papers, because the glass protects the paper from damage. The varnish will help keep wax bloom to a minimum.

Varnishing works on non-absorbent papers like sanded pastel papers, Pastelmat or Lux Archival is a good idea, especially if framed without glass. For that type of work, varnish serves the same purpose that it serves for oil paintings. Varnish keeps dirt off the artwork and can be removed and replaced if necessary.

If you do decide to varnish a drawing on sanded art paper, make sure you seal the drawing first with something like ACP Textured Fixative so removing the varnish doesn’t damage the art.

Do You Really Need to Varnish Colored Pencil Art Before Framing It?

The answer depends on the type of paper you use and how you intend to frame the work.

Varnishing is one of those issues that some artists swear by and others avoid at all costs. So the best advice I can offer is to consider the way you work in general, and then evaluate each piece.

You may find that varnishing is helpful on some pieces and unnecessary on others.


  1. Rick Steffens

    I use a spray fixative on all artwork of mine that gets sold to customers just in case they or someone else might accidentally spill coffee, pop, etc. on it. And I think it looks brighter when you spray with either gloss or semi-gloss spray.

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