By Nancy Lilly, 2017
The use or avoidance of fixative is the source of perhaps the longest running, most contested debate within the ranks of pastel artists for, oh….let’s see… about two hundred years, give or take. No, make that four hundred years. Never mind. Let’s just say everyone has an opinion, fear, dread, and hope when it comes to using a fixative. Including myself. Every brand of fixative calls to me, but I know using it is fraught with danger.
So why talk about it, you say? Studying the technique of the great pastel artist, Edgar Degas, I have been possessed with more than a mild longing to know just what was that fixative recipe he used to such great success.
In my second APS web article, titled Learning From the Greats, I explained how Degas relied upon a particular fixative created by a friend of his:
“To impose one layer of pastel over another, without the second color tearing up or mixing with the first, Degas applied a fixative to the first layer. It was a secret formula, given to him by Luigi Chialiva. The fixative did not give the matte appearance of pastel a flatness, a shine or change the appearance of the color itself. Unfortunately, the secret recipe did not survive for us to employ today.” 1
The Art Conservator, Thea Burns in her 2008 book, The Invention of Pastel Painting, states:
“Pastel and, often, additional materials were applied over the printed or drawn base layer to varying extents – lightly, so that the underlying design and paper layers show through and contribute to the expressiveness of the image, or thickly and heavily to produce a radiantly coloured surface conveying the complexity of spaces lit artificially. Eventually, exploiting the stabilizing action of fixatives, Degas was able to enrich his paintings by superimposing and reworking layers of pastel and other materials.”
Burns sold me. Degas sold me. I’m now ‘fixated’ on the possibilities of interspersing fixative between layers of pastel, cross-hatching, building thick and thin to a new level of luminosity!
Worth a Search
I had a memory from long ago that the formula used casein. And not one to walk away from a little in-depth googling, I ran a search on fixative + casein and actually came across a fixative that claims to use a formula very similar to the one used by Degas.
The name of the product is SpectraFix. The website makes claim that it is a natural milk casein pastel fixative:
“Colorless transparency and rapid drying to a water-resistant non-yellowing film are characteristics which makes casein ideal as a pastel fixative. SpectraFix blends art-grade milk casein with water and pure grain alcohol adding a tiny amount of isopropyl alcohol (to please the Federal Government rendering the grain alcohol undrinkable). The alcohol evaporates rapidly taking the water with it, leaving a thin film of casein that quickly dries to a protective matte surface. Even though it is milk protein, it is not subject to invasion by opportunistic organisms, as 9,000 years use an an art medium testifies…
Degas used casein as a fixative and a wet medium, of this there is ample evidence. His close friend Henri Rouart stated as much, and Degas‘ friendship with artist Luigi Chialiva, co- creator and patent holder of an early casein-based pastel fixative, supports this. Chialiva’s formula is very similar to SpectraFix, but relied on cheaply available methyl alcohol, now known to be poisonous.”
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to try SpectraFix. I’m sure in a few months I’ll have something more to say about fixatives, and perhaps will add to this article some images produced through my “Degas like” experimentation.
1 Source: History of Drawing by Tom Buser
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