I have now built up a small portfolio of pencil/charcoal drawings. Most of the time they are kept in my folders, but sometimes they are viewed by friends and relatives. And on the odd occasion displayed at the local community hall.

I've started to notice finger marks and tiny smudges on the artwork. As none of pieces are permanently displayed I don't want to frame them.

What is the best way of preserving and protecting my pencil/charcoal art without having to put them behind glass?

One of my friends said that you could use hairspray? Is that the right way to go?


7 Answers 7


If the pieces are likely to be handled and/or displayed then using fixative sprays is probably the best option. There are two purposely manufactured types:

  • Workable
  • Final

Workable Fixative

As the name suggests, this allows you to add additional layers to your work after the spray has been used.

Workable Fixative is a thin solution and it sets up a new toothy (slightly rough) surface for more drawing. You can choose to spray the entire piece or isolated parts. To prevent other areas getting sprayed you can use paper, or frisket, to shield the areas that you don't want to spray. Once the fixative is dry you can continue working on the drawing.

The fact that it provides new tooth can be an advantage as heavily shaded/worked areas can become smooth making it harder to apply further layers of graphite/colour to the piece. So, you can use a workable fixative every few layers to keep a fresh tooth.

Final Fixative

This provides a more durable surface than a Workable Fixative, but this should only be applied once you are certain that you don't what to make any further adjustments.

However, a Final Fixative can cause the piece to darken so many artists do not apply the this layer and simply stop at a Workable Fixative.


Hair Spray has been mentioned as a cheaper alternative to fixative sprays. Below is a summarisation from Drawing for Dummies

Hairspray does contain some of the materials of a Fixative but it only works for the short term, and ultimately damages the drawing - the hairspray yellows over time and ruins the drawing.

Do not use hairspray.

Applying Fixative

  • Use proper ventilation. Fixatives smells and is hazardous to your health.
  • Shake the can before spraying and test on a scrap piece of paper away from your drawing. The nozzle can clog & will deposit 'lumps' on your drawing
  • Directions on the generally say to spray 20-25cm (8-10 inches) from drawing. However, I spray 30-40cm (12-15 inches) from drawing. Make sure it is on a flat surface and not drafty.
  • Lightly spray first coat horizontally. Let dry for 15 minutes. Make sure the layer is even and smooth.
  • Lightly spray second coat vertically. Let dry for 15 minutes. Make sure the layer is even and smooth.
  • Subsequent layers may be added in alternating directions if needed.

The sprayed areas of your piece will become darker once you have sprayed it and it won't lighten once the fixative has dried.


Using a fixative, as described in previous answers here, is a standard way of protecting one's own work. On an acquired piece, you're free to do whatever you want with your own property. However, it would likely negatively affect the market value or historical value of the piece. On a valuable or historical work, fixative might be viewed similar to "vandalism" since it changes the nature and likely the appearance of the work from what the artist created.

Acquired works should be stored in acid-free archival quality flat files between layers of special paper or else professionally framed behind glass.


Hairspray definitely works, but I'm not sure whether or not it will yellow over time. You can also buy fixative spray that is artist's quality and presumably tested for its pH and other qualities.

  • 3
    Hairspray will likely cause yellowing over time, according to others who've commented here have stated. How would you suggest choosing a fixative spray? Are there some just for pencil/charcoal, as opposed to pastel/chalk?
    – user24
    Jun 16, 2016 at 23:18
  • 1
    Hair spray will also leave your artwork a little sticky. Krylon makes a fixative you can get at most craft stores. It works on pretty much any medium. I've never seen medium specific sprays. I'm sure you can get more expensive ones at art stores, can't say whether or not it would be worth it though.
    – DawnPatrol
    Jun 17, 2016 at 6:01

Hairspray will work but will yellow over time. Get the Krylon fixative mentioned above. Any hobby store will carry it. You can also use clear varnish from the paint department at a big box store.

  • Varnish seems to be not recommended for drawings. E.g. here is said: "Varnishes do not work well with Gouache, water colour and drawings because the varnish will be deeply absorbed by the paint and/or paper, becoming an integral part of the picture and could cause discolouration. In addition, varnishes on works created using Gouache, water colour and drawing cannot be removed."
    – Surb
    Jun 22, 2016 at 8:27
  1. The best way would be to heat laminate the work which doesn't yellow out and also is easy and cheap to get it done.

  2. Framing it in a good double glass frame is another way to keep it safe.

  3. You could protect the finished work with thin film tapes that are available for mobile lamination which not just protects the work but also will be flexible for carrying just like a paper.

  4. Simply covering it tight with a food wrapping film will protect it too. but it sure needs another level of protection over it like a glass frame or so as the film itself is very soft.

  • Hi Tapesvar. Thank you for the reply and welcome to SE Arts & Craft. However, laminating is permanent and it can be prone to problems such as air bubbles and yellowing. Also, I stated that framing was not an option at this point as the pieces are not on permanent display. What I was looking for was a way to 'fix' the graphite or charcoal to the drawing without using a permanent mechanical process.
    – BeaglesEnd
    Jun 17, 2016 at 9:32
  • Hi @BeaglesEnd Thank you for welcoming me :) And if thats the way you wan't then use food wrap film, its highly transparant and protects well. But its like you will have to use and throw it each time you display to others.
    – Tapeshvar
    Jun 17, 2016 at 9:38
  • The other way can be to use a thin plastic sheets instead of the food wrap film so that this will be like a better way if you don't want anything like food wrap film which is like 1 time use. But this needs you to take good care of it. The safer you handle it, the longer it stays good.
    – Tapeshvar
    Jun 17, 2016 at 9:40

I remember when I took art lessons when I was a kid. We would spray are drawings with non aerosol hairspray to keep them from getting smudged

  • 1
    Hello David, and welcome to Arts & Crafts and thank you for taking the time to answer. Several other contributors have already mentioned Hair Spray and the consensus is that it is not a reasonable solution due to the potential for discolouration. However, you have mentioned that it is a 'non-aerosol' spray. Perhaps expand on what the eventual outcome was when it was used and explain the reason why a non-aerosol spray would differ from an aerosol spray.
    – BeaglesEnd
    Jan 9, 2019 at 12:31

You can try using clear plastic or saran type wrap, or a clear window winterizing plastic and use heat to shrink it.

  • Welcome to Arts & Crafts. Tapeshvar already suggested plastic food wrap, but let me ask for clarification on the window winterizing shrink film. It seems like there might be the possibility for that to smudge the work as it shrinks (or bend lightweight media). The original wording of the answer asked if anyone had tried it, rather than framing it as a proven solution. Is this something you're aware has been tested and works, or are you just suggesting it as something to try (that maybe should be experimented with on disposable pieces)? Thanks.
    – fixer1234
    Apr 18, 2020 at 19:17

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