Since ancient eras, charcoal art has been prevalent in the art industry. The various engaging forms of charcoal are predominant sources for creating exceptional artworks. Its black-and-white monochromatic effects can give your sketch a realistic and dynamic look. The impactful strokes and delicate blending techniques make charcoal paintings impressive and unique. 

Nonetheless, charcoal, a staple art medium, is not everyone’s cup of tea. An artist’s hours of diligent efforts and patience goes into making an effective charcoal drawing. Charcoal, prone to damage by smudging, smearing, or dusting, is challenging to maintain. The complexity of these artworks lies in their preservation and protection methods.

So, who would want to waste hours of dedicated hard work because of a lack of fixatives and sealants? Or would anyone let accidental finger touches or dust ruin their beautiful art piece? No, right? The main struggle that an artist faces is keeping the charcoal intact. 

Thus, we bring you some essential tips to preserve charcoal drawings from unwanted damage. This article will guide you through the advantages and use of fixatives and sealants. You will learn how to seal a charcoal drawing and prevent deterioration by using other alternative methods.  

So, let us delve deeper to explore the methods that ensure the preservation and maintenance of art pieces.

What is a Charcoal Drawing?

Charcoal drawing is an art composition created using varied forms of charcoal. Charcoal is burnt wooden residue devoid of water or any flammable components. Making charcoal involves burning wood at high temperatures with minimal oxygen. These charred remnants combined make charcoal sticks, pencils, powders, etc. 

Despite being the oldest dry art medium, charcoal is available in various forms today. Every variation and types of charcoal has a unique set of properties. Also, the diversity of application methods makes it a versatile and adaptable art material. 

Charcoal’s soft texture and deep black matte finishes lets an artist create pleasing art pieces. The vast spectrum of monochrome tones allows an artist to experiment with their creativity. Thus, the various forms of charcoal are multipurpose in nature, each having a distinctive feature.

Sketch of a woman

Credit: Stoned Santa

Sketch of a skull

Credit: The Virtual Instructor

Importance of Sealing a Charcoal Canvas Painting

Charcoal art is a unique and definitive art form that can create deep rich imprints in contrast to textured white paper. With the ability to create beautiful sketches in just a few strokes, charcoal has been artists' favorite to work with over the years.

Despite the exceptional benefits and advantages, charcoal has some demerits also. Some reasons why one must seal and protect these drawings are:

  • Carbon particles are prone to smudging, fading, crumbling, and flaking with time. 
  • Charcoal paintings (get affected by UV rays, direct sunlight, moisture, or dust particles.
  • Manual scratches and scraps can also affect a charcoal art piece. 
  • Dust and debris particles lower the color value of charcoals, making them fade away and giving them a pale tone. 
  • Unintentional hand touch across the charcoal drawings can cause loose particles to smear and fall off. Our human skin also excretes oil that can contaminate and degrade charcoals.

Thus, protecting and preserving a finished sketch work from these harmful and damaging agents is vital.

Sray painting

Credit: Acrylic Giessen 

Sketch of woman

Credit: Mega Pencil

Ways for Sealing Charcoal Drawings

Fixing a charcoal sketch involves applying a protective coating and layer upon the art piece. This layering prevents the charcoal particles from dusting off or smudging. Leaving your work untreated gives rise to the crumbling of carbon particles, creating unwanted white patches throughout the drawing. 

So, let us look at the most effective ways to keep charcoal sketches safe and spotless forever.

1) Spray Sealants

One of the most efficient ways of protecting charcoal work is using spray sealants. Spray sealants are liquid or foam-based formulas that ensure a protecting layer and smoother finish. These sealants create a barrier between the charcoal drawing and damaging elements.  

Spray sealants, made of a combination of plastic polymers, adhere to the medium and create a defensive coating. This solid shield prevents moisture or any chemical exposure from damaging the charcoal art piece. 

Manufacturers customize different sealant formulations depending on the surface application. These sprays get manufactured for small-scale, commercial, or large industrial operations. You can choose your preferred sealant in various sizes and types according to your project needs. Thus, these adhesives are versatile and used for sealing, bonding, or filling in gaps.

Spray paints

Credit: Glyteratti

2) Fixative Spray

Using a fixative spray is the best option if you are looking for a medium to seal charcoal drawings. It holds charcoal in place and helps prevent unnecessary smudging. Fixatives are multiple-purpose art essentials, a vital element of every artist’s toolkit.

Charcoal fixatives assist in controlling and fixing delicate charcoal pieces. They prevent charcoal fine particles from accidentally spreading around and spoiling the portrait. These fixative sprays protect all dry mediums from dislodging on smooth surfaces. The preserving agent of fixatives prevents beautiful artworks from fading, discoloring, and crumbling over time.  

There are two categories in which one can classify charcoal fixatives:

Workable Fixatives

Workable fixatives keep sketches in the best condition between the various steps and stages of creation. This fixative kind comes in handy when working in time intervals. While the artist works on layering and blending, a workable fixative keeps the other charcoal particles in place.  

Spray the desired area with a working fixative and leave it on for a few seconds to use it effectively. When it dries, you can continue creating your sketch.

Working fixatives are also helpful for working on distinct layers and levels. They protect the unfinished work and prevent accidental mixing of charcoal. It gives artisans a chance to work with precision and detail. Thus, the demand and usage of a workable fixative depends on the artist’s preference and working choices.

Spray paints

Credit: Jerry’s Artarama

Final Fixatives

A final fixative is a must-have gear for every artist trying their hands on a dry medium. This fixative spray applied to finished charcoal sketch work protects them from unwanted damage and harm. Final fixatives best work when sealing dry media like charcoal, pastels, and graphite pencils. 

However, you cannot use this spray type during the art procedure, limiting its usage to only after the art piece's completion. Often referred to as non-workable fixatives, they give a glossy and matte finish depending on the formulation. Thus, you can pick any type according to your requirements.

Paint materials

Credit: Spectra Fix

Yet like any other art tool, fixatives have pros and cons. If not appropriately used, fixatives can dull the original color tones and give a yellowing effect. Thus, testing them on a rough drawing or a small area before spraying the entire work is essential.  

Here is a list of the best fixatives that help you safeguard your work and give long-lasting protection. These fixative brands work without altering, yellowing, or adversely affecting charcoal.

  • Winsor and Newton Professional Fixative
  • SpectraFix Spray Fixative
  • Lascaux Fine Art Fixative
  • Grumbacher Final Fixative
  • Golden Archival Universal Fixative 

Spray paints

Credit: Jerry Artarama 

Spray paints

Credit: Artcetera

Varnishes  

A varnish is a transparent, clear liquid that gives a drawing a protective layer and a glossy finish when brushed across. When dried, varnishes form a firm, durable coating across the painting surface. Though primarily used in oil and acrylic paintings, some people use varnish with dry mediums.  

The steps to follow when using a varnish are:

  • Start by cleaning up your working space and canvas, as liquid varnishes attract dust that can settle and stick to varnished surfaces. 
  • Pour some of your varnish formulation into a clean bowl and dip your brush into it. Use a high-quality, soft brush so no unwanted brush impressions stay on the charcoal drawing. 
  • Start by varnishing your artwork from the upper left corner, then move in a similar pattern to the lower one. Be quick in applying as the varnish dries up fast. 
  • Apply multiple lighter coats rather than sticking onto one spot. Wait for the first varnish layer to dry before applying the second coat.
  • Cover your drawing from every angle and direction so no corner is left untreated.

Though some artisans use varnish to cover their paintings, it is advisable to prefer fixatives over varnishes when working with charcoal. Fixatives are a better option than varnishes when preventing charcoal particle loss. 

If you use varnish, it is better to use spray varnishes, as they leave an even and firm coat across the charcoal. Varnishes are self-leveling agents; thus, using them wisely and carefully is necessary. 

Painting on canvas

Credit: Burnt Wood and Natural Elements

Spray paints

Credit: Jerry Artarama

Things to Note When Choosing Fixing and Sealing Agents

While every artist knows the importance of protectants, they need guidance when selecting the right preference. Every sealant and fixative varies in its characteristics and features. Certain fixatives protect paintings against environmental damage, and others give them a polished look. 

So, it is essential to choose the sealing agent depending on our preference and desired goal. Some key points to look up to when buying sealants are:

  • Always read the product's label to check if the fixative is appropriate for your piece of art.
  • Visit the product’s website to review the customers’ opinions about the art materials and learn their advantages and disadvantages. 
  • You must pick up non-toxic and organic fixatives without harmful chemicals to ensure your safety. Nowadays, many harmless alternatives are available in the market, so it is better to buy them. 
  • Finally, choose the fixative that keeps charcoal intact and gives you the desired outcome.

Spray paints

Credit: Wikipedia     

Spray paints

Credit: Jackson’s Art Supplies

Step-by-Step Guide: How to Seal Charcoal Drawings

By now, we know that charcoal is a fragile medium that can smudge or erase easily. We have also learned about the importance of sealants and preserving sprays. Despite their usefulness, fixatives can alter or stain the paintings if not used appropriately. 

So, let's look at the steps to follow when applying fixatives:

1) Clean Up Your Drawing Surface

Before using a fixative spray, cleaning up your charcoal papers is essential. Ensure that there are no loose particles or carbon fragments around the surface. This step is vital because dust can cling and get sealed to the artwork, causing permanent damage. 

Use a soft-haired or drafting brush to wipe off the extra withered particles. You can blow off or tap the drawing paper or canvas to remove the charcoal residue and dirt. But avoid using fingers as it can leave undesirable smudges and messy marks.

2) Set Up Your Spraying Spot

Once you are all set with your art materials, deciding the area to carry the fixation process is vital. Most fixatives generate toxic fumes when sprayed on charcoal drawings. Such fixatives have a precautionary warning about using them outdoors and in open spaces. 

Some fixatives are highly flammable, so one should avoid their usage around open flame or fire sources. Fixative sprays can also affect the user’s health by causing breathing problems or eye irritation. 

Thus, before purchasing the product, you must understand its chemical makeup and components. You should choose a less toxic or organic fixative to avoid any problems. Choose a well-ventilated room with enough windows and doors to keep the air fresh and healthy. A well-ventilated area or outdoor locations are the best places for spraying sealants. 

Ensure you wear a respirator mask to avoid inhaling harmful fuels. Wear hand gloves to protect your skin from any chemicals or contamination. You can also wear special glasses to prevent eye irritation or infection.

Face Masks

Credit: Research Gate

3) Position Your Artwork in the Right Direction

Placing the sketch in the proper setup is important for correct application and even layering. You can arrange your drawing vertically against an easel or wall to avoid soaking or warping. An upright vertical angle ensures the right spray direction and smooth coating.

Tape or clip the art sheet with the stand to avoid sinking. Do not lay your painting horizontally on the ground or table. This will result in uneven spreading, distortion, and oversaturation.

Girl painting a canvas

Credit: iStock

4) Practice Before Spraying Into the Final Artwork

Before spraying the product on the charcoal papers:

  • Shake the spray and check the working of the nozzle to clear any blockage. 
  • Apply it on scrap paper. 
  • Try the fixative on a rough surface or area to detect problems and ensure correct usage.

Check the manufacturer’s manual or guidance slip to understand the correct procedure. Gather information about the side effects or health impact the spray can have. Practice spraying from different angles, directions, and distances to identify the best proportion for you.

Girl painting a canvas

Credit: iStock

5) Maintain Proper Distance and Direction

Always keep at least 2 inches difference between the spray and your painting. After spraying once, leave the art for 30-60 seconds to let it dry completely. Instead of one heavy coat, spray multiple lighter coats at equal intervals. 

Applying thin layers guarantees uniformity and evenness throughout the paper or canvas. Note that one layer is not enough to prevent damage. A second or third coat is vital to achieve optimum results.

6) Finalize Your Artwork

Continue coating your artwork from different directions and angles to cover every nook and corner.  Start spraying from corners and then move toward the middle of the canvas. Move your hand in a continuous motion to leave a consistent layer.  

Once coated, leave your drawing for about 30 minutes. After the specified time, use your fingers to check the result. Ensure your hands are clean and have no dirt or oil on them. Move your fingers across the finished pieces to ensure they are not smudging or smearing. 

If the loose charcoal particles have become irreversible and firm, you have successfully fixated the art piece.

How to Seal A Charcoal Drawing with Other Mediums

Till now, we have discussed the conventional methods to protect charcoal drawings against any external damaging agents. But, there are many instances when you may not find the appropriate fixative spray. In such scenarios, you can try alternate methods of sealing charcoal art. Some of these techniques are:

1) Use of Glassine Paper

Glassine sheets are translucent, glossy paper for interleaving and wrapping delicate charcoal pieces. These smooth, air, grease, and water-resistant sheets are best for covering and insulating a charcoal drawing. 

Glassine made of wood pulp is recyclable, biodegradable, and environment-friendly. This medium-weight sheet is cheap and a perfect alternative to fixatives. Charcoal wrapped in them withstands time, adding to their longevity. 

Instead of picking glassine sleeves, use glassine sheets as they are convenient and are better for keeping charcoals intact. These sheets are readily available in the market according to the choices and needs of the consumers. Thus, using glassine paper is one of the best ways of maintaining the longevity of charcoal.

glassine sheets

Credit: Michael Packaging  

glassine sheets

Credit: Artistic Products

2) Frame Your Charcoal Drawing

Another efficient way of protecting the charcoal in the absence of fixatives is by framing them. Framing an art piece has many advantages and benefits:

  • Framing forms a defensive layer around the sketch, protecting it from moisture, debris, or dirt particles. The glass covering the art piece makes it water-resistance and provides it safety from external agents. 
  • The frame adds to the overall representation and look of the charcoal piece. A good frame style and color complement a painting enhancing its final look. 
  • Different styles of frames can add character to the painting. For example, a traditional frame can give a classic and aesthetic feel, while a modern one can offer a contemporary look. 
  • Framing gives the charcoal art a clean look behind the glass. Because of the glass covering, no one can touch the art with their hands, thus preventing smudging and smearing. 

It is advisable to use double or triple mat cushioning between the frame and the art sheet when framing. These mats ensure that the charcoal does not directly touch the glass, creating friction that results in falling off loose particles.

black and white painting

Credit: Blender Kit   

black and white painting

Credit: Amazon

3) Trying Other Isolation Coats

When artists do not have fixatives or sealants, they sometimes use products with the same consistency. Among them, the most used options are honey and wax. 

Though honey is a food ingredient, many people use its thick texture to create a layer upon the charcoal drawing. Applying a thin layer of honey can temporarily protect your art from harmful elements. But honey cannot give long-lasting coverage, so you need a proper fixative to seal it in the long run. 

Before applying honey, clean the surface and rub off the charcoal residues. Then, apply light coats and leave them to dry overnight. This glaze will guard your drawing for up to five days. 

Another insulating medium that some people use is wax. Wax is a fumeless and non-toxic option that lets charcoal showcase its delicate lines and detailed art. Artists most commonly use beeswax or paraffin to prevent smudging or mixing.

You can use wax-coated chalk or wax itself to layer your finished piece. A thin shield across the surface will give charcoal drawings a glossy and favorable look.

4) Using a Hair Spray

Before the availability of fixatives, many artists used hair sprays as a substitute sealing agent. Though hair sprays have a binding compound, they do not contain archival properties that can stabilize charcoal. 

Despite being the most inexpensive and convenient alternative, hair sprays lack in preserving dry media. Hair sprays do not have chemicals that can prevent the deterioration of an art piece. 

Also, the acidic characteristic of hair spray can discolor the art piece or give it a yellowing effect. Thus, avoid using hair sprays for preserving charcoal drawings.

Hair Spray

Credit: The Daily Beast

5) Building a Carrying Case

Besides all the sealing alternatives and options, you can also create a carrying case for your compositions. You can use these wooden cases best for containing archival-quality canvas and storing your work in it. You can easily customize a box of your desired size and then save the charcoal art into it.

carrying case

Credit: Amazon

Thus, based on availability, you can seal charcoal drawings using these techniques. 

Best Tips and Practices For Preserving Charcoal Drawings

1) Factors That Affect the Longevity of A Charcoal Drawing

Though charcoal is a difficult medium to excel in, its extraordinary depth makes it popular. Art enthusiasts consider charcoal a premium medium that lets artists experiment and add new transitions to their art. 

Yet, to ensure the longevity of any art medium, it is crucial to comprehend the factors that cause the disintegration of art pieces. So, let us explore the various factors that can cause harm to charcoal drawings.

a) The Quality of Paper

Every type of paper has unique characteristics and properties. While some papers are toothed and rough textured, others give sketches a smooth, soft finish. Rough textured papers are beneficial while creating charcoal drawings because they let the crumbly particles cling to them, allowing the artist to create multiple layers.

On the other hand, smooth-toned papers can cause easy smudging and blending of charcoal. So, the thicker the paper quality, the better the drawings and their preservation. Good quality and acid-free papers assist in storing, maintaining, and saving the composition in the long run.  

Therefore, the quality, thickness, material, and toothedness also determine the longevity of charcoal art.

Drawing Sheets

Credit: Jackson’s Art Supplies 

Drawing Sheets

Credit: Ubuy

b) Forms of Charcoal 

The type of charcoal an artist uses also decides and affects the preservation of artwork. Every charcoal form has its distinct use, property, and characteristic. Every charcoal stick has its tonal value range and blending capabilities. 

For example, vine charcoal has the best toning capacities, resulting in the seamless blending of skin tones, atmospheric effects, faces, etc. These sticks contain no binding agent and are thus easily erasable.

Vine Charcoal Sticks

Vine Charcoal Sticks

Credit: Juna Biagioni Art

On the other hand, compressed charcoal leaves more consistent and permanent marks on the paper. Because of its gum binder, compressed charcoal is difficult to erase and rub off. These sticks make permanent marks that are tough to change or reverse. 

Compared to vine charcoal sticks, compressed charcoal is ultra-black and gives a matte finish. However, they are not smoothly blendable or smudgeable like vine charcoal.

compressed charcoal

compressed charcoal

Credit: Amazon

Thus, every form of charcoal leaves a unique imprint on the charcoal drawings affecting its maintenance and preservation.

drawing using charcoal

Credit: My Sketch Journal

c) Environmental Conditions

Direct sunlight, moisture, or excessive heat can negatively impact charcoal sketches like any other medium. There is a misconception among people that sunlight does not harm charcoal. However, the sun's ultraviolet rays react with the color tones leading to faded hues. 

Direct sunlight disturbs charcoal's light and dark tones, giving the art a bland look after some time. The UV rays in sunlight react with the colors' chemicals and harm the painting. Bright sun rays are one of the most significant causes of charcoal’s wear and tear. 

The damp and humid conditions can cause the growth of bacteria or fungus on the painting. The excess moisture can degrade the charcoal, causing them to decay much quicker. Tiny water droplets can fill up the pores, causing smearing and mixing of pencil layers and tonal range. 

Like other paintings, charcoal art is also prone to damage because of extreme heating conditions. Heat damages the canvas fibers causing warping, creasing, weakening, and breaking the material. 

Exposure to hot conditions can lead to expanding and contraction of the canvas, further leading to deterioration. Heat sources can distort, twist and split the canvas into bits and pieces. The fixatives applied to the charcoal can generate harmful fumes if reacted with heat. 

Thus, these three elements can cause irreversible destruction to charcoal sketches and drawings.

Cracked walls

Credit: Popular Science

Cracked walls

Credit: PCI Magazine

2) Tips to Preserve Charcoal Drawings

Here are some tips and tricks to preserve charcoal drawings and keep them looking lively, fresh, and fantastic even after decades.

  • Avoid keeping or hanging charcoal under sunlight or in overly lit areas. Keeping in direct sunlight over time can affect the colors and contrasts of the charcoal. 
  • Seal your charcoal art with a spray varnish or fixatives. These sealers keep the charcoal drawings unaltered and in good condition for a long time. Fixatives create a barrier between the external harmful elements and the charcoal, keeping the sketch safe. 
  • Store charcoal canvases in places with cool, dry areas. The fluctuating climate conditions can cause the canvas to crack and damage forever. 
  • Frame your charcoal canvas for dust protection. Framing also adds a pleasant and appealing look to the entire piece. 
  • Keep your charcoal away from extreme heating devices like heaters, fireplaces, and hot furnaces. Heat causes the canvas to expand, crack and flake away. 
  • Regularly clean your framed charcoal painting ( with a dry cloth. Cleansing and wiping help remove any debris deposited upon the art piece.

Thus, with proper care and awareness about causes, effects, and cures, you can ensure the safety of your charcoal pieces.

Conclusion

Charcoal is a dynamic and versatile medium that helps artisans create bold and stunning artwork. The more fragile the medium, the more wondrous imprints and outcomes it provides. From light, delicate sketches to dark impactful drawings, charcoals cover every range and effect. 

Though getting familiar with charcoal can be time-consuming and demanding, once learned, there is no better medium than it. Charcoal drawing, initially, may be difficult to handle, preserve and protect, but with time it gets more promising. 

So, try these sealing techniques and explore your creativity without worrying about charcoal’s preservation and protection.