THE SHIFTING FUNCTION OF ARTISTS' FIXATIVES
MARGARET HOLBEN ELLIS
2 HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Beginning in at least the 16th century, if not before, traditional fixatives were composed of weak solutions of natural resins, such as dammar or shellac, various vegetable gums, fish glue, beer, casein, and countless homemade concoctions. They were applied to drawings done in friable media, most commonly charcoal, chalk, pastel, and, less frequently, graphite pencil. The function of the fixative was to adhere powdery drawing media to a support, usually paper. Most often these drawings were academic exercises or working sketches. The fixative prevented excessive smudging while the drawings were handled during the creation of more important works of art in the reigning hierarchy of artistic production, such as paintings, frescoes, or sculptures.
Generally, fixatives were and still are of two types, depending upon when they were applied. Their makeup varied accordingly. A “workable” fixative was applied by the artist while creating the drawing. It was meant to isolate layers of smudgible medium so that the artist could rework passages or build upon previous designs. The newly applied charcoal, chalk, pastel, or graphite was not repelled by the matte surface of the fixative, a sufficiently poor film-former that could be erased if necessary.
Numerous artists, including Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, and Odilon Redon, evolved idiosyncratic methods of applying fixatives as part of their overall working procedures. Several conservators have documented the use of fixatives as part of the unique creative processes developed by these artists (Jirat-Wasiutynski and Jirat-Wasiutynski 1980; Maheux 1988; Fletcher and DeSantis 1989; Shelley 1989; Jirat-Wasiutynski 1990; Boggs and Maheux 1992; Burns 1994; Stratis 1994). The complex and highly individualized use of fixatives by these artists falls beyond the realm of this discussion, since in many instances the final works of art were visually dependent upon how the fixative was applied and its proprietary formulation.
The other type of fixative was the “final” fixative, which was applied by the artist at the completion of a drawing. This fixative's purpose was to provide some degree of protection to the friable medium. It was not intended to preserve the paper itself or the artwork in a holistic sense. By and large, the final fixative produced a more continuous and durable film over a greater expanse of the drawing.
As a brief aside, it is important to differentiate between the historical application of a transparent substance for purely protective reasons and the practice of varnishing popular prints and watercolors to make them resemble more costly oil paintings, with which watercolors were competing for sale. Another reason for varnishing was to avoid the high price of glass, a trend that can be traced back to Oliver Cromwell's duty imposed on glass in 1645 (Mason 1992). Despite sharing the same unfortunate consequences in terms of conservation, this practice has entirely different motivations and a fascinating history of its own (Lambert 1987; Mason 1992). Likewise, a distinction must be made for the common practice of varnishing maps to render them waterproof and more resilient when rolling and unrolling (Petrokova 1992).
Artists have traditionally been wary of fixatives, and for good reason. Not only was the chemical composition risky, in that the artist did not know how well a fixative would actually perform as an adhesive or how it would age, but its method of application was unpredictable as well. Throughout history, various secret fixing solutions and mechanical devices for applying them were announced, demonstrated with great fanfare, patented, and abandoned (Meder 1978; Shelley 1989; Boggs and Maheux 1992). For example, the Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard created complex pastels that were drawn and fixed on both sides of the paper (Roethlisberger 1990). The actual process of fixing was entrusted to a Monsieur Jurine of Geneva, whose competence Liotard compared to that of Antoine-Joseph Loriot, a noted French inventor (Anderson 1994). Loriot was said to have found the best way of fixing pastels with equal quantities of alcohol and fish glue sprinkled over the surface with a brush. Loriot made his discovery in 1753 but forbade its disclosure. Ten years later a pastel was shown at the Salon that had been half fixed and half not in order to show that no color changes had occurred. Finally, in 1780, Loriot went public and demonstrated his technique to the Academie de Peinture.
The chemical instability of many earlier formulations, particularly those derived from natural resins, caused yellowing and embrittlement of both the fixative and the paper it penetrated (Stratis 1994). Over time, a characteristic haze of discolored fixative slowly obscures the design lines and shifts the tonality of colored pigments. In most cases, removal of the disfiguring fixative is not possible due to resulting disruption of the loosely bound medium it was originally meant to stabilize. As Stratis (1994) and Jirat-Wasiutynski (1990) point out, the inevitable mellowness seems to have been anticipated by the artist and therefore is presumed to be intentional.
The way in which a fixative was applied could also make a critical difference in the success of the operation—both immediately and, as the fixative aged, in the future. Large droplets and rivulets of fixative resulted from mouth blowers that were used well into the middle of this century. Atomizers, powered by rubber bulbs attached to a tube running into a closed container of fixative, could produce only intermittent puffs of fixative, as well as large and small aspirated drops. A “spray” of fixative could also be flung from a flexed, stiff brush. As a result of uneven application of fixative, loose pigment particles could coalesce and dry into dappled patterns as the solvent evaporated. More aggressive application methods, such as dipping, floating, brushing, or steaming the verso of the drawing, could cause sensitive dyes in pastels to bleed through the solvent-saturated paper. If too viscous or heavily applied, the fixative also compacted the velvety, fluffy texture typical of pastels and muddied their clear, fresh colors.
This definition of the traditional function of a fixative is found in most artists' handbooks, both modern and historic (Hiler 1937; Gettens and Stout 1942; Hiler 1954; Massey 1967; Chaet 1979; Mayer  1981; Wehlte 1982; Mayer  1991; Gottsegen 1993), as well as in standard references in the history of drawing (Meder 1978). Various recipes for homemade fixatives with the same end purpose are also listed in compendia of household hints such as Henley's, which gives the following tip for times of scarcity:
During the [American] Civil War, when both alcohol and shellac were not purchasable, and where, in the field especially, ink was almost unknown, and sized paper of any description, a rarity, men in the field were compelled to use the pencil for correspondence of all sorts. Where the communication was of a nature to make its permanency desirable, the paper was simply dipped in skim milk, which effected the purpose admirably. Such documents written with a pencil on unsized paper have stood the wear and rubbing of upward of 40 years (Hiscox 1914, 344).
This “traditional” usage of fixatives is still very much accepted by the majority of artists. In most art schools, fixatives, albeit of different formulation and application method, are routinely prescribed to reduce the smudging of susceptible drawings. Faculty also now have access to up-to-date literature and conservation expertise and can thus avoid many of the adverse reactions of fixatives described above. While technical information such as fading charts and toxicity ratings are today much more easily obtained directly from manufacturers, thanks in large part to the lobbying efforts of organizations such as the Artists Equity Association and the Art and Craft Materials Institute, this was not always the case; witness the popularity of the first editions of Ostwald (1907), Doerner ( 1969), and Mayer ( 1991).
It must be kept in mind, however, that artists have always been the targeted audience for the marketing campaigns of fixative manufacturers. For well over a century now, artists have been urged to use fixatives to protect drawings in all media, including watercolors, from the environment, that is heat, light, moisture, and air pollution. Pamphlets, testimonials, manufacturers' catalogs, and advertisements in artists' magazines communicated to consumers the more “modern” usage of fixatives. In America, many “new” fixatives made their appearance in American Artist. First published in 1937, American Artist remains one of the few publications aimed at practicing artists, both amateur and professional, addressing technical matters and announcing new products on the market. Thus, even though artists steadfastly endorse the original function of the fixative, at the same time they have been exposed to its many mutations, particularly in the 20th century.