JAIC 1996, Volume 35, Number 3, Article 5 (pp. 239 to 254)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1996, Volume 35, Number 3, Article 5 (pp. 239 to 254)

THE SHIFTING FUNCTION OF ARTISTS' FIXATIVES

MARGARET HOLBEN ELLIS



3 FACTORS IN THE SHIFTING FUNCTION OF FIXATIVES

Several specific technological and aesthetic developments—some occurring over decades and others seemingly overnight—contributed to the diversification of fixative usage and resulted in the ambiguous purposes of fixatives today.


3.1 THE DANGERS OF AIR POLLUTION AND LIGHT

Among the earliest factors leading to broader applications of fixatives was the discovery of the deleterious effects of air pollution on paper and pigments and, shortly thereafter, the official announcement that light fades the organic colorants found in watercolors.

The damage caused by smoke from charcoal fires to works of art was noted as early as the 17th century in France (Chahine and Leroy 1981). Later, sulfur-bearing pollution was recognized to be a danger in urban areas such as London. As early as 1842, American scientists identified pollution as the culprit in the deterioration of leather book bindings, a theory confirmed and expanded to include paper in 1887 by Viennese researchers (Marwick 1964, 24).

As for damage to certain colored pigments from light, as early as the 1820s warnings were already being sounded that watercolors on exhibition were fading, leading 60 years later to one of the most famous documents in conservation, the Russell and Abney Reporton the Action of Light on Water Colours of 1888 (Cohn 1977, 64). Probably adding urgency to this commissioned investigation was the fact that watercolors were now commanding significant prices as a result of their newly acquired recognition as bona fide artworks.

Recommendations to protect works of art on paper, specifically watercolors, gouache (body color), and tempera paintings, from the dangers of air pollution and light were many. One popular attempt was the use of a fixative, which was felt to protect pigments from air and moisture by “locking them up” within an impermeable film (Heaton 1932).

For instance, in the widely advertised “system” of tempera painting promoted in a pamphlet by Baron Alfonso de Pereira in 1893, the use of a resin-based fissativo was recommended to protect the finished painting from air and, should it become dirty, to allow it to be cleaned with a damp sponge (Pereira 1893, 7). Similarly, English watercolorists were exhorted to preserve their works by the use of fixatives or varnishes or suffer the consequences. In his book on watercolor painting techniques, Lintott laments that “many of Paul Sandby's body colour pictures are now faded and discoloured; they were not varnished, and the air, damp, and dust have, in most cases, destroyed all the brightness of colouring, but those which have been carefully preserved have not suffered in this way” (Lintott 1928, 122). A watercolor dated 1748 by Paul Sandby is in the Fogg Art Museum (Harvard University Art Museums, Gift of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1942.48). A technical examination revealed that the work was indeed varnished by the artist, but contrary to Lintott's prediction was subsequently cleaned and revarnished during a 19th-century remounting treatment occasioned by its darkened and deteriorated varnish (Dreisse 1989).

Among the more vocal proponents of preserving works of art on paper by the use of a protective fixative was the dynamic French colorman and artist, J. G. Vibert (Cohn 1977). In his 1892 book The Science of Painting, Vibert asks rhetorically why watercolors should be fixed and goes on to answer as follows:

Water colours, even under glass, are often spoilt by many causes. The dampness which penetrates into the paper, facilitating the fermentation of the gum with which the colours are ground, causes the formation of microscopic fungi. The painting is then said to be getting rotten or sticky. Excess of heat, produced by the proximity of a fireplace or the rays of the sun through glass, brings the gum to such a state of dryness that it scales off imperceptible quantities, and leaves the paper, taking the colour with it. The water colour is then said to fade; as an art critic remarked, it forms breakfast for the sun. Now, the object of the fixative is to prevent the sun from breakfasting upon water colours, and dampness from cultivating fungi on them (Vibert 1892, 152).

Vibert specifically addresses the dangers of air pollution. He says:

Penetrating deeply into the paper, it [the fixative] surrounds the gum and the colouring-matters with a transparent cement, always supple, as hard as glass, incorruptible, and quite impervious. It cannot be attacked by any acid, so that colours which cannot be used habitually, because of the influence of the gases in the atmosphere spoiling them, remain, when thus protected, perfectly permanent. Besides these two destructive agents, dampness and dryness, which the fixative paralyses, water colours may be ruined in other ways. If left exposed to air, the paper gets yellow in time. Even in a box they catch dust, and even under glass coal smoke reaches them and spoils them. The fixative remedies all this. The paper does not get yellow when the water colour is fixed, and, however dirty and greasy it may become, washing with a clean soft sponge, water and soap restores its brightness and freshness. These are the services which [a] fixative renders to the amateur anxious to preserve the water colours which he buys and which he loves (Vibert 1892, 153).

Vibert's campaign to preserve watercolors by the use of a fixative has persisted for well over a century, as evidenced by several products recently on the market. A 1979 advertisement for Pro-Fix claims that, in addition to its task as a consolidant, the fixative “waterproofs the finished pastel or charcoal and protects paper from the effects of natural aging and air pollution” (Adam Chemical Company 1979). Another product, Blair Marker-Fix, is advertised as preventing the fading of the notoriously sensitive dyes contained in fiber-tipped pens and markers. Blair's Calligra Cote spray fixative is recommended for “fixing” water soluble inks and to “seal” watercolors from the atmosphere (Daniel Smith Catalog of Artist's Materials).

It is critical to note to whom Vibert is speaking. His exhortation is aimed not at the artist but at the “amateur anxious to preserve the water colours which he buys and which he loves” (Vibert 1892, 153). Thus, when fixatives were used to prevent environmental damage, their function began to change from simply adhering powdery pigment particles to paper to protecting all works of art on paper from air pollution, humidity, heat, and light. Perhaps of even greater significance, substances once applied by the artist during or immediately after a work's creation began to be applied by a well-intended custodian wishing to preserve an artwork for posterity.

Two more developments, also technological in nature, catalyzed the confusion over the role of fixatives in the creation and preservation of artworks.


3.2 THE DEVELOPMENT OF SYNTHETIC RESINS

Synthetic resins, developed in the late 19th century, were quickly welcomed by artists searching for the perfect fixative. One of the earliest adopted for use as a fixative, in both its traditional function and as that of a universal protective coating, was cellulose nitrate. In the strictest sense, cellulose nitrate is not a “synthetic” resin, since it is derived from a natural substance (Mayer [1940] 1991, 200). Derivatives of cellulose, produced from reactions with nitric acid, were first announced in 1838. Depending upon their degree of nitration, from 10% to 13%, cellulose nitrate products included pyroxylin, collodion, and gun cotton, each having different properties and end uses. Plasticized with camphor, cellulose nitrate was introduced as Celluloid by John Hyatt in 1869 (Mayer [1940] 1991).

As early as 1890, a French restorer enthusiastically recommended the use of cellulose nitrate to preserve valuable papers. A layer of collodion was cast across a marble tabletop and the paper to be preserved was quickly dropped onto it. After drying, the paper was encased in a transparent and impermeable coating (Ris-Paquot 1890, 255).

Dissolved in amyl acetate, cellulose nitrate was marketed as a varnish and adhesive in Europe under the name of Zapon (Hiscox 1914; Doerner [1934] 1969) and in America as the familiar Duco (Mayer [1940] 1981). As a fixative and as a varnish, it quickly came to be preferred over the natural resins. Following in the footsteps of Vibert, writers such as Wilhelm Ostwald in his celebrated Letters to a Painter of 1907 were quick to recommend the use of Zapon for protecting watercolors. Ostwald, a noted color chemist, rationalized that Zapon had to be superior to bleached shellac, since Zapon was “completely colorless and therefore free from all danger of turning yellow” (Ostwald 1907, 68). Similarly, Hiliare Hiler specifically recommended cellulose nitrate varnish for watercolors and gouaches, commenting that, while its aging properties were unknown, “the way it stands up on automobiles under most unfavorable conditions … argues on its behalf” (Hiler 1937, 138). A group of posters by Toulouse-Lautrec in the Philadelphia Museum of Art appear to have been spray-coated with a cellulose nitrate varnish, presumably for protective reasons, but are now badly deteriorated. Fourier transform infrared analysis confirmed the composition of the coating (Zieske 1995). Three-dimensional objects could also be “Zaponized” by warming and immersing them in the varnish (Hiscox 1914, 728).

Zapon was thought to be the panacea for deteriorating documents in libraries to the extent that an 1899 meeting of German archivists in Dresden quickly became known as the Zapon Conference. At the conference, the director of the German state archives endorsed the use of pyroxylin lacquers for maps (Marwick 1964, 113–14; Vaisey 1974, 101). In this country, the Library of Congress considered the use of Zapon for strengthening and preserving deteriorated paper but preferred the use of silking. One of the deciding factors against the use of Zapon by the Library of Congress was its objectionable odor. A letter dated November 6, 1899, from the superintendent of the Manuscripts Department, Dr. Herbert Friedenwald, stated: “It accomplishes great things for the restoration of paper, but its very strong odor is, I fear, against its use. Is there any way of deodorizing it, or do you think the odor will disappear in time?” (Marwick 1964, 115). Sometimes described as the “banana solution,” Zapon owed its odor to amyl acetate (Hiler 1937, 110). Others must have shared Friedenwald's dislike; a peppermint-scented acrylic spray was introduced in 1957 by Acrolite Products (American Artist 1957, 15).

Dr. Friedenwald's caution was fortuitous, since the aging properties of cellulose nitrate were hardly an improvement over the natural resins used previously (Mills 1987). Depending upon their method of manufacture, cellulose nitrate products age from bad to worse. Familiar reminders of these poor aging characteristics are the first pressure-sensitive tapes, exemplified by Scotch “cellophane” tape, introduced by 3M Company in the late 1930s. While its natural rubber adhesive causes most of the actual damage to the paper to which it is applied, the cellulose nitrate carrier simultaneously becomes embrittled and yellow. Frequently, it curls and detaches altogether from the paper (Smith et al. 1984, 102). Additional examples of the rapid and severe degradation undergone by cellulose nitrate are the sculptures by Naum Gabo from the 1920s, many of which are now badly warped and discolored by age (Derrick et al. 1993).

A new family of plastics, acrylic resins, quickly superseded many of the applications assumed, if not created, by cellulose nitrate. Acrylic resins were first synthesized by Otto Röhm in Germany in the early 20th century and produced commercially in America by Röhm and Haas and DuPont in the 1930s (Mayer [1940] 1981, 192). An extremely versatile substance, acrylic resin can be made into a variety of products. Depending upon its viscosity, it can be used in solid form or as a gel for use as a paint vehicle, as is the case with Magna paints, manufactured by Bocour Artists' Colors. Like cellulose nitrate, acrylics could be thinned down into varnishes or, with the addition of even more solvent, into fixatives. A simultaneous technological advance, however, compounded the enormous impact of acrylics on artists by minimizing the other risk associated with fixatives—their method of application.


3.3 THE INVENTION OF THE AEROSOL SPRAY CONTAINER

Artists struggled with a variety of gadgets to apply fixatives, most based on an atomizer or blow pipe design, and all with unpredictable results. Until the mid-20th century, the only device providing a mechanized forced-air spray was the airbrush, invented by Charles Burdick, an amateur watercolor artist and founder in 1893 of De Vilbiss Ransburg Aerograph Products. Used mostly for tinting photographs, the airbrush does not appear to have infiltrated the “fine art” market. Hiler recommended the use of an airbrush for applying nitrocellulose varnishes and gives as examples of such practice the paintings of Paul Eugene Ulmann (Hiler 1937, 138).

Aerosol spray containers, invented in 1941 by the American chemist Lyle D. Goodhue for the application of insecticides (New Encyclopedia Brittanica 1991, 1:121), were first introduced to artists in 1948. Inside a container resembling a flat-topped soda can and prone to explosion was a thinned-down acrylic coating sold under the futuristic name of Krylon. Its appearance was heralded in the pages of American Artist under the headline of “Sprayer Prayer”:

A new plastic spray called Krylon [has been introduced], which we are told, will protect and preserve artwork, tracings, maps, window display, etc. Packaged in a new kind of sprayer, Krylon will be of particular interest to artists because it forms a plastic coating over pastels, charcoals, wash drawings, or oils; dries in less than a minute; and gives a protective coating which has resistance to discoloration at high temperatures, as well as to water, alcohol, alkali, acids, grease, etc. (American Artist 1948a, 56)

In these same pages, Fix-O-Spray was introduced as a “self-propelled fixative,” probably cellulose nitrate in a similar container with the same claims of protection. Advertising copy touted its ease of application: “No more blowing, no more clogging, no more spattering” (American Artist 1948b, 66). By 1950, a stronger container, better able to withstand its pressurized contents, was approved by the National Bureau of Explosives (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. An advertisement for Krylon acrylic spray from 1950, introducing the newly developed aerosol spray container. (American Artist 1950, 66)

If Krylon's claims of protection against acid, dampness, dirt, and grease sounded familiar and fell upon particularly receptive ears, perhaps it is because they echoed what had already been proclaimed by Vibert and others before him. From its inception, Krylon adopted a marketing strategy of protection. Advertising the product as “more than just a fixatif” (American Artist 1952a, 60), Krylon's manufacturer stressed the degree of protection Krylon provided to all art on paper. Its uses, and by extension the number of cans sold, were endless, as claimed in the hyperbolic advertising surrounding its introduction. “Artists spray Krylon on practically everything they turn out,” the advertisements announced. “We do everything but eat and drink Krylon acrylic spray” (American Artist 1952b, 62).

The shift from adhesion to preservation is reflected in the advertising copy, and in the very names, of the first acrylic fixatives: Pro-tek-to Spray, Paper-Cote, Duro-Fix, and Tuffilm. Tru-Pine's Sprayway was advertised as a clear protective coating against dirt, oil, grease, moisture, acidity, alkalinity, and alcohol (American Artist 1951, 64). The mention of smudging, the traditional problem to be rectified, is omitted, now overshadowed by other threats. Grumbacher stressed the protective properties of Tuffilm through its amusing marketing angle of preventing fingerprints caused by the “Digit Idiot,” a creature presumably damaging drawings not so fortunately protected (American Artist 1953a, 58) (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. The names of the early acrylic sprays stressed the protection they provided. (American Artist 1953a, 58)

Krylon also borrowed Vibert's appeal to the concerned caretaker, not just the artist, to use a fixative for preservation purposes, coming up in 1953 with the slogan, “If you prize it—KRYLON-ize it” (American Artist 1953b, 52) (fig. 3). Another product, Plasti-Lac—an acrylic despite the brand name's implication that it was a cellulose nitrate lacquer—recalled Zapon, at least philosophically, as a protective spray for documents and maps. As with Vibert's appeal to the “amateur,” Plasti-Lac asserted that others, in this case librarians, had used the product for years to protect fine art and documents (American Artist 1954a, 54).

Fig. 3. (left) Advertised as a “modern fixatif,” Krylon urged potential consumers, “If you prize it—KRYLON-ize it!” (American Artist 1953b, 52)

Also packaged in the new aerosol spray containers, cellulose nitrate continued to be sold alongside acrylics, as did other synthetic resins, such as polyvinyl co-polymers (Blair Art Products 1986). The cellulose nitrate product was still labeled as a fixative, often fixatif, nostalgically recalling its disciplined use in the French Academy. Because of the matte, easily erasable film that cellulose nitrate forms, it remains a popular workable fixative today. Early advertisements for cellulose nitrate fixatives also made a point of their not being plastic, perhaps an indication of the rapidly developing prejudice against the often inferior plastic products bombarding the American consumer. In comparison, manufacturers of acrylics generally stressed their protective function and thoroughly modern formulation. Note the phonetic kinship between Blair's acrylic Spray-Tex and its cellulose nitrate Spray-Fix (American Artist 1954b, 16) (fig. 4).

Fig. 4. (above) Cellulose nitrate and acrylic products were both available in aerosol spray containers. The precise application of each remained unclear, despite manufacturers' efforts to distinguish between the two. (American Artist 1954b, 16)

With the invention of the aerosol spray can, the allure of a transparent, purportedly airtight, protective coating for paper became irresistible. Crystal-clear plastics were new and revolutionary, and the equally high-tech device for applying them could now be held in one's hand.


3.4 TERMINOLOGY

Part of the confusion in accurately defining the function of fixatives has been an ongoing problem in the use of the relatively new term “fixative.” According to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1991), the term was only introduced in 1855. Around the world, the term fixative (fissativo, fixatif, fixativ, fijativo) has been traditionally associated with varnish (vernice, vernis, firnisse, barniz), quite natural given that most early fixatives were simply thinned-down varnishes. Today a fixative is still defined as “a varnish used esp. for the protection of crayon drawings” (Webster's 1991) in both standard and specialized dictionaries. In the Getty Art History Program Art and Architecture Thesaurus(Getty Art History Program 1990) a fixative is likened to “varnish on a crayon drawing.” Likewise, in the Dictionary of Science and Technology (1992) an example of a fixative is “a varnish that preserves a drawing.”

It is interesting to note that in the second edition of Art and Architecture Thesaurus, the scope has been changed to “a substance used to increase the durability or stability of another substance, such as pigment on paper or dye in textiles” (Getty Art History Program 1994).

Corresponding to the vague definitions found in books are the equally confusing labels on products. For example, Grumbacher's product 556 is simply described as “Pastel Fixative Varnish.” The date of the bottle in question is uncertain. One Maimeri product currently on the market is labeled in both Italian and English: “Vernice fissativa aerosol: Protettiva per belle arte—Aerosol fixative varnish: universal protective for art work.” Because a fixative is often likened to a varnish or the two terms are used interchangeably, the connotation of overall protection and preservation is assumed to apply equally to fixatives, when, of course, they did not originally have that broader application.

The term “fixative” is often used among paper conservators to refer to the substances used to stabilize a water-sensitive medium prior to aqueous treatment, a definition akin to that of Pereira, Vibert, and Heaton. Today, this usage is generally confined to conservation literature (International Council of Archives 1988).


3.5 NEW PRESENTATION FORMATS

Coincident with the increased versatility of fixatives was the growing diversity of drawings produced in this century. No longer relegated to second-class status, many 20th-century drawings defy traditional framing either due to their size (Kindl and Brown 1990) or to the aesthetic intention of the artist. In the case of the oversized charcoal drawings by William Tucker, it has been said that the artist used cheap hair spray as a fixative, which has already begun to yellow (King 1985, 35), in a futile attempt to protect his drawings, some of which can exceed 9 by 30 ft. in size.

For other works, traditional framing interferes with the desired viewer experience. Some drawings by Ida Appelbroug, for instance, are intended to be tacked directly to the gallery wall. The artist likes the play of shadow caused by the curling paper of the drawings. Likewise, many Anselm Kiefer composite woodblock prints are adhered to gessoed canvas, which is meant to be hung unstretched on the gallery wall. In an attempt to circumvent traditional framing techniques, many contemporary artists seek a solution through the application of clear protective coatings, with varying degrees of success. One successful example is Bistineau Song (1981), by Clyde Connell, a large 8 × 6 ft. piece in charcoal and graphite on cut and pasted Japanese papers (fig. 5). On the verso of the piece the artist has noted that Acrylite was applied as a fixative. The artist, now age 94, is unable to provide additional information regarding Acrylite. It does appear to have aged well, however, and provided considerable protection against smudging.

Fig. 5. Clyde Connell, Bistineau Song, 1981, charcoal and graphite on Japanese papers. 96 × 72 in. Collection of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Wilson Nolan, acc. no. 1986. 107 A fixative was used instead of traditional framing to protect this oversized drawing.

Indeed, some sprayed acrylic coatings applied by artists in the course of their work do appear to have protected the completed works of art from environmental damage, perhaps in part because the presence of ultraviolet absorbers inhibits fading of colorants and darkening of lignin-containing papers. Nash Editions, a print publisher specializing in digital ink jet printing using water-based “vegetable” dyes, is silkscreening an ultraviolet filtering coating onto its prints to reduce fading (Brown 1992). Nash claims the process is effective. A similar formulation for an acrylic protective coating containing ultraviolet absorbers has been suggested to protect inked lines drawn by artist Paul Brach on an interior wall (Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation 1991, 61). New York artist Richard Chiriani collaborated with the Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University in his search for a protective spray for his oversized pastel and gouache works on paper (Pratt 1990). Protective spray coatings, carefully formulated and applied, are being used in certain situations in lieu of traditional framing and do appear to be effective at least in the short term. One must note, however, that conservators involved with such procedures have unanimously cautioned that such coatings applied by the artist cannot take the place of proper care and handling and environmental control for the artwork.


Copyright © 1996 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works