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)



ABSTRACT—Over the past century, the function of an artist's fixative grew from a simple mechanical consolidant of powdery pigment applied by the artist to an all-purpose prophylactic coating applied in the name of preservation by either the artist or a concerned caretaker. This change corresponded to several specific developments, both technical and aesthetic, including the discovery of the deleterious effect of air pollution and light on paper and organic colorants; the development of synthetic resins; the invention of the aerosol spray container; international confusion over terminology, specifically the distinction between varnish and fixative; and nontraditional presentation formats for 20th-century works of art due either to large size or to artist's intent. After a discussion of the history of fixative usage, each development is considered, with emphasis on its role in modifying the original function of artists' fixatives and the conservation issues to which these changes give rise. Given that fixatives have been recommended as protection against the environment for well over a century and have been used for that purpose with varying degrees of success, the time has come for a serious investigation of their effectiveness in this “modern” role. By understanding the evolution of this commonplace material, conservators will be better equipped to weigh the significance of the presence of fixatives when examining and treating works of art and to offer guidance to others in the arts community on appropriate applications of fixatives.

TITRE—La modification de la fonction des fixatifs des artistes. R�SUM�—Au cours du si�cle dernier, la foncion des fixatifs utilis�s par les artistes est pass�e d'un simple consolidant m�canique des pigments poudreux, appliqu� par l'artiste luim�me, � une couche protectrice � usages multiples appliqu�e, au nom de la pr�servation, aussi bien par l'artiste que par la personne en charge de l'oeuvre. Ce changement a fait �cho � divers d�veloppements aussi bien techniques qu'esth�tiques, qui incluent: la d�couverte des effets nuisibles de la pollution atmosph�rique et de la lumi�re sur le papier et les colorants organiques; le d�veloppement des r�sines synth�tiques; l'invention du vaporisateur a�rosol; la confusion internationale concernant la terminologie, surtout entre les termes vernis et fixatif; la pr�sentation non traditionnelle des oeuvres d'art du 20e si�cle due soit � leur grand format soit � l'intention de l'artiste. Apr�s un expos� de l'histoire de l'utilisation des fixatifs, chaque d�veloppement est pris en consid�ration, en mettant l'accent sur son r�le dans la modification de la fonction originalle des fixatifs des artistes et les probl�mes de conservation auxquels ces changements donnent lieu. Puisque les fixatifs sont recommand�s depuis plus d'un si�cle comme protection contre l'environnement et qu'ils sont utilis�s dans ce but avec divers degr�s de succ�s, c'est le temps d'�tudier s�rieusement l'efficacit� de leur r�le “moderne.” La compr�hension de l'�volution de l'usage de ce mat�riau tr�s courant permettra aux restaurateurs d'�tre mieux �quip�s pour �tudier les cons�quences de la pr�sence de fixatifs lors de l'examen et du traitement des oeuvres d'art, et de pouvoir conseiller les autres membres de la communaut� artistique quant � l'application appropri�e de ces fixatifs.

T�TULO—La funci�n cambiante de los fijadores usados por los artistas. RESUMEN—A lo largo del ultimo siglo, la funci�n del fijador usado por el artista paso de ser de un simple consolidante mec�nico para pigmentos en polvo aplicado por el artista, a un recubrimiento profil�ctico multiusos, aplicado en nombre de la preservaci�n ya sea por el artista o la persona a cargo del cuidado de la obra. Este cambio coincidi� con varios desarrollos espec�ficos, tanto t�cnicos como est�ticos, incluyendo: el descubrimiento de los efectos nocivos de la contaminaci�n ambiental y la luz sobre el papel y colorantes org�nicos; el desarrollo de resinas sint�ticas; la invenci�n de recipientes para rociado en aerosol; confusi�n internacional sobre la terminolog�a, especificamente entre barniz y fijador; formatos de presentaci�n no tradicionales para obras sobre papel del siglo 20, ya sea debido al gran tama�o de las mismas o a la intenci�n del artista. Despu�s de una discusi�n de la historia del uso del fijador, cada uno de los desarrollos antes mencionados es considerado, con �nfasis en su papel como modificadores de la intenci�n original de los fijadores para artistas y en los problemas de conservaci�n a que estos cambios dan lugar. Dado que los fijadores han sido recomendados como protecci�n contra el ambiente por mas de un siglo y que han sido usados pare este prop�sito con un grado variable de �xito, ha llegado el momento para una seria investigaci�n de su efectividad en esta funci�n “moderna.” Por medio del entendimiento de este material com�n, los conservadores estar�n mejor equipados para sopesar el significado de la presencia de fijadores al examinar y tratar obras de arte, y para ofrecer orientaci�n sobre la aplicaci�n apropiada de fijadores a otros en la comunidad art�stica.


Many conservators and curators who routinely examine 20th-century works of art on paper have noticed that, judging from the frequency and manner in which a fixative has been used, its original function has changed. It appears to have evolved from a simple consolidant of powdery pigment applied by the artist to an all-purpose prophylactic coating applied in the name of preservation either by the artist or by a concerned caretaker (Arnold 1986). A careful consideration of the history of fixatives suggests that this shift from narrower to broader applications corresponded to several technological and aesthetic developments in the 19th and 20th centuries. Marketing strategies used to sell fixatives over the past century indicate that the function for which fixatives were touted has been changing from basic adhesion to universal protection. The extent to which this marketing reflects the actual intent of purchasers is uncertain, but there are indications that fixatives are now being used in certain situations in lieu of traditional framing. As a result of this apparently greater versatility, today artists, collectors, curators, and conservators are often confused not only about what a fixative is, but also about why, when, how, and by whom fixatives are to be used.

It is important that conservators and art historians better understand the methods, materials, and rationale behind the use of fixatives, particularly in this century. The fixative may have been applied by the artist during or immediately after a work's creation, in which case it adds to our understanding of the artist's intent, with regard to not only the aesthetic aspects of the work, but also to his/her expectations for the work's permanence. On the other hand, the fixative may have been added later by an owner, curator, or restorer, and this might indicate the relative esteem in which the work was held: high enough to warrant using what was being promoted as state-of-the-art protection, but perhaps not enough to justify traditional glazed framing.

Conservators must of course consider both the aesthetic and the chemical consequences of fixatives on works of art and their potential impact on treatments. One must anticipate possible fixative use in what would otherwise be unexpected areas, such as on a support beyond the image area, and explore the consequences of these materials on both the image and the support materials. By understanding the evolution of this commonplace material, conservators will be better equipped to weigh the significance of the presence of fixatives when examining works of art and proposing conservation treatments.


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 [1940] 1981; Wehlte 1982; Mayer [1940] 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 ([1934] 1969), and Mayer ([1940] 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.


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.


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.


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 R�hm in Germany in the early 20th century and produced commercially in America by R�hm 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.


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.


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).


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.


The study of the shift in function of fixatives would be merely an esoteric chapter in the history of artists' materials if it were not for two ramifications of its “modern” incarnation as all-purpose protection. First, well-intended caretakers may feel compelled to spray works of art with protective coatings in the benevolent name of preservation, as they have been urged to do since the days of Vibert more than a century ago. Experience indicates that this practice is not advisable because of the aesthetic changes that someone other than the artist imposes upon the work of art, not to mention the dangers inherent in making uninformed choices of fixative formulations. Second, and of far more importance, is the fact that fixatives are being used by artists instead of traditional framing to provide protection for drawings. Furthermore, artists are turning to conservators for advice on the procedure. Thus conservators now not only must consider the aesthetic and chemical consequences of the presence of fixatives on works of art, but they must also offer guidance to those in the arts community on the appropriate application of fixatives. While much research has been done on the aging characteristics of synthetic resins and their behavior as varnishes, little reliable information exists regarding their success in preserving paper. Thanks to the technological developments discussed above, the application of more chemically stable fixatives is just a spray away. At present, however, conservators simply do not have sufficient information to make a judgment—positive or negative—regarding the effectiveness of fixatives in their expanded role.


The author wishes to acknowledge the American Academy in Rome and the National Endowment for the Arts for their support of this research. The following individuals contributed their invaluable assistance and insight: Mark Aronson, Yale University Art Gallery; Lucy Belloli, Ellen Pratt, and Marjorie Shelley, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Paul Banks; Craigen Bowen, Harvard University Art Museums; Brian Connell; Mark Golden, Golden Artist Colors, Inc.; Marlis M�ller, Cynthia Connelly, Rachel Mustalish, and Robert Stacy, Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University; Antoinette King, formerly of the Museum of Modern Art; Terrence Mahon, Painting Conservator, New York; Joyce Plesters, formerly of the National Gallery, London; and Faith Zieske and Beth Price, Philadelphia Museum of Art.


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MARGARET HOLBEN ELLIS received a B.A. in art history from Barnard College, Columbia University (1975), and an M.A. in art history and diploma in conservation (1979) from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. In 1977, she joined the Department of Paper Conservation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she is retained as consulting conservator of prints and drawings. Since 1987 she has worked at the Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, where she holds the position of chairman and professor of conservation. She has written and lectured extensively about the conservation of prints and drawings with emphasis on 20th-century materials and techniques. In 1994 she was a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, where research on this article was initiated. Address: 14 E. 78th St., New York, N.Y. 10021

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