Artists use charcoal as a drawing medium because it does not adhere very well to most artists' papers. The looseness of the medium means that an artist can literally push the charcoal around the paper to blend light and dark areas. Blending is usually accomplished with a tightly rolled piece of paper called a stump or with a brush or a tissue. Artists can also create highlights in a charcoal drawing by completely rubbing the charcoal off the paper with a stump, an eraser or a small ball of bread.
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The Problem With Charcoal
Unfortunately, the same properties that make charcoal such a workable medium also make it very fragile. After a charcoal drawing is finished, it is usually matted. Matting sandwiches the drawing paper between two thin sheets of cardboard. The top sheet always has a square cut in the middle to expose the drawing. The matted drawing is then usually covered with glass and framed. Or, if it is already sold when it is finished, the artist may let the buyer frame it and simply cover his matted drawing with plastic film. Other delicate mediums like pastels get the same treatment.
It is also very common for artists to spray their charcoal drawings with fixate while still on the drawing board before they are matted. Colormen, the traditional name for businesses who make and sell artists' materials, sell relatively inexpensive "fixers" in aerosol cans. While the charcoal drawing is still on the board, the artist lightly sprays his work with the fixer. The fixer takes two or three minutes to dry and the artist may re-spray his work up to five times. The fixer bonds the charcoal to the paper and forms an impervious surface that can be touched without damaging the drawing.
Most struggling artists are offended by the cost of art supplies, however, and commercially prepared fixers can cost as much as $10 a can and last through only a dozen drawings or less. So, almost everyone who works with charcoal and pastels concludes at some point that hairspray is cheaper and works just as well. Eventually, they may decide it does not. Hairspray will fix charcoal to paper and make a charcoal drawing safe to touch, but it yellows much faster than artists' fixates. Since the key ingredient in both fixatives and hairspray is shellac, some experienced artists learn to make their own fixers.
Make and Use Fixate
You can make your own fixate by adding about one tbsp. of white shellac (which is actually clear) to four ounces of isopropyl alcohol in a paper cup. You can stir the preparation with anything, then pour it into a plastic spray bottle. You must always spray fixer solutions onto a charcoal drawing. You will change and ruin your work if you try to paint it on with a brush. Set the spray bottle to the finest spray setting and apply it like a commercial fixer or hairspray. You can store your homemade fixate at room temperature in any sealable container, and you should rinse the nozzle of your spray bottle with alcohol to prevent it from clogging.