Should Artists Use Hairspray as a Fixative?

Closeup of a hairspray bottle with rainbow background, pop art style

Last updated October 30, 2022 by Foundmyself

Artists have been using hairspray as a fixative for years, with many praising it for its relatively inexpensive cost and effectiveness. Other artists claim it’s damaging to the artwork, and shouldn’t be used at all. So, who’s right?

What is an artist’s fixative?

An artist fixative is a clear spray that holds pastel, charcoal, and pencil drawings in place. It helps prevent smudging, and some can even offer UV protection from the sun.

Non-workable fixatives can also help preserve a work of art. Workable fixatives also exist, and allow the artist to continue working on the drawing after it has been sprayed.

The pros of using an artist fixative are that it can hold the drawing in place and preserve it. The cons are that it can be expensive and it can alter the appearance of the drawing.

Benefits of using hairspray as a fixative

It’s cheap

Depending on which decade you’re from, there’s a decent chance you have a bottle of cheap hairspray hiding in a long-forgotten cupboard.

Large cans often cost only a few dollars, and practically any drug store will carry a good selection.

It’s effective

Having used it myself, I can attest to the fact that using hairspray on your drawing does indeed help prevent smudging. That said, I wouldn’t use it on any art I truly cared about. Why?

Fixative spraying a rainbow-colored mist over a row of oil pastel sticks.

The downsides of using hairspray as a fixative

Oily mixtures can stain your art

Since the manufacturers of hairspray are designing their products for hair, quite a few of the mixtures contain oils and other chemicals that can visibly stain your art. If you need to save money on buying an artist-quality fixative, at the very least you should test the hairspray on a blank piece of the same paper as your drawing. Ideally, you’d be able to wait a month or two as well to see if there’s any degradation of the surface such as color or texture changes.

The spray nozzle isn’t as good

Artist fixatives have nozzles designed for spraying art. Therefore, the mist that comes out is finer and more evenly spread than many less expensive alternatives. After all, you don’t want large blobs of fixative sprayed across your beautiful creation!

It can yellow and discolor your art

While a “real” fixative can discolor artwork a bit, with hairspray, many artists complain that it can yellow the paper and even distort the colors of the drawing itself.

What’s the final verdict?

Only use hairspray as a fixative if you have no other choice, have tested it extensively, or aren’t concerned with its possible side effects.

If you do want to stick with hairspray (bad pun intended), and you have a little extra cash, you can do what resident artist Sharla does. She says, “I purchased a can [of artist fixative] to use for my best projects & simply switch the nozzle to the hairspray for the less expensive projects.” That way you can at least produce a fine mist out of the cheap can.

Do you think one’s better than the other? Tell us why in the comments below!

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