Thursday, May 10, 2007

Readers' questions: wax bloom and the use of fixative

Macro Hibiscus
21cm x 19.5cm, coloured pencil on Rising hot press paper
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

The blog posts for today and tomorrow are a bit different - they're both responses to questions sent to me by readers. I'm happy to respond to questions from readers of this blog but prefer to do it on my blog so that everybody else can share in the answer. I've edited the correspondence to keep it simple! The first question is about wax bloom and the use of fixative and the one tomorrow will be about sketching across a double page spread in a sketchbook.

Bloom and Fixative
My plan is to exhibit a few pieces at a small local exhibition in August. I'm becoming increasingly panicky though, with this subject 'Wax Bloom' which apparently can appear and reappear weeks or even months later. I would like to use a fixative, but after asking Winsor & Newton the ingredients of their fix (I rang Sanford in the US and asked for a list of contents of their fixer) it seemed it was an entirely different product to Sanfords! Do you use a fixer? Do you Burnish or Buff?
This is one for the coloured pencil artists. I have to confess - I've very rarely suffered from wax bloom so answers included here are ones I've learned about from others over time - so thanks are due to all those who've shared their knowledge with me in the past and/or via the Internet. Everybody seems to develop their own individual approach to this issue and there is no one 'right' answer - you need to work out what works best for you.

"Wax Bloom" is something which can occur if coloured pencils which include wax as a component are used. The technical term is efflorescence. The wax can rise to the surface and leave a whitish haze over a piece. It tends to occur if dark colours are used, if many layers are put down in one spot and/or if the CP is buffed/burnished to smooth the colour. Climate has also been noted by some as seeming to have some part to play in the extent to which wax blooms.

Wax bloom often doesn't appear straight away - but can be apparent after a little while. Some people have noted wax bloom appearing after quite some time. It may be that in these cases the piece in question is very heavily saturated with wax and it will keep rising to the surface until it has all disappeared. However I do wonder in these cases whether the piece in question has been on full view all the time or whether the wax bloom appeared while it was stored - in which case it might have appeared sooner rather than later.

I'm guessing here but in pastels the darker pigments have always tended to be rougher in application. Having experimented with grinding different pigments I know how much they can vary in their degree of innate hardness and I think it's more than likely that the darker wax-based coloured pencils (and any others where the base pigment is 'hard') might have an extra dollop of wax in their composition to help keep them smooth in their application.

"Macro Hibiscus" is one of the very few pieces on which I've ever had wax bloom. There are very many layers of CP in this piece, particularly around the centre. I used a number of different pencils with this - and indeed at one point I thought I was colouring in the middle of an oil slick as the oil based pencils warmed up. However I did use some Karima pencils (which were the European version of Prismacolor) and I did get some bloom - which I rubbed away using a cotton bud. I've just scanned it again after it's been in a finished work folder for quite some time and I can't see any residual bloom.

Here are some suggestions as to ways of dealing with bloom
  • Use oil-based pencils (eg Faber Castell Polychromos; Lyra Rembrandt) instead of wax-based ones (eg Prismacolour) - no wax, no bloom!
  • Use watercolour pencils - they contain no wax.
  • Use a fixative to stop wax bloom from happening; artists whose work takes a long time sometimes spray using workable fixative as the work progresses.
  • Wipe the bloom off with a soft cloth and/or cotton wool and/or a cotton bud. A soft tissue is quite abrasive. Jeffrey Smart Baisden recommends using the complimentary shoe shine cloth from hotels! A cloth designed to use when polishing the lens of glasses would probably be a good choice also as it should be non-abrasive.
  • Be careful not to smudge your work and mask white/light colored areas when wiping off bloom from darker areas. You may need to restate colours before using fixative.
Artists who use fixative say that it darkens colours so it can also help with the richness of colours if you're using dark colours - which are of course those most prone to create wax bloom. However test before you use it to see whether you like the effect. Artists have watched in horror while fixative melted their work! (Now you understand one of the reasons why I don't use fixative!). Workable Fixative can be found in the USA but I've never seen it advertised in the UK - and I don't use fixative at all. If anybody knows of a brand and source of workable fixative obtainable in the UK (bearing in mind that flammable items don't tend to be shipped by art supplies people) I'd be interested to know and wouldn't mind giving it a go to see what it does to my work.

Recommendations for the use of fixative include:
  • check the ingredients
  • check whether the fixative is 'workable' or 'final' anbd use as appropriate
  • read the directions!
  • test first and every time you change the brand of coloured pencils you use.
  • only spray in a very well ventilated area - preferably outside. Important for your health but also because this is lethal stuff in more ways than one - see below
  • do not spray in the presence of flames
  • always use several very light bursts rather than one long sustained burst - the latter is very likely to create a drip!
  • mask any areas which you don't want to spray.
I've listed in the links a fascinating article from 1997 about categories of wax based drawing media - definitely one for the 'nerds' amongts us! It identified the components of different wax-based media (at that time) and also highlighted whether or not they tend to suffer from efflorescence.

[Update: Keep an eye on the comments as I think we might be getting some great extra advice - Nicole has kicked off with a great observation about the use of fixative on dark paper]

  • Categories of Wax-Based Drawing Media by Margaret Holben Ellis and M. Brigitte Yeh excerpted from "Wax Based Drawing Media--History, Technology and Identification: presented at AIC, June 1997
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  1. I absolutely HATE bloom. I've had to open up pieces from their frames too many times to rewipe and spray again with fixative. Then there's the problem of HAVING to use fixative because of the bloom only to have either the pencil actually disappear from the fixative or severely darken the piece. I use dark paper and for some reason after using fixative the dark paper shows through more after sprayed. Whatever it is fixative can wreck a piece when you spray it. You never know if that bloom will come back too and if the people who bought it will know what it is. A piece I did in college 11 years ago was wiped and sprayed with fixative and the bloom just keeps on coming back - that was back when the pencil's were made by Berol.

    I'm very happy with my new set up of pastelbord, Lascaux fixative, and varnish. I don't have any more problems with the bloom.

    The Lascaux fixative is expensive but my pieces so far have all looked the same after framed - no darkening of colors or disappearing colored pencil and no wax bloom.

  2. as a newcomer to CP's I haven't experienced this and hopefully, purely by chance as I liked them, I've chosen the right pencils - Polychromos and Lyra.

    A really interesting article

    .... and thank you Nicole for that further advice and Katherine for tagging me!


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