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Homemade Casein Fixative

October 27, 2016

I’ve been meaning to make fixative out of casein for some time now, but until recently I haven’t done much art in a medium that need it. Today, I was in a conversation with an online friend about types of fixatives, and this subject came up, so I thought it was a good time to make some and test it out. Conclusion: it works very well.

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If you’re possibly new to the term “fixative” and its use, it’s a coating that is added on top of dry media (charcoal, pastels, graphite, etc.) to keep it from smearing. Most commercial fixatives come in aerosol cans that use an acrylic resin. There’s a commercial brand of casein fixative on the market called SpectraFix. I’ve tried it, and it works okay; although, I’m not too fond of their pump sprayer.

I first heard of using casein as a fixative in a book about Paul Gauguin and his pastels where he learned this technique from Camille Pissarro. I later found a recipe for it in the Reed Kay book “The Painter’s Guide to Studio Methods and Materials.”
1 part by volume casein solution
2 parts by volume grain alcohol
5 parts by volume (distilled) water

The casein solution I used is the same as I always make for a base medium to start from. I describe it here in my most recent batch I made back in April. It has a couple drops of Thymol preservative in an 8 ounce mixture. It’s very easy to make. This batch came from raw milk, but it can also be made from dry casein powder, which I’ve talked about before. The grain alcohol I’m using is Everclear, which is 190 proof. A good clear Vodka could also work.

Mixing it was simple enough, so to apply it I used the Preval sprayer I wrote about a few years ago. I’ve used it occasionally for spraying primers and it works great. I found that the spray comes out with a little more force and volume than most aerosol cans I’ve used. As such, I knew to step back about 2 feet with the art surface upright, and move across the art in a quick sweeping motion; starting the spray off the art and finishing off the art.

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The plastic sheet above has the fixative on it, and the sheet below it has none, so you can see how it turns the plastic very dull. When sprayed on paper, even black paper, I don’t see anything. Held up to the light, I can’t see any reflections. Each coat dries very quickly, under 10 minutes. When soft pastels were sprayed with two coats, I didn’t get any smearing.

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At first, I got worried when I sprayed the grey pastels above. The whole image almost disappeared, but it came back as the fixative dried. It lost a little of it’s brightness, but otherwise worked fine. On the white paper sample, the color pastels didn’t seem to change value at all. It also works well on soft graphite pencils and charcoal.

I would have no concerns using this fixative on my finished work. I could also layer it; although, I would be reluctant to build it up too much – 3 to 4 coats max. The water content could cause paper to buckle, especially thin paper, unless it was stretched or taped down before the drawing was started.

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