This is an interesting question – the first question should be why do you need to set charcoal?
If you are new to the art world, then you may not have ever heard of the term fixative.
To put it simply, a fixative is something that you spray on top of your artwork to preserve it – to keep it from getting smudged and destroyed, as well as being affected by its surroundings e.g. dust or mold.
This is needed as, on its own, charcoal is especially difficult to work with due to the fact that it can rub off of your paper or canvas so easily.
A fixative is a liquid that is made from either casein or resin, along with an ingredient that evaporates relatively quickly – like alcohol.
Fixatives have been compared to varnish – but it is something that works to preserve your artwork from any damage, as well as helps your pigment or graphite set. However, a fixative is also known for its negative color changes while being used for pastels and on colored paper – something artists have to take into account when they use the products.
But what does that have to do with hairspray?
Can you use hairspray to set charcoal? The answer is yes – you can use hairspray to set your charcoal drawing if needed, but you should use a professional fixative if you are serious about drawing.
Hairspray can be used to set charcoal because of the unique properties it possesses that make it so great for “setting” your hairstyle.
It is a clear liquid spray with specific chemical properties (polymers) that cause it to create a film over what you spray it on – your hair, or your charcoal drawing – when it dries.
If you are working with charcoal in particular – you will have to secure and protect it somehow – whether this is with a fixative or hairspray, or even just putting it behind glass.
Charcoal is especially fragile, as it doesn’t actually bind with the paper, it just sits on the surface.
Using a fixative or hairspray will help, as it will bind the charcoal granules that sit on the surface of the paper, together, which helps prevent smudging.
I would still suggest using regular fixative to set charcoal just to be on the safe side as some hairspray can actually damage your drawing instead of setting it correctly. One of my favorite brands of fixatives is Krylon Fine Art Fixative. It’s not that expensive as well.
Why Does Hairspray Set Charcoal?
Hairspray can set charcoal because of the unique properties it possesses.
Hairspray itself was not invented until 1943, during WWII. It was originally created to help kill insects and was more commonly known as an aerosol spray.
It was not until 1950 that aerosol spray was then called “hairspray”, for the newly developed product.
Hairspray is a chemical compound spray that uses polymers to make your hair stick together when sprayed.
The polymer chemical was originally called resin, after the original aerosol formula from the 1940s, due to the fact that when it dried, it created several layers of sticky film after it dried.
As noted previously – charcoal is notoriously finicky and hard to work with due to the fact that it doesn’t actually “set” onto the paper or canvas.
Its granules do not bind themselves together and remain “on top of” the paper.
It was soon found that using hairspray or some other fixative helps because it then binds the granules together to stick to the paper.
While using charcoal, in order to help the hairspray set your drawing better, here are a few tips that you can use to ensure the best end result you could possibly hope for.
Tip #1 – Wear Gloves While Drawing
It is difficult enough to get the charcoal granules to bind to each other and the paper or canvas that you are using, without your hand getting in the way of a smooth finish.
Without a glove, you could smudge your drawing irreparably – something that the glove would prevent, as well as keep your hand clean.
Charcoal is difficult to get out of clothing and other everyday objects at the best of times.
This would also cut down on clean up – just take the glove off and throw it away.
Third, you would also be protecting the integrity of the charcoal’s compound by not adding your skin’s natural oils to it, which could also create smudges and weak spots in your picture that you may not be able to fix.
Tip #2 – Try Out Charcoal Pencils
Charcoal pencils are not any less messy than the traditional charcoal “chunks” or nubs that you would use – but they can help you create a more defined picture.
The starker and defined the lines that you draw are, the better your end result will be.
The distance from the paper and the familiarity of using a pencil to draw will also help you in reducing the number of smudges your picture is at risk for.
Does Hairspray Set Graphite Colors?
Hairspray can set graphite colors – although it is a bit hard on pastel colors.
Again, hairspray is good if you do not have any other options at the moment.
To get the best use out of hairspray as a fixative, you should spray it a significant distance away from your canvas, so that you are lightly misting it, as opposed to spraying two inches away and ruining the lines of your work by making them soaking wet.
This is also where you want to pay attention to your hairspray – look at the ingredient list. If the hairspray that you buy contains “hair conditioners” e.g. oil (can be synthetic or natural), then that will ruin your picture.
You do not want to use a hairspray that contains any sort of plant extract, vitamin A or E, silicone, dimethicone, any type of lubricant, or anything that ends in “-glycol” – as these are all oils that will ruin the color and lines of your drawing.
Look for a hairspray that contains acrylate and doesn’t contain any added frills, like a special perfume or scent.
If you want to test the effectiveness of the hairspray that you are going to use as a fixative to set the graphite colors of your drawing – spray a plain piece of paper with the hairspray the same way that you would your drawing canvas, and then place it in a window for a few weeks and see how it affects the color of the paper, as well as the quality of the paper.
Color changes are unfortunately part of every fixative product – whether you buy a “proper” fixative or just use hairspray – but there should not be any actual damage to the paper itself.
If your paper goes yellow, then that is a bad sign.
But yes – if you buy the correct type of hairspray, you can use it to set graphite-colored drawings.
Is There a Disadvantage to Using Hairspray Over a Commercial Product?
The first disadvantage to using hairspray over a commercial fixative, to use to preserve and protect your artwork, is that you have to use hairspray, to begin with.
Overall, using hairspray to help protect your artwork is a cheaper option – it is perfect for students or for those who are only hobbyist artists and don’t want to sink a lot of money into their art supplies – or cannot.
So using hairspray is a great, low-cost option if you have to use it.
However, its main benefit is the fact that it is low cost.
The second disadvantage is that unless you do a lot of research – and even then that may not be enough – you could end up destroying your artwork with the type of hairspray that you use.
Any hairspray with added oils is going to ruin your artwork and essentially defeat the purpose of using keeping your workspace, hands, and paper clean – as the added oil from the hairspray will cause smudging and blurring of lines.
Essentially, you have to be willing to have some of your artwork potentially ruined in order to experiment with how to use the hairspray properly.
If you are doing art for fun or your own personal gratification, then that might not matter to you. There is always a risk.
The safest option is to go to an art supply store and buy an art grade, fully tested and tried fixative spray that was designed to set charcoal and/or graphite color drawings, and use that to set your drawings.
The decision is up to you – if you are willing to take the risk and experiment a little, hairspray can be a perfectly fine alternative.
If you are risk-averse, then it might be worth your while to use a commercially created fixative.