Encaustic Painting With Wax
Maybe the Oldest

From the Greeks, the process of encaustic painting meaning “to burn in” was most likely one of the oldest and most popular mediums next to egg tempera and fresco which were eventually superseded by the development and use oils in the medieval era. It is believed that the prominent use of bees wax as a binder for pigments dates back throughout the ancient world to nearly 500 B.C.Popularly used to paint mummy portraits until around 200 A. D., and there has been renewed interest in this medium most likely due to it’s proven not yellowing archive qualities and the simplified process of the medium.

Gilded mummy portrait of a woman
Egypt Roman Period
about AD 160-170

Complements of the British Museum

 

Encaustic naturally repels moister and can tolerate heat more than most other mediums. Encaustic can be applied in light impasto techniques and can be painted on almost any organic support. One important precaution to remember however is that the physical properties of an encaustic today’s mediums are much less flexible than other mediums such as oil, and acrylics. However, if you plan to utilize old world methods of this highly permanent medium, encaustic pieces are said to outlast oils in quality in every environmental situation.

With encaustic painting, pigment is added to hot melted bees wax , combined with small quantities of  Damar Crystals “resins” and/or Carnauba Wax and used as a binder medium for “dry” pigment applied to the surface with a brush or pallet knife. When resin hardeners are used the paint will become more brittle.  For that reason it is recommended that this blend of encaustic paint medium be used on rigid and absorbent surfaces for total permanence.

Timing is essential since, the artist will loose the ability to manipulate the warm paint as the hot wax cools and begins to set up. Heat is then applied to the painting surface by lightly passing a  “variable temperature heat gun ” (commonly used as a paint stripper) or a torch used passed carefully over the surface of the painting (known as “burning in”) to make certain the wax adheres to the freshly painted surface. This technique is continued until you reach the desired effect and then polished to create a uniform luster.

Encaustic paint can be applied without loss of integrity in any thickness of impasto. Wax itself is is claimed to be more flexible than oil paint film.  Encaustic painting mediums will not crack as evidenced by their longevity without damage. These old methods  (devoid of oils or resin hardeners) allow wax to be applied directly to a stretched unprimed fabric support. However, stretched canvas responds to humidity changes absorbing moisture by expanding and contracting.  This is not acceptable for any wax technique. For this reason stretched canvas paintings should only be used for light stroke minimum layered applications where the back of the canvas is sealed with wax as well.

If you are planning to create a painting with any substantial amount of build up with thicker applications of wax then a canvas support should hold or to add resins to your medium, a rigid panel is recommended to prevent cracking and different preparations are required. In this case it is recommended to paint directly to primed Untempered MDF or Plywood or stretch your canvas over it  applied with  a light coat of 30% white glue/distilled water solution to obtain a more rigid support. This method can also be used with paper.

No glue or size should be used on the ground of an encaustic painting. Glues render the surface non-absorbent preventing the wax from adhering. No acrylic gessoes are compatible with wax. Although the traditional rabbit skin glue/whiting chalk gesso is the time-tested ground for encaustic, Holy Grail by Evans Encaustics was developed as the first gesso designed specifically for encaustic paints. R&F has a similar product.

With your  preliminary sketch do not make a lot of graphite pencil marks unless it is your intention to do so, as they will mix with the hot wax creating a dirty look you can’t remove. Fixative does not always work especially in light areas and areas requiring a lot of blending with heat. However,  if you outline the drawing lightly using the same colors as the painting with pastel pencils you should have no problem since the pigment will just blend into the wax. Just avoid placing color in transparent or white areas since it will blend into your painting in progress .

Ready-made Encaustic colors that contain a balanced mix of pigment, wax, and resin are available from suppliers in  blocks. The materials can also be purchased separately if desired to make your own medium . A good shortcut is to melt a portion of a pigmented block and blend additional pigments to get your desired tone. This may be opaque if you do not add additional medium. The basic ingredients are purified bees wax, pigment, and Carnauba Wax and/or Damar Crystals. Modern painters have found advantages in blending beeswax with balsams and resins  such as Colophony, Mastic, Damar Crystals, and Carnauba Wax with thinned linseed oil and turpentine. Carnauba  and Damar give the finished paint a harder surface, satin sheen and a higher melting point. They are also good to use for impasto techniques for this reason. However, Both Damar and Carnauba will tend to discolor over a period of time.  Note: Due to serious irreversible respiratory health risks, shellac and lacquer resins should never be used on an encaustic painting that will undergo heating. Lacquer has been “noted as a skin irritant, and potentially carcinogenic“.

I don’t recommend adding large quantities of  linseed or other oils to this medium to make it more pliable. They can soak and damage the canvas. Keep in mind that encaustic once applied when mixed with resins cools and hardens where as oil absorbs oxygen as it polymerizes or “cures” usually long after the wax has hardened. The properties of these substances are too dissimilar to dry or cure equally. You must establish your own technique to control the medium while it is hot.
The size of your work dictates handling. Although, there is no waste of encaustic paint when used properly because it can be re-melted months or years later with no loss of quality, you should start out conservatively the same as you would with all other mediums grinding each color of your palette as needed to avoid wasting pigment.  A cool trick is  to use a disposable aluminum cup cake tin as your palette heated on an electric skillet plate. I use little 6oz pots with handles so I can move quickly between colors as well as from the pot to the canvas but leave the others heated to use later.

It is important that your skillet be able to control the heat at low temperature, with the most favorable  upper limit temperature of the heated palette being around 200 deg. F. Use a cooking thermometer suspended in the wax medium will prove to regulate a safe working temperature. Overheating wax can also result in the release of flammable wax vapors, and cause breakdown of the wax to emit acrolein fumes and other by- products that can be explosive and are identified as  respiratory irritants !  Though initially it will appear fine, you must avoid over heating as it will cause  wax  to decompose rather quickly (leading to cracking later) while it is held at higher temps.  Excessive heat should be avoided and melting the paint just enough to maintain a low  workable temperature will preserve its integrity.  

Melt beeswax and keep it on hand in liquid form in a small pot you can pour from.  The Carnauba wax should be completely melted slowly w/ beeswax before adding to pigment.  Damar should be added to beeswax and melted before adding pigment as well. Many artist’s vary the ratio of damar to beeswax. Higher ratios of damar will make your medium dry harder however it will also make workability more difficult demanding a higher working temperature. A good working ratio is anywhere from 5:1 to 7:1 wax to damar resin by volume (not weight). By adjusting the ratios of the resin slightly in the waxy medium, finished hardness can be modified to suit your taste. You should filter your medium previous to adding pigment by pouring it through a ball of cheesecloth in a funnel to remove any impurities. For more difficult jobs, Osnaburg cotton available at fabric shops works perfect as a filter. I have also been told that, if the wax is kept around 200F or less, the top of an old support pantyhose works just as well.

Note: Because many synthetic  waxes  are produced from a variety of chemical types such as hydrocarbons, alcohols, polyethylene glycols, esters, chlorinated hydrocarbons etc. and contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which can cause fatal forms of cancer, they are not suitable to be used for creating art.

To avoid lumps, moisten the pigment grinding your color on a palette into a paste with a SMALL quantity of  turpentine first. Since turpentine is compatible with most resins because it comes from the same source. Most of it will flash off as it is blended with wax but caution must be taken when handling. While stirring, add to to molten wax until desired opacity is achieved keeping the medium warm while adding the pigment.  Keep in mind that a small amount of pigment goes a long way and that all (especially dry) pigments must be treated as harmful substances. Use safety precautions to avoid contact with skin, always wear an industrial vapor face mask  and work in well ventilated areas to avoid breathing dust. Do not eat or drink in the same room as pigments and wash your hands frequently.

Flammable alert: Do not put the pigment/turpentine solution on the burner without mixing into the wax first or allow the mixture to splash onto a heat source.  After a days work premixed encaustics  can be cooled quickly in a freezer to prevent the pigments from settling to the bottom. However, manufactured encaustic paints will not have settling of pigment because the pigment has been milled finely before mixing.

Another means to pigmenting wax is to use plain oil colors. A comparable procedure was used by the Greeks and known as the “cold method“. Note:  Adding excessive quantities of oil will soften the encaustic paint which is not desirable. The wax medium must be able to adhere to an absorbent surface of the painting which is why acrylic gesso preparation is generally not used. This is an important basis for  limiting the amount of linseed or any other oils used in your paint and/or waiting until you are in the final stages of your painting to use them. Use sparingly at a ratio of 10-15% max  and they will blend well to make a smooth paint. To prevent making the paint oily place some of the oiled pigment on a double folded paper towel or other absorbent material first to soak up as much of the refined linseed oil as possible before blending with the wax medium.

Starting off in most cases, for the desired control of  encaustic paint  you are forced to lower you painting horizontally to a drawing table angle where it is best handled.  In heavy applications the hot paint may run if your support is held in the upright easel position.

Encaustic medium is usually applied with a brush or palette knife, depending upon the desired surface texture. Hake brushes give the most control and smoothest application. Although, natural hair bristles are the most commonly and successfully used brushes for encaustic painting, there are no natural hair bushes that can take the continued long term abuse. Enkaustikos Brass Filament Brushes- Classic Brushes  uses brass filaments specifically designed to work in the encaustic painting. They are designed to rest the filament on the burner to allow it to heat up before use. The  Hot Brush uses adaptable brush tips with a heat element to keep the brush filaments hot while painting. Steel painting and palette knives are also perfect for encaustic use and clean up easily.

Similar to other mediums such as egg tempera, where  a series of  layers known as glazing utilize the under painting and layers of transparencies, planning is equally important. This process works well with glazing techniques rivaling oil paint glazes and becomes quite easy, especially if a white gesso made specially for encaustic use is applied. This achieves the luminosity of the Old Masters as light travels into the painting and bounces off the white ground back to the viewer.

Each new  layer should be fused gently (just till a shine is visible) not melting deeper into other layers because the fresh layer of wax  melts the underlying layers and mixes with them.  If you decide you need to correct an area, it is much better to scrape off the bad part and start over then paint over it. Paint can be easily scraped back in case of a change of mind or you make a mistake. It is also easy to paint over an area without disturbing the under layer  providing you allow the first layer get completely cool after fusing it. To be extra cautious, the next layer can be uncolored medium to isolate the lower layers from accidental blending. You can also achieve  translucent effects by reducing your pigment ratio and applying with minimal build up.

When cooled, the painting’s surface may then be lightly polished with a soft cotton pad ( I use old cotton diapers) to produce a light satin luster. No other actions are required. If you were painting on bare canvas, once hardened the completed painting is permanent and the canvas will be protected from moisture from both sides.

Special thanks to
Hylla Evans of
Evans Encaustics
Sonoma, CA
for editing contributions
about using this medium

more

 

Links related to Encaustic Painting

Safe Handling of Color Pigments – printable PDF file

The Icons of St. Catherine’s Monastery In Egypt’s Sinai

Sinopia

R&F Handmade Paints 

Dadant & Sons Natural Beeswax

Evans Encaustics

Douglas & Sturgess  Pigments, Dyes and other Colorants

Encaustic Art Online Int. Encaustic Art Supply

International Encaustic Artists (IEA)

One’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes.
Andrew Wyeth

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