Encaustic painting, also known as hot wax painting, involves using heated wax to which colored pigments are added. The liquid or paste is then applied to a surface—usually prepared wood, though canvas and other materials are often used. The simplest encaustic mixture can be made from adding pigments to beeswax, but there are several other recipes that can be used—some containing other types of waxes, damar resin, linseed oil, or other ingredients.
Encaustic wax has many of the properties of oil paint: it can give a very brilliant and attractive effect and offers great scope for elegant and expressive brushwork. The practical difficulties of using a medium that has to be kept warm are considerable, though. Apart from the greater sophistication of modern methods of heating, the present-day technique is similar to that described by the 1st-century.
The most significant difference between encaustic and cold wax is that, while with encaustic painting the wax must be molten to work with, and then reheated (fused) once it is applied to the surface, in cold wax painting there is no heat involved.
Heat guns or blow tortches are hand-held and are used to fuse each layer to the one before, as well as for reheating the paint while it is on the surface. This allows the paint to be manipulated by a brush or a palette knife while you work.
What is Encaustic?
The paint is like a satin enamel
Encaustic is a Greek word meaning “to heat or burn in” (enkaustikos). Heat is used throughout the process, from melting the wax and varnish to fusing the layers of wax. Encaustic consists of wax and resin (crystallized tree sap). The medium can be used alone for its transparency or adhesive qualities or used pigmented. Pigments may be added to the medium, or purchased colored with traditional artist pigments. The medium is melted and applied with a brush or any tool the artist wishes to create from. Each layer is then reheated to fuse it to the previous layer.
The paint cools and hardens almost as soon as it touches the support, this can allow for only very short brush strokes. It is quite different from using oils and can be quite jarring to use a medium that moves so quickly between liquid and solid. A heat gun is an essential tool for extending the liquid working time of the paint, as well as ensuring the adhesion of the wax to the previous layer. Holding the heat tool in one hand, and a paintbrush in the other, allows me to brush out the paint and blend colours together. After adding a few layers of paint, the subsequent layers will remain liquid for longer—presumably because the heat tool has warmed the support.
Even when the paint has solidified on the support, it remains workable. Encaustic painting gives a new meaning to the idea of painting “sculpturally”—you can work in relief, by building up layers of thick texture without the worry of previous layers being disturbed.
A very important part of encaustic painting is fusing the wax layers. Each time you put a layer of wax down, you will fuse the wax, gently, with a heat gun. Using a heat gun takes some practice, but essentially you’ll want to “brush” a low flame back and forth over the entire board. This creates a bond between the layers of wax, smoothing over any uneven texture.
Care of Encaustic Art
These paintings are extremely archival, but as with any fine art, care should be given to them. There should be no fear of the work melting in normal household conditions. The wax and resin will not melt unless exposed to temperatures over 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Leaving a painting in a car on a hot day would not be advisable or hanging a painting in front of a window with direct desert-like sun. They are also sensitive to freezing cold temperatures.
Some encaustic colors tend to “bloom” or become cloudy over time. If your painting appears indistinct, simply rub the surface with a soft cloth or nylon stocking. Over time the surface retains its gloss as the wax medium continues to cure and harden for up to 1-3 years.
Sneak Peak on Encaustics
The unique sensitivity and physicality of encaustic wax is unlike any other medium
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Repair and restoration of encaustic artworks benefits from the fact that the encaustic medium is unchanged: a mix of dammar resin and filtered beeswax, the mixture can be reapplied to an artwork for preservation without changing the work.
The weight and mass of encaustic artwork demands a structure that can support the heavy weight.
But even hardwood panels can crack over time if not properly prepared and supported. Cracking in a wooden support can be minimised by adding a new wooden backing material. Any encaustic works on textile or canvas have a shorted lifespan, but conservationists can re-back them with wooden support panels and retain the original textile support.
Inclusions and collage materials chosen by the artist may or may not have been acid free and of archival quality materials. If materials included in the artwork, such as old newspapers and letters, have begun to change or deteriorate due to acid in the materials, reapplying encaustic medium to the surface and making sure the structural backing is intact can reduce the exposure to the pieces to the environment. But it may be in the nature of a particular piece for the changing condition of inclusions to be part of the artwork. If original inclusions are removed and replaced, the value of the artwork is impacted.
The surface of encaustic is unique, and the luminosity, light, and depth of the surface is what draws collectors and curators to the form.
The wax can bloom a cloudiness for the first six months, and depending on the thickness of the application, some smaller cloudiness can be observed for up to three years. Gently buffing of the surface in a circular pattern with a soft cotton cloth, such as an old diaper, removes the surface cloudiness in the early life of the artwork. The surface is also cleaned the same way if dust is noted.