Cold Wax Painting is a style of oil painting in which the artist mixes a wax medium into the paint and uses the thickened body of paint to create a heavily textured surface. You can paint with a small amount of cold wax medium to make your paint matt instead of glossy and this would probably still be considered regular oil painting. But if you use a substantial amount of cold wax medium in your oil paint then most painters would call that ‘Cold Wax Painting’. Some artists like Nicki Heenan even go so far as to put the wax first, painting with mostly cold wax medium and very little paint or pigment. Cold wax painters are often very experimental and Nicki Heenan is no exception.
Unlike encaustic painting where you must heat the wax to make it fluid enough to paint with, cold wax is made with wax and a solvent (and sometimes a resin or oil) so that it stays creamy and can be mixed with paint or pigment powders without heating. There are a few makes of cold wax mediums that each have their own characteristics that will affect how each mixes with paint and the type of marks you can get. Zest-it, the maker of the famous low-odour citrus solvent, has just created their own Zest-It Cold Wax Medium with its own particular colour, texture and odour.
Nicki Heenan is one of UK’s top specialist cold wax painters and has over 15 year’s experience working with cold wax. She is a well-respected landscape artist and popular tutor. We asked Nicki to try the new Zest-it Cold Wax Medium and give us her feedback.
Zest-It Cold Wax Painting Medium
Review by Nicki Heenan
I have been using Cold Wax in my art practice to create texture and depth in my work for 15 years so I was very excited to be asked to review Zest-It Cold Wax Painting Medium for Jacksons Art Supplies. Upon receiving my sample, I was pleased to see that the container was clearly labelled, an absolute must in what can sometimes be a messy studio! Even more importantly, the container had an easy to open screw top lid. No searching for tools to pry open the lid of a tin when using this product.
What is cold wax?
The use of Cold Wax in art goes back thousands of years to cave painting where animal fat was combined with dry pigments such as ochres and charcoal to create wall paintings. In the Roman era, Pliny examines how Cold Wax was made and used in portraits, and Turner used beeswax in his large oil landscape paintings to great effect.
Zest It Cold Wax Painting Medium is manufactured in the UK from beeswax mixed with linseed oil and dammar, which is a tree resin. Zest It Cold Wax is designed to be used in conjunction with Zest it Cold Wax Solvent, which is a non-flammable solvent containing the zest of citrus fruit, for thinning the wax. These two products combined with linseed oil and oil paint can create a variety of painting effects such as Impasto (the application of thick paint), blending and pouring. Adding Zest It Cold Wax to oil paint acts as a paint extender and also helps to speed up drying time. It is called Cold Wax as this product is not meant to be heated.
Why do I use cold wax?
Materials are important to me so I needed to discover how this brand of Cold Wax was going to hold up to a variety of techniques. I work with many different tools, some conventional and others not, and frequently raid the kitchen drawers for implements that can be used to develop textures. Creating atmospheric effects, gritty surfaces and using runny paint are key features in my work, so I centred my investigation around how Zest-It Cold Wax could perform these tasks. Having never used this particular Cold Wax product before I was intrigued to see how it would respond to my handling methods as compared to other cold wax products on the market.
CHEMISTRY 101: Cold Wax mixes with oil paint and also with dry pigments. As the paint dries the wax oxidizes and hardens. The rates of drying depend on the type of paint, humidity and temperature.
In testing Zest-It Cold Wax, I have used a selection of other products that complement this medium. These include oil paint that has good quality pigment with no fillers, dry pigment, a rigid support and a little linseed oil to help with flow. My testing of Zest-It Cold Wax was based around how well this product could add texture and luminosity when incorporated into my oil painting. I also use dry pigments in my work so I looked at how well it works as a binder.
How does Zest-It Cold Wax impact colour integrity?
Before I tested the use of Zest-It Cold Wax in a painting, I wanted to see how it would impact colour when mixed together with oil paint and solvent. Amazingly, the oil paint colours were more luminous when the cold wax was added and I was delighted to see that the Zest-It Cold Wax Solvent maintained the pigment in the paint. It appears that the formulations used to create these products is balanced to ensure the integrity of the oil paint colour.
My colour test was done on oil painting paper with a few colours that feature frequently in my work, for illustration purposes. It would be useful to test a wider variety of brands and colours at a later date as pigments in paint vary. You may like to try this little exercise at home with this product as it may help you to see how your oil paints will work with the Zest-It Cold Wax Painting Medium. I used Michael Harding paints for this experiment as they are high in pigment content.
How does it feel to work with Zest-It Cold Wax?
I found Zest-It Cold Wax a pleasure to use. It was effortless to get out of the container and it blended quickly with oil paint into a buttery glossy mixture that was easy to work with. The cold wax held its shape in the warm weather and when mixed with oil paint, it did not separate. Even if you’ve never used cold wax before, I can recommend this product for its consistency, ease of use and the fact that citrus turpene is added instead of petroleum based chemicals.
How did Zest-It Cold Wax compare with other products on the market?
There are several cold wax products on the market and in the past I have worked extensively with Dorland’s and Gamblin Cold Wax products. Compared to the Dorland’s Cold Wax, the Zest-It Cold Wax is slightly more glossy in texture and has a smoother texture. Both of these products hold their form well in the warm weather. Gamblin Cold Wax is whiter in appearance than the Zest-It Cold Wax. I found that the Gamblin wax needed to be kept cool to keep its stiff consistency in the warm weather and was not so suited for creating brush marks as the Dorland’s and Zest-It Cold Wax but was very good for covering large surfaces easily with the application process I use as it is a little smoother in texture.
Tip: You can layer cold wax over a dry acrylic painting. It helps to first coat your painting with a layer of clear acrylic gesso as this has some texture and helps the wax to adhere to the acrylic surface. You can also paint over cold wax once it is dry with straight oil paint without fear of cracking so the traditional ‘fat over lean’ doesn’t apply here. It is good practice to wear gloves when working with cold wax and to ensure you have adequate ventilation.
How does Zest-It Cold Wax look when mixed with oil paint?
I found the Zest-It Cold Wax mixed with oil paint to have a glossy lustre which kept its colour and held its form. I mixed the cold wax into the oil paint using a palette knife to work the two together. This was very easy to do as the wax softens when working into it.
Some oil paint is opaque (you can’t see through it), some is transparent (see through), and by adding cold wax the paint becomes more translucent. I was able to adjust the opacity and transparency but adding more or less wax to the paint.
Zest-It Cold Wax is very comparable to Dorland’s Cold Wax and Gamblin Cold Wax in its ability to combine with oil paint. It is advisable to keep the oil paint to cold wax ratio to a maximum of 50:50 mix to maintain the colour of the oil paint and integrity of the mixture. You can add less wax if you wish for a stronger colour or up to 50:50 for greater translucency. In this case all 3 brands of wax work equally well.
How does Zest-It Cold Wax react when solvent is added?
Zest-It Wax Solvent was developed specifically to use with the Zest-It Cold Wax and Zest-It Linseed Oil and I found there was a synergy between these products. Finding materials that work together makes painting a lot of fun! I really enjoy experimenting and developing ways of working to create contemporary and interesting paintings and would certainly recommend working with all three of these Zest-It products simultaneously for a good result. I found when I worked with solvent on its own with Zest-It Cold Wax, the surface become a little dull. One of the properties of cold wax is that it dries matt. If this is an issue for you, adding a little stand oil to your wax or using Zest-It Painting Medium with Zest-It Cold Wax helps to add lustre when the painting is dry.
If you are using different brands of cold wax I would suggest you keep to the individual brand’s solvents and mediums. This is because each brand has its own formula such as Gamblin which uses odourless mineral solvent (petroleum derived) and Zest-It (orange turpenes). Gamblin, Dorland’s and Zest-It Cold Wax all have a component of dammar varnish which is a resin.
A point to note here is that odourless mineral solvent is not effective in dissolving dammar varnish whereas Zest-It Solvent is very effective in dissolving Dammar Varnish. For more information on this see the Jackson’s blog post on the variety of solvents, their properties and derivatives.
I built up this painting to demonstrate how by adding a little linseed oil into the Wax Solvent and Cold Wax I could create a velvety surface with almost a shimmer and maintain the saturation of the dark colours. There are a huge variety of paint depths from opaque, to translucent, to transparent that I found I could achieve with Zest-It Cold Wax. As I live by a river, I like to use Cold Wax to help capture the light in the reeds as it plays over the surface of the water so it was a delight to be able to paint different levels of transparency with this product. It was also very versatile in my practice of creating layers.
How does dry pigment hold in Zest-It Cold Wax?
One of the things I use often in my work is dry pigment. I tested Zest-It Cold Wax’s ability to bind pigment by dropping pigment over a surface of Cold Wax and gently working over with a roller. As cold wax is slightly tacky, it holds dry pigment easily and I was very pleased with the results of the Zest-It Cold Wax. I also mixed dry pigment directly in the cold wax and spread it on in the under layers to help the cold wax dry faster. The graininess you can see in this painting is the dry pigment. I was teaching en plein air – outdoors at a painting festival in Ireland AITO and the painting below was my demo painting. I think this is the ultimate test for any product to see how it holds up in the wind and rain. There was a lot resting on the success of this product as I was in front of crowd of people and I am pleased to say there was a happy, successful outcome.
“Though the artist must remain master of his craft, the surface, at times raised to the highest pitch of loveliness, should transmit to the beholder the sensation which possessed the artist.” – Alfred Sisley
In conclusion, I found Zest-It Cold Wax to be an outstanding painting medium. It is lustrous, holds its shape and is stable when manipulated in a variety of ways. The results in my paintings show when oil paint is mixed with the cold wax that the colour stays vibrant and it is perfect for building up textures with the addition of dry pigments. The four tests that I undertook show how Zest-It Cold Wax excelled and is comparable to other cold wax mediums on the market.
I demonstrate the use of Cold Wax and teach workshops across the UK, and used Zest It Cold Wax at AITO, a Plein Air Festival in Wexford, Ireland where I gave samples to all the workshop participants. The feedback from one person reads:
I did your workshop on Duncannon beach Wexford on a windy Monday during Wexford Plein Aer painting Festival. I completed a painting that afternoon using the Zest It was for the first time. Loved the butteryness of it! Exhibited the finished piece in Green Acres Gallery on the sixth of August 2018 and Wexford County Council bought it for there Public Art Collection. So thank you for your inspirational workshop.
Hope to meet you again.
I am confident that other painters will love this product for its versatility, and usability, and I would not hesitate to recommend it.
Nicki Heenan is a highly sought after landscape artist and tutor. She is one of UK’s top specialist cold wax painters and has over 15 year’s experience working with cold wax. Her paintings have been exhibited at the Mall Galleries and in the Open Submissions with the NEAC, ROI, RBA and RI. In 2016 she was offered a Fellowship at Ballinglen Museum of Contemporary Art in Ireland where one of her cold wax paintings is a part of the permanent collection. Nicki featured on Sky landscape Artist of the Year in 2016, in 2017 was featured as one of 5 artists to watch in the international publication, Watercolour Magazine and in 2018 she has been invited to be on the Faculty of the AITO – Wexford Plein Air Painting Convention. Nicki has been a tutor in St Moritz for Art Week during Art Masters for five years and holds workshops in Ireland, Italy, US and the UK.
For more information about Nicki’s work or workshops contact:
Cold Wax Painting at Jackson’s Art
- Zest-It Cold Wax Medium
- Gamblin Cold Wax Medium
- Oil Painting Department
- Pan Pastels
- Dorland’s Cold Wax Medium will soon be available at Jackson’s.
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