Encaustic wax is a historical painting technique where the wax is heated up and painted with. Encaustic paint is a combination of beeswax, pigment and a small amount of hardener (either dammar resin or carnauba wax). The paint is solid at room temperature so you need to melt it before it can be applied. Once on the support, it cools and hardens, and a heat tool is used to ensure that each layer is fused to the last. This makes it a very tactile working experience.
History of Encaustic Painting
The technique of painting with molten wax was first recorded over 2000 years ago. The most well-known examples of the medium are Roman funerary portraits from 100-300 AD. Some of these paintings can be seen at the British Museum in London and the vibrancy of the paint is a testament to the longevity of the medium. The remarkably lifelike rendering of skin and hair shows the use of transparent glazing techniques in encaustic painting, long before they were used in the 15th Century in oil painting. Over the centuries, encaustic has been superseded by other painting techniques, but the availability of electronically heated palettes in the 20th century has led to a revival of the medium’s popularity.
R&F Encaustic Wax Cakes are available in small (40 ml), medium (104 ml) and large (333 ml) sizes and are made from beeswax, dammar resin and pigment. At room temperature, these blocks feel like hard cheese. Just like other professional quality paints, they vary in transparency and tinting strength, depending on the nature of the pigment.
Painting supports for Encaustic Painting
Encaustic paints require a rigid and absorbent surface so that the paint can adhere properly. A wooden panel is a great surface to use as encaustic paint can be applied directly onto raw wood, but an absorbent gesso can also be applied. R&F produce an encaustic gesso which is ready to use and can be applied like any other acrylic gesso primer but differs in that it contains a lower proportion of binder in order to make it more absorbent, unlike most acrylic primers that are not absorbent enough for the wax to adhere effectively. Alternatively, you could make a traditional gesso with rabbit skin glue and whiting which would also work. Stretched canvas is an in-appropriate surface to use because the paint is likely to crack on the flexible surface, and the weight of the wax could make the canvas sink in the middle. However, you can use canvas or watercolour paper that’s been glued to a panel.
We used Iceflow Encaustic Card and Ampersand Encausticbord to try out encaustic painting. Both surfaces were ready to paint on immediately, without any prior preparation. The encaustic card is very smooth and a bright white, while Encausticbord is more of a natural white colour with a slightly textured surface, similar to Ampersand Gessobord panels.
Because R&F wax cakes have a melting point of 72°C, we used a Fine Elements Single Hot Plate with an adjustable temperature dial and a 11 x 14 in aluminium panel on top as a heated palette. We clipped metal dippers onto the palette to create contained areas for keeping some colours separate.
Heat guns 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.
Brushes for Encaustic Painting
It is important to use natural hair brushes with encaustic, as synthetic filaments may melt. Hog brushes are particularly good for encaustic work: we used Jackson’s Black Hog brushes for this test. Softer natural hairs, like sable and squirrel, are unsuitable for this kind of painting, as the hairs are too delicate. Once a brush has been used for encaustic painting, you’ll be unable to use it for other types of painting because the wax will remain in the bristles.
A palette knife can be useful to control the paint on the heated palette, as well as for creating sgraffito marks—a technique where one layer is scratched, or scraped through, to reveal the layer underneath. You can also use clay tools to smooth the ridges of applied wax before heating or to gouge into it to add texture.
Encaustic Painting Method in Practice
When preparing the paints, there is an appealing immediacy to pressing the wax cakes directly on to the aluminium palette and letting them melt into ready to use, puddles of colour.
The wax colours tend to spread gradually across the palette, sometimes bleeding together unintentionally, but dippers are very useful for keeping the colours separate when required.
Before starting painting, you’ll need to prime your surface with a layer of wax to paint on. While making your painting, you’ll need to heat the whole painting, every time you add a layer, to fuse each new layer of paint to the one before and prevent them flaking apart once cool. When you’ve finished you’ll need to do a final “burning in” where you heat the whole painting again to make sure the layers form one solid piece of thick wax.
The smell of hot wax and resin is quite strong, but quite pleasant, and could be preferable to the more potent smell of turps or white spirit. That said, it’s crucial to keep your working area ventilated while working, as the released fumes of encaustic paints, when concentrated, may cause headaches and irritation. Oil solvents are unnecessary when painting or during clean up, instead, soy wax is used to clean brushes and surfaces after a painting session.
The paint cools and hardens almost as soon as it touches the support, this can allow for only very short brush strokes. If you paint in a very fluid manner, you may find it initially 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 you 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.
The fast cooling of the paint can lead to the brushes’ bristles getting gummed up within seconds. It is essential to wipe the excess wax from the brushes with a cloth while it is still liquid and then to leave the head of the brush resting on top of the palette so it stays malleable during the painting session. Alternatively, you can leave the wax to harden on the brush and then use the brush with waxes of a similar colour during future painting sessions, as the wax will melt when reheated.
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. Additionally, you can literally sculpt the paint as a solid material, by drawing through it and scraping it away. Equally, while the paint is on the support, you can continue to re-heat and liquify the paint to blend and create textural effects.
You might imagine that the repetitive cooling and reheating of the paint might affect the overall longevity of a painting, however, R&F say that re-heating their encaustic paint numerous times has no adverse effect. Any solid wax that is scraped off the surface of the painting can be put back onto the palette, to be melted and used again.
The finish of the paint is like a satin enamel without a colour shift from liquid to solid. Any painter who loves a rich application of colour will find encaustic satisfying to work with. After the painting is finished, it can be buffed with a soft cloth that will give it a shiny finish and enhance the colours.
Encaustic paintings cure over time, rather than drying by evaporation in the way that watercolour does. This is due to the addition of dammar resin that makes the paint harder and more resilient over time. Varnishing is unnecessary, as encaustic contains beeswax which is highly water-resistant and is often used to varnish oil paintings. Because of this, encaustic is a very stable and long-lasting medium. Encaustic paint will melt at temperatures of 72°C and above, but it will remain solid in normal storage or exhibition conditions, just avoid storing paintings in hot areas. Equally, avoid freezing temperatures which could cause the paint to crack. Encaustic paint’s colours stay true rather than having oil paint’s tendency to yellow with age. However, like linseed oil, beeswax is photoreactive which means it may go yellow when kept in the dark for long periods of time. The reaction is reversible and the colours will be restored to their original brilliance when the painting is exposed to natural light.
There are many possibilities for adding mixed-media elements to encaustic painting: collage and photo transfers can be incorporated into the paint. Oil colour, whether brushed on from the tube or drawn on with an oil stick, can also be applied on top of the painting.
The unique sensitivity and physicality of encaustic wax is unlike any other medium, having surprisingly little in common with acrylic and oil painting. Encaustic painting can really come into its own in abstract and textural work, where the artist is intuitively led by the changing nature of the paint itself, adapting as the paint moves between liquid and solid. There is something wonderful about discovering a historical medium and recognising its relevance to contemporary approaches to painting.