When mixed with solvent, beeswax becomes soft enough to paint with, without the need for the application of heat. By adding a resin for strength you create a cold wax painting medium. Cold wax medium has such distinct characteristics when mixed with oil paint that this type of painting has its own name: Cold Wax Painting. The paint and medium mixture is often applied by spreading with a knife or scraper. Cold wax medium thickens oil paint so it allows for carved-in marks and creating this texture in the surface is an important part of the painting process for many cold wax painters. Collage can also be incorporated for mixed-media painting. As soon as the solvent evaporates the mixture begins to harden or dry, this speeded up drying allows fast painting in layers.
Sally Hirst is a professional artist who has used cold wax for many years in her work. Sally holds a postgraduate teaching certificate from Cambridge University and is a certified educator for GOLDEN Artists Colors. She has been teaching a range of painting and printmaking workshops for many years in both the UK and Spain, including the use of cold wax. Because she has so much experience we thought she’d be a good person to explain the different characteristics of the many brands of cold wax medium. Sally compares the cold wax mediums side by side in various situations as well as completing six small paintings, each using one of the six mediums. Along the way, she demonstrates the many ways to make marks and create layers when painting with cold wax medium.
Comparing Cold Wax Mediums
by Sally Hirst
I create paintings and monoprints, both media inform the other and are often combined in a single piece. I begin each painting by building texture and colours with acrylics before adding many layers of oil, pigments and cold wax medium. Through a process of scraping and re-working, I achieve a highly textural surface and reveal the underlying colours. After many layers, I tame the chaos by redefining the design with strong shapes, lines and structure.
I have been using Cold Wax Medium (CWM) with oil paint in my work for a while and I really enjoy how it allows me to make marks, build texture and scrape back; concealing and revealing. It can also be used as a ‘glue’ to attach collage elements, and as a finishing wax as an alternative to varnish on acrylic, oil and watercolour paintings and photographs. As a printmaker I love how CWM can be used with many of my printmaking tools: rollers, spreaders and engraving tools; even tools from the kitchen find their way into my studio: basting brushes, skewers and whisks to name a few. The medium changes the consistency of the oil paint by making it thicker, the dry paint has a nearly matt sheen, and the drying time is accelerated. As an added bonus the rules of “fat over lean” no longer apply as the oil is suspended in the wax medium.
The two brands of Cold Wax Medium I have used before are Gamblin and Zest-it, and I now make my own recipe for my own work and my workshops, that I call SalCera (a combination of Sally and Cera, which is Spanish for wax). But I am often asked by participants on my workshops about the differences and similarities between the brands available, in particular their texture, drying times, sheen, flexibility and smell. So when Jackson’s asked me to do a product comparison I was more than happy to do so. Whilst I am a self-confessed materials geek I’m not a scientist, so the results of my “experiments” should be taken in the spirit they are intended – to share knowledge and experience, but not used as definitive answers.
What is Cold Wax Medium?
CWM is a wax-based medium that you mix with oil paint. Most consist of beeswax, a resin and a solvent. Most brands use either damar or alkyd as resins. Both resins help to cure the beeswax, make it durable and less sensitive to heat. Without the addition of a resin, the wax would remain fairly soft. It has been a popular medium in the USA for decades but is relatively new in Europe. It is not the same as encaustic painting which involves heating wax until it melts, adding resin and pigment and applying it to a surface whilst in its molten state. By contrast, CWM has a short, buttery consistency; it also cannot be heated or mixed with water-based media. Whilst its soft edges and rich texture appeal to landscape and abstract painters, any genre of painting is possible as illustrated in the excellent book by Rebecca Crowell and Jerry Mclaughlin Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts & Conversations.
The six products I tested are made by Gamblin, Dorland’s, Zest-it, Michael Harding, Wallace Seymour, and my own recipe SalCera. In addition, I tested a few solvents, mediums and additives to see how the wax mediums can be extended and altered. Links to all products are below. Not all of the information on all of the products that I tested is available but most companies provide information on their websites on what their products contain and how to use them, as well as safety data sheets.
This chart shows the ingredients used in each product and the manufacturer’s recommended percentage of the medium when mixed with oil paint.
|Brand||Wax||Solvent||Resin||Oil||% of Medium|
|Dorland’s||Beeswax, Paraffin, Microcrystalline||Odourless Mineral Spirits||Dammar||33-50%*|
|Zest-it||Beeswax||Citrus-based turpentine substitute||Dammar||Linseed||50%*|
|Michael Harding||Beeswax||Distilled turpentine||Dammar||Linseed||20%|
|Wallace Seymour||Beeswax||Co-Co Bello Diluent||Dammar||Linseed||20%|
As with most products of this nature some contain ingredients that can cause irritation. I would always recommend using them in a well-ventilated studio, wearing gloves to prevent skin absorption and taking note of any symptoms. If you do have a reaction it is more than likely to be a solvent, but as Julie Caves points out in her excellent Jackson’s blog post on solvents (thanks, Sally) it is very much an individual response, what suits one person may not suit another.
The oil paints I used are from Jackson’s Professional range and Williamsburg but any good quality oil paint is fine to use with cold wax medium. I would recommend using those that are stiffer. A loose oil paint with lots of oil will affect both the viscosity of your medium and the drying times. I used the same colours on each panel for consistency as different colours have their own inherent drying times. Pigments like umbers dry at rates much faster than modern organic pigments. An excellent chart on oil paint drying times and opacity can be downloaded here.
Strength of Solvent Odour in Each Medium
The first thing one notices when opening each jar or tin is the smell. How does one describe a smell? What smells strongly for one person does not for another and vice versa. For this test I lined the jars up in front of my husband as I had prior knowledge of the ingredients that might sway my opinion. I asked him to give each jar a rating from 1-10, 1 being no smell and 10 being strong smelling. These are the results of our smell test and his descriptions:
1 Dorlands “a delicate wax smell like lemony polish”
2 Gamblin “a soft smell, similar to putty”
2 SalCera “smells like the putty one”
3 Wallace Seymour “reminds me of my grandmother’s furniture polish”
5 Zest-It “a chemical orange smell like kid’s sweets”
9 Michael Harding “smells strongly of turpentine”
The differences in smell lie mainly in the amount and type of solvents used. Dorlands, Gamblin and SalCera are mixed with good quality odourless mineral spirits, which along with the Zest-It citrus-based turpentine substitute, are not as strong smelling as turpentine. The Wallace Seymour appears to be mostly beeswax suspended in linseed oil and does not smell of solvent, however, according to the company the wax is dissolved in a “natural plant-based diluent” called Co-Co Bello. The Michael Harding clearly states their wax medium contains distilled turpentine, which is a much stronger smelling solvent than either odourless mineral spirits or Zest-it diluent.
Textures of the Cold Wax Mediums
The next aspect I explored was their texture. I was surprised by how different they all were. I filmed a series of short videos to enable you to see the differences in texture and viscosity. Whilst they vary in colour I found that once mixed with paint and dry, the colour of the wax is not evident. The thickest is the Zest–It, it is slightly ‘gritty’, so thick you can cut it with your palette knife. Gamblin and SalCera were both similar to the Zest-It but slightly smoother and whiter. The Wallace Seymour is yellow, thick and chunky, it clearly contains a lot of linseed oil so has a very rich consistency. The Dorlands is white, smooth and creamy, probably due to its slightly higher ratio of solvent, and the use of both paraffin and microcrystelline waxes, which are inherently smooth and clear. The thinnest was Michael Harding, it was even thinner than the oil paint I used, and when worked with the knife became even looser.
Adding Solvent, Oil or Powders
There are times when you may want to adjust the viscosity of the medium to make them flow for brush work. Used sparingly Linseed Stand Oil can be added but this will slow drying time. If mixed with an equal amount of solvent you can create a traditional slow-drying, low-viscosity painting medium to add to your oil and CWM mix. However, if you want to maintain the drying time then there are other mediums available. Zest-it Clear Painting Medium which is a blend of their Zest-it solvent and linseed oil, and Chelsea Classical Studio’s Clarified Lean Medium that is a mixture of cold-pressed linseed oil and lavender spike oil essence will both decrease drying time and thin the paint.
Both Zest-It and Gamblin make additional gel-like products that can be added to cold wax mediums. I had read that the two resins used in wax mediums, damar and alkyd, are not compatible so it is worth keeping to one brand. With that in mind, I experimented thinning the damar resin-based mediums: Dorland’s, Zest-it and Michael Harding with Zest-it LiquiBlend Wax. I thinned the alkyd-based mediums (Gamblin and SalCera) with Gamblin Galkyd Gel. Both of these products reduced the viscosity of the mediums to allow for smooth brushwork. As the Michael Harding is quite thin to start with, adding the Zest-it LiquiBlend created a very fluid paint. Conversely, it is possible to thicken the mediums by adding absorbent powders such as marble dust and limestone dust, but this will affect the opacity and tint the colour. Zest-It produce a range of additives including limestone dust, which made the Michael Harding much thicker and tinted the medium a soft brown, this is less evident when mixed with paint but a factor worth considering if you like using transparent layers.
Comparing the Cold Wax Mediums
Having explored the ingredients and viscosity of each medium I set about some trials. Three questions that I am always being asked are about the ratios of medium to paint, drying times and the flexibility of dried paint. For some artists being able to roll a painting for shipping or transportation is an important factor. I devised a test that would answer all of these questions by creating a chart on canvas that once fully dry I could roll and crease to see which medium stands up to rough handling! On my test chart I tested them all to a range of ratios. Finally, I added Galkyd to each of the 50:50 mixes to see how flexible it would make the paint.
As wax is essentially a brittle substance it is recommended that rigid supports are used. However, that very much depends on the ratios of oil to CWM and whether additional resins such as alkyd mediums are used to add flexibility. Gamblin and Dorland’s recommend using a ratio of 1:2 oil paint to medium, but if using a rigid surface or adding additional resins the ratio of wax to paint can go higher and most artists use a 1:1 mix as a baseline. Zest-it advises not more than 50% wax should be used. Michael Harding and Wallace Seymour advise not more than 20% wax. In my own work, I tend to use a 50% wax mix, but I add additional alkyd mediums to increase flexibility if I’m working on paper or canvas instead of a rigid surface.
On my test chart the neat Gamblin, Zest-it, Dorland’s and SalCera were all touch dry within 24hrs, the Michael Harding took 72 hours and the Wallace Seymour is still wet at the time of writing three weeks later. However, when mixed with paint to their recommended ratio of 20% the Michael Harding was touch dry in two days and the Wallace Seymour touch dry after four days. There was surprisingly little difference in drying times between the ratios for Gamblin, Dorland’s, Zest it and SalCera. As it was the only one of the four to contain Linseed oil the Zest-it took a slightly longer time to dry. Drying times vary enormously depending on the thickness of paint, the pigment used and the ambient temperature, so any figures are only a guide.
Finally, I felt I could start painting! I used a 20cm square plywood panel to make a painting with each brand of CWM. The first layer on all the panels was Cerulean Blue using a silicone spreader. After the initial process of laying down one colour, it soon became apparent that this was going to be a layering test for those mediums which are touch dry within a reasonable time, enabling a second coat to be applied without disturbing the first.
Wiping with Solvent
A favourite Cold Wax technique is using solvents to remove a layer of paint.
In addition to noting how each wax reacted differently to solvent, I was interested to see how the different solvents would perform for ‘wiping’. I painted a spare panel with a layer of a mixture of opaque paint and cold wax medium and once touch-dry tested the following by dribbling down a teaspoonful of each, waiting a few minutes before wiping downwards with my silicone scraper. In order of strength: the English Distilled Turpentine cut into the paint with the most vigour, next was the Zest-it Solvent, and then the Shellsol T and Gamsol which both dissolved an equal amount of paint. I hadn’t used the Chelsea Classical Studio Lean Medium before and presumed that as it smelt so strongly, in a pleasant way, it would behave with ‘strength’ but of course, although it contains a solvent it is an oil medium so it didn’t dissolve the paint at all! Proof that smell is not an indicator of strength, and reading the label always helps!
Solvent strength of dissolving the wax, from strongest to weakest:
- English Distilled Turpentine
- Zest-It Wax Solvent
- ShellSol T Odourless Solvent
- Gamsol Odourless Mineral Spirits
- Chelsea Classical Studio Lean Medium (with spike lavender oil solvent)
As I like to work with both opaque and transparent layers I returned to the six touch-dry panels to lay down a thin glaze of Indian Yellow mixed with CWM once the second layer was touch dry. To the Gamblin and SalCera I added a little Galkyd and Gamsol to make it a little more fluid, to the Zest-it and Michael Harding I added some Zest-it Clear Painting Medium, and to the Dorland’s I added Chelsea Classical Studio Lean Medium. I used the silicone spreader to apply the glaze. Each glaze behaved differently, the Gamsol/Galkyd glaze spread over evenly, as did the Zest-it but the stronger solvent in the Zest-it Clear Painting Medium began to “wake up” the opaque layer underneath, muddying the glaze. The most successful glaze was the one diluted with the Chelsea Classical Studio Lean medium. The Dorland’s is smoother to start with, and the Lean is a medium, not just a solvent, so it did not affect the opaque layer, giving me more time to spread the glaze evenly. I could have used Linseed oil to create the glaze but that would have meant a longer drying time before adding the fourth layer.
The fourth layer was one I made with Titanium White tinted with Yellow Ochre.
Once this white layer had dried I laid on another glaze of Williamsburg Green Gold mixed as before but with this layer, I tried more techniques.
What all of these techniques allow is for the artist to explore in ways that are only possible with cold wax medium.
After this layer, while keeping to the palette I was using, I treated each panel individually to finish them. I added more opaque and transparent layers and scored into them with tools. Mixing the Michael Harding with Titanium White and the Zest-It Limestone Dust provided a lovely grey that was touch dry in 24 hours.
Blending with the Michael Harding and Wallace Seymour mediums
Having finished the panels that dried faster, I returned to the slower-drying Michael Harding and Wallace Seymour mediums. The Michael Harding panel was dry enough to work on after two days, and allowed a greater ratio of wax to paint but it was a much slower process to work with layers, and the texture was too smooth to build impasto. The Wallace Seymour medium could be used with layers as I had with the others, if I had kept to the recommended 20% ratio, but again it would still be a much slower process. These were clearly mediums that had different properties, and consequently different uses to those that I would define as true Cold Wax Mediums. Both would be excellent to use for Alla Prima painting and creating a piece in one session.
I could alter the viscosity of both by either adding Zest-It LiquiBlend to loosen them or by adding marble or limestone dust to thicken them which would also decrease their drying time. I particularly liked how both dried with a matt finish.
Finally, it was back to my canvas test panel, how would it cope being rolled and folded? I had left it for four weeks and all the sections were dry, except the Wallace Seymour sections which were mixed with a higher ratio of wax than recommended. The section of Wallace Seymour where I had added Galkyd to a 50/50 mix had dried after a few days indicating that either low wax ratio and/or some resin is required to enable it to dry.
Interestingly the only sections that showed any sign of splitting were the plain, unmixed sections, except those with linseed oil. Although in theory alkyd resin gives both strength and flexibility to paint layers, whilst dammar would impart its inherent brittleness to paint layers, in my test they were equally flexible. The fact that none of the painted sections cracked, indicating that even a little linseed oil present in the oil paint has a protective quality.
Will it melt?
The final question I am always asked when I say I use wax medium is “Will it melt?” This summer I drove from Southern Spain to the UK with a number of paintings in my car. The days were warm and the car developed a lovely waxy smell. I was relieved to find when unpacking them that nothing had “shifted” on the journey. However, to fully test this I put a piece of canvas with plain dried paint, and a piece with a 50-50 paint and cold wax medium mix in the sunshine on a sunny day for an afternoon and neither sample went even slightly soft. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend any painting is put in direct sunlight or left in a hot car, but I would argue that paintings made with oil and wax medium are as stable as oil paintings without wax medium.
The Finished Paintings
About Sally Hirst
Sally Hirst’s work is about journeys; those that she takes and the journey that the artwork has been on in her studio. The textures, colours and structures of each environment dictate the development of her artwork which whilst predominately abstract is based on fleeting images, imagination and experiences. She invites you to pause a while, to take your own journey through the narratives she creates.
Sally says: “As I walk I collect discarded objects; pieces of wood, rusty metal, interesting plant forms. In addition to photographing and drawing them, many become the tools that I draw with; I also use them to apply the pastes and mediums that create the texture, lines and shapes. As a result, my work is imbued with layers of information and meaning. The work is complete when it stops asking for more!”
Originally from South London, Sally completed a BA(hons) in Cambridge and a post-graduate degree at Cambridge University. After many years teaching Art and Design she is now a full-time artist and is currently studying for an MA in Fine Art. In 2017 and 2018 she took the intensive programme offered by artist Nicholas Wilton, his approach enabled her to develop her individual way of working.
Sally runs workshops in painting and printmaking from her studio in the centre of Norwich, details can be found on her website www.sallyhirst.co.uk
Tools and Materials Used
Cold Wax Mediums:
- The Cold Wax Department at Jackson’s
- Gamblin Cold Wax Medium
- Dorland’s Wax Medium
- Zest-It Cold Wax Painting Medium
- Sally’s SalCera cold wax medium – uses beeswax pellets, Gamsol and Galkyd – the recipe can be downloaded here
- Michael Harding Beeswax Paste
- Wallace Seymour Beeswax Impasto Paste
Solvents and other mediums:
- Gamsol Odourless Mineral Spirit
- Shellsol T Odourless Solvent
- Zest-it Wax Solvent
- Zest-It Clear Painting Medium
- Galkyd Oil Painting Medium
- Gamblin Galkyd Gel
- Zest it LiquiBlend Wax
- Clarified Lean Medium by Chelsea Classical Studios
- Jackson’s Professional Cerulean Blue
- Jackson’s Professional Prussian Blue with Jackson’s Professional Titanium white
- Williamsburg Indian Yellow
- Jackson’s Professional White and Jackson’s Professional Yellow Ochre
- Williamsburg Green Gold
- Jackson’s Professional Indigo
- Messermiester Silicone Bowl Scraper is the tool that Sally uses – or we have an alternative available at Jackson’s – the Catalyst Wedges
- Speedball Soft Roller
- Pottery tools
- Ribbon tool set
- Princeton Catalyst painting tool
- Kitchen whisk