Help for Beginners who want to learn how to do Encaustic Painting
If you want to learn how to do Encaustic Painting you’re in the right place! Welcome. All Things Encaustic is a collaborative blog for artists working with encaustic. If you’re just beginning to paint with Encaustic medium start here. If your question isn’t covered here, review our blog posts or add a comment at the bottom of the post and we will be happy to respond.
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Encaustic is the name for both a wax painting medium (beeswax and damar resin) and a painting process involving heat to apply and fuse the medium. The name Encaustic comes from the greek enkaustikos which means “to heat” or “to burn”. Heat is used throughout the encaustic painting process. Encaustic lends itself to mix media and collage, natural dried collage elements can be layered within the wax.
Here is a blog post offering a more detailed description including the History of Encaustic from The Artist’s Handbook
Yes, there are different methods of working with encaustic wax to create art:
- In traditional Encaustic painting, encaustic medium is melted in small tins on a griddle. Using a brush the medium is painted on an absorbent substrate such as a wood panel. Each layer is fused with a hot tool such as a blow torch, heat gun, iron or stylus.
- Encaustic Monotype printmaking – is painting with solid pigmented encaustic blocks or sticks on a heated plate or palette. Paper is then placed over the hot wax and pressed down with a barren. The artist will then pull a print from the plate.
- Three-dimensional encaustic sculptures – To create a 3-D encaustic sculpture the artist will create a skeletal structure using materials such as wire, wire mesh, plaster gauze and modeling paste. Paper, fabric or natural fibers are dipped into molten encaustic medium and applied to the skeletal form and fused.
- Iron Wax Painting has recently become popular. It involves melting pigmented blocks of wax directly on an encaustic iron. The iron instead of brushes is used as a tool to paint on cards or cardstock. An encaustic stylus with different nibs may also be used. Additional fusing is not required.
Cold wax painting is not encaustic as it does not use heat.
With adequate ventilation and a working temperature that is under 200°F, encaustic is a safe medium to work with. It is important to use a thermometer to keep a check on your temperature. Encaustic fumes, when released at a safe temperature, are not considered dangerous. Yet, all wax mediums, when heated, do release fumes.
Beeswax has a lovely natural smell and, if kept at the correct temperature, the effect of wax fumes is minimal. Only heat encaustic medium to the melting point, never to the point of smoking. Some people are more sensitive to wax fumes than others. If you develop headaches or respiratory irritation, try working outside or improve the ventilation inside your studio.
When making your own encaustic medium, make sure you use damar resin crystals—not damar varnish which is toxic.
Encaustic painting is solvent-free, eliminating the need for turpentine, mineral spirits, or oily rags in the studio.
Microcrystalline is a petroleum-based wax that will give off vapours in the molten stage. If you use microcrystalline medium instead of the traditional beeswax medium, extra consideration should be taken to provide proper ventilation.
Proper ventilation in the encaustic studio will significantly reduce potential hazards in the encaustic studio, open a window, or install a reverse fan or fume hood. Using a Vent-a-Fume which has been designed for use in an encaustic studio is highly recommended.
For more information about encaustic safety please see The Artist’s Complete Health and Safety Guide
Encaustic painting is an ancient practice. Encaustic painting was practiced by Greek artists as far back as the 5th century B.C. Most of our knowledge of this early use comes from the Roman historian Pliny the Elder whose Natural History, written in the 1st century A.D.
Use natural hair brushes for encaustic wax painting, synthetic brushes will melt.
As encaustic medium does not deteriorate the brush and can always be remelted, brushes can be left uncleaned indefinitely.
No solvent is necessary for cleaning encaustic equipment. Should you wish to clean your brushes, you can dip them in melted paraffin or soy wax. Soy wax is non-toxic and burns cleaner than paraffin. Soybeans are a renewable source, unlike paraffin. Soy wax is naturally biodegradable. Soy wax is also easier to remove than paraffin wax, so after the colour has been cleaned out of the brush, the brush can be washed with soap and water and is reusable in other mediums.
Enkaustikos manufactures a Slick Wax specifically for cleaning your encaustic brushes, tools, and even your palette between encaustic color changes. Rinse your brush in the slick wax and wipe off any excess wax with a paper towel, the slick wax will have removed the color.
Encaustic tools can be cleaned of wax and paint by leaving them on a hot surface and wiping them clean when the wax has melted.
No. Beeswax alone is just not durable enough. Damar resin is a tree sap that is added to beeswax to make encaustic medium. The addition of damar resin acts as a hardening agent allowing your painting to cure and will reduce or prevent blooming (a white clouding of the surface).
Yes you can use oil paint to add colour to plain encaustic medium.
When mixing oil paint with encaustic it is important to understand oil and wax relations see this Wax/Oil Ratio diagram from R&F. There is a danger, archivally, in making a mixture where the amount of oil and the amount of wax are equal. Do not add more than 25% paint to 75% medium or you will end up with a wax that won’t harden.
Glazes of colour can be made using a very small amount of paint to the encaustic medium.
Encaustic wax is applied to a painting in layers, fusing merges the layers together. Fusing as you work simply means to apply heat to allow each layer to soften enough in order to merge with the previous layers.
You need to fuse the first layer of wax to the substrate and then each subsequent layer needs to be fused to the layer below. There are a variety of encaustic fusing tools used by artists working in encaustic.
Yes. Always fuse the first layer to the substrate and each subsequent layer to the previous layer. Fusing provides bonding between layers and overall stability.
In encaustic art the artist will fuse the layers of wax with either a heat gun (not a hair dryer), an encaustic iron or a blow torch. Using different fusing tools will provide the artist with a variety of surface textures.
Read more from the blog: Encaustic Fusing Tools
Indoor environments, even on a very hot Summer day, are not usually hot enough to melt wax. The temperature would need to reach at least 150 degrees to start to soften the piece.
Don’t leave an Encaustic painting in a car, heat of the sun is intensified through car windows. Still, it is advised not to hang the painting in direct sunlight or very close to a heat source. When hanging or storing any fine art, temperature control and sunlight exposure should be considered.
When using an electric griddle or pallet to melt encaustic medium you want to keep it as low as you can so the medium is just melted between 150°F and 200°F – never above 200°F. You don’t want to get to a point where your wax is starting to smoke. You may want to purchase a griddle thermometer so that you can keep an accurate check on the temperature. You may find that temperature isn’t consistent all over the griddle – some spots may be hotter than others. A griddle thermometer will help you keep a check on that. A temperature regulator is a great tool for use with other fusing tools.
The whitish haze, clouding or spots that sometimes appear on the surface of an encaustic painting is called bloom. Bloom is a light haze coating that appears on the surface of the painting in the first year the wax is curing.
Blooming can occur when the wax has been exposed to cold, causing unsaturated hydrocarbons in the beeswax to migrate to the surface and crystallize. Adding damar resin to beeswax helps reduce bloom. You can remove the bloom by buffing up the painting with the palm of a clean warm hand, a lint-free cloth or pantyhose.
In her book “Encaustic Art the complete guide to creating fine art with wax” Lissa Rankin explains the difference between monoprints and monotypes.
“The meanings of the terms monoprint and monotype are very similar, because each technique yields one image (mono = one). …A monotype is a printed image from a plate containing no incising or matrix. It is therefore a singular image and cannot be replicated. A monoprint, on the other hand, is similar to the monotype with its drawing or painting, but… it has an additional matrix—something that can be replicated multiple times.”
With encaustic printmaking encaustic medium is painted directly on a hotbox or an anodized aluminum plate heated on an electric griddle. A print is then pulled from it. Each monotype is a one of a kind original.
Learn more about encaustic printmaking.
Microcrystalline is a relatively new petroleum-based wax, which will give off vapors in the molten stage. Extra consideration should be taken to provide proper ventilation. Microcrystalline has a higher melting temperature than beeswax so it is more pliable allowing for more time to mold, shape, model, cast, carve and form objects. Microcrystalline is also less expensive than beeswax. Microcrystalline wax will yellow over time from exposure to UV so it is very important to paint over and encapsulate the impasto wax layer.
Damar (or Dammar) resin is a tree sap that is added to beeswax to make encaustic medium. Damar resin is harvested without harming the tree. It acts as a hardening agent allowing your painting to cure and will reduce or prevent blooming (a white clouding of the surface).
Gesso is a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, pigment, or any combination of these. It is used in artwork as a preparation for any number of substrates such as wood panels, canvas, and sculpture as a base for paint and other materials that are applied over it.
A gesso layer is optional. Many artists choose to work on gessoed grounds so that they are starting on a white surface. Artists working in encaustic often paint directly on raw wood and other absorbent substrates without gesso.
You can either purchase pre-gessoed boards or purchase encaustic gesso and apply it to the ground yourself. As a general guideline, grounds for encaustic painting must be absorbent, so acrylic gessoes are not recommended. Rabbit-skin glue gesso is considered the most traditional, time-tested ground for encaustic.
A gesso layer is optional. Artists working in encaustic often paint directly on raw wood and other absorbent substrates without gesso. If you want to begin work on a white surface, prepare the substrate with encaustic gesso. Gesso is also available in colors. Alternatives to gesso include venetian plaster or chalk paint.
You can return to a piece any time — just lightly fuse it to warm the wax and then start working on it again.
You may have seen YouTube videos that melt crayons for encaustic medium; this isn’t recommended. Crayons are made with paraffin wax. Paraffin is inexpensive but too brittle for encaustic, it tends to crack and chip.
Clear paraffin wax can be used in the encaustic studio to clean your brushes.
If you want to make sure that the method you are using will stand the test of time, use the freezer test. The freezer test is a way to check if a substrate or underpainting method is suitable for encaustic art.
- Start with a sample project
- Add a layer or two of encaustic medium
- Properly fuse the encaustic to the substrate
- Allow it to cool for an hour or more
- Place it in the freezer and leave it overnight
- Remove it from the freezer and drop it on the floor with force
- Inspect the painting —dented corners aside, if the encaustic has chipped away and separated from the underpainting or substrate then it isn’t compatible—if it held, then it is acceptable.
Cold wax medium is wax that has been melted with turpentine. Cold wax medium is a paste that is combined with oil paint. Cold wax speeds up drying time of oil paint and increases the paint’s workability. Cold wax gives the paint a creamy texture that can be spread on a painting like butter.
Unlike encaustic that you heat up and fuse, cold wax does not need to be and should not be heated as it contains solvents. In encaustic painting, the wax medium must be molten to work with and then each layer needs to be fused (reheated). Cold wax is not molten.
Like encaustic, cold wax can be applied in layers.
Encaustic tiles are inlaid ceramic tiles and have nothing to do with encaustic painting. The term encaustic was traditionally used in two ways, to describe both encaustic painting with beeswax and a medieval enameling process.
In the nineteenth century Victorians confused inlaid ceramic tiles with tiles made using the enameling process and in error applied the term encaustic to inlaid tiles. Encaustic is now a commonly accepted name for inlaid tile work.
If your question about how to do Encaustic Painting wasn’t covered above
- You can also check out our blog posts for more in-depth answers to many of your questions.
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