When I saw microcrystalline encaustic wax art displayed at The Artist Project in Toronto, I was very interested to see how it compares with beeswax encaustic medium. Of the ten artists showing encaustic artwork, two of them used encaustic medium made with microcrystalline, not with beeswax/damar. The effect was a quite different from what I know of encaustic.
Microcrystalline compared to beeswax/damar encaustic medium
The first thing I noticed was that the paintings had a different textural quality – it was almost like plastic. I also noted that it didn’t have the lovely beeswax smell.
Microcrystalline is a petroleum-based wax that will give off vapors in the molten stage. Extra consideration should be taken to provide proper ventilation.
Reasons artists choose Microcrystalline Encaustic wax
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. You can apply encaustic paint over the modeled surface with minimal disturbance to the bottom sculpted surface.
Microcrystalline is also less expensive than beeswax. Some artists paint exclusively with microcrystalline wax others use a combination of microcrystalline and beeswax.
Microcrystalline will yellow over time due to residual oils in the refining of wax. For this reason, it is best to add pigment to the wax.
I spoke at length with Nina Sampaleanu. Much to my surprise Nina said that she switched from using beeswax to microcrystalline because of headaches. I would have thought that the natural beeswax would be less likely to produce headaches. Nina said that even with proper ventilation, beeswax encaustic medium produced headaches.
Nina Sampaleanu was showing two-sided sculptural encaustic pieces.
What do you think?
Please add your comments. Have you ever worked with microcrystalline? Have you experienced headaches from working in encaustic? What do you know of how it is different from working with beeswax?
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14 thoughts on “How is Microcrystalline Encaustic Wax different from traditional Beeswax?”
Hello, Although I am prone to headaches anyway, I get more intense headaches than usual from doing encaustic. I was hoping it wasn’t from the beeswax but will keep on doing it and won’t go to microcrystalline because of what I have read. I will also increase my exhaust system somehow to hopefully remedy the situation. Thanks for all this great info.
Seeing what Tony Sherman does on canvas, I was enthusiastic to try adding a bit of microcrystalline on my oil paintings. Do I need to apply a hot gun to such a small amount? The oil painting itself has the medium of Windsor Liquin Fine Detail. (A very small amount added to oil painting to increase the flow. Then I applied a very small amount of microcrystalline wax with oil paint added to it. The effects were amazing giving the painting more depth. I am concerned about the archival aspects of the painting and noticed that one area of the painting is sticky. Noting that Liquin medium is fast drying I can only assume it’s part of the microcrystalline where I didn’t seal it with a heat gun. Afraid of the effects of the heat gun on the canvas. I do like to experiment. It is my passion because I am also a printmaker and exposed to all kinds of media. (apologies for my spelling)
Can you recommend a non-yellowing flexible Microcrystalline encaustic? Is there a good brand that can I buy in bulk? Anyone knows what brand does Tony Sherman use? I would like to work on large scale canvas (I’ve been working with beeswax for years on rigid support so I know beeswax will crack on non-rigid support).
I don’t use Microcrystalline myself. If you’re on Facebook, try asking in this group https://www.facebook.com/groups/897424186975476/
I worked in the bronze foundry industry for a few years and my primary job was as a wax technician. (Basically I was in charge of the wax process of lost wax casting.) One of the foundries that I worked at didn’t have a good ventilation system and over time I became quite sick. Being a petroleum based product, I would never advise someone to get in the habit of using microcrystalline unless you have an amazing ventilation system, a fan in the window will not cut it. It’s sticky and the fumes are also sticky, as in they stick in your lungs and nose. Over time you can feel it. Also they can make your eyes burn and cause headaches, etc. You may not realize what the problem is right away but with extended use it will catch up to you. Just my two cents 🙂
Hi Gerrie & Jeannine,
Today I used microcrystalline for the first time. So at long last, I have some answers for you.
Yes, you can mix in damar but you don’t have to. My painting still feels tacky, kind of like lipstick, it takes a week or so for the painting to harden. And yes Gerrie, we did use oil pastels with microcrystalline.
Heather Gentleman’s studio has excellent ventilation, a must when working with microcrystalline. I don’t like the way that the microcrystalline feels on my hands and I don’t like the smell to work with it or the way the finished painting smells. I will stick with beeswax.
I’m interested to hear more comments about microccrystalline, it’s properties, any safety issues and the previous question of mixing damar with it to make it harder ( is it hard enough as is?)
Would you recommend mixing some demar crystals into the microcrystalline to make the finished product harder? Or is using microcrystalline hard enough in itself? I also plan to use oil pastels as a colourant and am hearing conflicting opinions on their use.
Thank you so much for this blog. I was considering trying microcrystalline wax. But not any more. I had to give up oils because of solvents, and I just Love the smell of beeswax!
How could I ever go back to petroleum products?
Have been experimenting with encaustics for years and am never tired of it.
When adding pigment to the microcrystalline wax, you don’t have to worry much about yellowing over time. If you are looking for a clear finish then I highly recommend sticking to pure beeswax. Artists need to remember that the love they get out of making the art is shared by those who buy it and hang it in their home. It is important to protect them and the integrity of the painting by minimizing changes over time.
I tried it for a while but it’s a different texture, i hate the smell and decided to go bck to the beeswax.
Ruth, I read your post with interest. Encaustic artist Tony Scherman uses microcrystalline. The ‘plastic’ appearance you noticed on the texture of microcrystalline is due to the amount of oil used in this petroleum based wax. Tony adds dry pigment or oil paint to the microcrystalline to colour it, noting, “Oil paint allows the brush to move a little more easily”.
His encaustic paintings retain a lot of his brush strokes because he doesn’t fuse every layer. This is because microcrystalline has a better tack than beeswax. It’s also more pliable – Scherman actually rolls his microcrystalline encaustic painted canvases for shipping!
I had heard that microcyrstalline was pliable but he really rolls them for shipping – wow!
I use microcrystalline only for impasto in the first layer of a painting. It retains its shape and melts slower. Apparently there are at least two products so named as the micro that I found at Michaels is very white and sticky and not at all like the consistency of the micro found at R&F Paints. I prefer to use R&F. I’ve seen a Scherman painting and it is quite amazing what he accomplishes on canvas though with the exception of a bit of impasto, his paint is very thin.