Encaustic is simply the process of heating wax, deriving from a Greek word meaning ‘To Burn’…
I find the word a little confusing, the wax itself is not encaustic, simply the process of heating and applying the beeswax covers the word encaustic…
The wax is essentially beeswax, often with a damar resin, or carnuba, or other waxes, added to it to raise the melting point, with added pigments.
It comes in a variety of grades, from pre-coloured Arts Encaustic waxes, which are £1.50 each, and great for beginners to start with, through to R&F Artists Quality waxes, which start at £11.50 for a similar sized block of wax, and range up to £30, depending on pigments. (There are other wax brands, but these are the two I tend to use.)
I love painting with both of these wax styles, they have their own unique qualities, and the versatility of each style is incredible. You will see this price point difference reflected in my encaustic paintings, if you are wondering why the big price differences, it is generally down to the quality, and cost of the waxes that I have used.
I still don’t get it… How does it work…?
There are so many ways to paint with encaustic wax… Essentially, melted wax is applied to paper or board, with a paint brush, hot iron, stylus or heat gun. It can be applied in a thin single layer and manipulated according to the desired finish, this is great for beginners, as anyone can create interesting patterns quickly and easily. Or, you can build it up in layers, allowing the addition of leaves, grasses, sand, butterflies, feathers and a variety of mixed media. The layered method is fabulous, as you can drizzle and splatter wax medium on, making a 3D effect, scratch designs back out to reveal layers underneath, or add paints and additional coloured wax to create amazing textured designs. There are do’s and don’ts, and health and safety considerations to take into account with this technique, which you must be aware of.
The encaustic medium in the layered pictures is made up from a mixture of beeswax and damar resin, which allows the wax to set to a very hard finish. The layers are fused together with a heat gun and buffed to give a lustrous finish, These pieces ‘cure’ and harden over time, which can take up to six months.
Encaustic wax has a fascinating history, it has been around for over 2,000 years, the Egyptians notably used it as a painting medium on the Fayum Mummy panels, and it was used in early Iconography. It has seen a resurgence in popularity amongst artists since the 1990’s, it’s quite well known in America and Canada, and slowing coming over to Europe.
The question I’m always asked is… “Will it melt?” The wax has a melting point of at least 160 degrees, so no, unless stored or hung in extreme circumstances, your picture should be fine for many years to come. The Egyptian wax panels are amongst the best preserved examples (better than an alternative egg tempera paint), and it gets pretty hot out there! Although, as with any valued artwork, definitely don’t hang work in very bright direct sunlight, especially if framed under glass.