Encaustic

May 26, 2009

Encaustic:

portrait in encaustic

portrait in encaustic

Interestingly, encaustic or hot wax painting, was known to be one of the major creative techniques used by the ancient Greeks.  The Egyptian tomb portraits, which are some of the finest examples of encaustic portrait painting available today, were (according to Ralph Mayer) done by Greeks (not Egyptians).  In recent times Jasper Johns has used the technique with a great deal of success in his series of images of the American flag.  It is a technique that traditionally requires alot of cumbersome tools.  Today the process has been streamlined with simpler tools but for purity, simplicity, and honesty’s sake I will try to describe the technique that I have used.

The Ground:
The Greeks reportedly used encaustic on walls and panels.  A revival of the technique in the 18th/19th century concentrated mostly on mural painting – with reportedly insubstantial results, now 200 years later.  My own experience has been entirely on wooden panels, prepared with traditional chalk gesso (the same treatment that is used for egg tempera).

Tools:
As the medium is melted beeswax, the first tool one needs is a pallette for mixing the colors in a molten state.  Years ago, I went to my local metal junk yard and commissioned a pallette measuring 18″ x 28″ of 1/4″ steel plate welded on four sides by legs 5″  high (also of 1/4″ steel plate).  This pallette then sat on top of a hot plate with an air space of approximately 2″.  At the time, I remember it cost me about $10.  The second tool one needs is a hotplate.  The best are the kind that allow for variable temperature adjustments.  A quick search at the local flea market should offer what you need.

Materials:
The same dry pigments that can be used for egg tempera can be used in encaustic.  Purchase a few blocks of fine beesawax.   Melt some wax and mix it with approximately 20% damar varnish crystals by volume.  Mix this molten fluid together with a similar amount of dry pigment and keep it in a metal cup on the warmed pallette.  Mix up a few colours as needed for the project at hand and keep them warm on the pallette. These days encaustic sticks can be purchased with the resin/oil component already mixed in. Your choice.

encaustic flag by Jasper Johns

encaustic flag by Jasper Johns

Painting:
Molten colors can be applied using bristle brushes or even the pallette knife.  As the paint hardens almost immediately upon contact with the panel, expect a highly textured, immovable result. [My original experiments were done outside in the hot humid summertime, so setting time worked slightly to my advantage.]

Burning In:
Further manipulations can be obtained by heating the panel surface with a heat lamp.  Be careful to keep the surface horizontal to avoid runs. The final “burning in” is also done with a heat lamp close and evenly rotated over the surface to achieve a final fused result.  In this way heavy impasto effects can melt into thin, veil like veneers.

There are some other resources for encaustic.  The University of Delaware’s MITRA forum is an invaluable reference for artists on all things technical. Notebook is another. These days there are many blogs dedicated to the arts and crafts practice of encaustic. They can provide useful tips and tricks but, of course, it’s best to always do your own research by consulting tried and true technical manuals, like Reed Kay’s, The Painters Guide to Studio Methods and Materials. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983.

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