Encaustic

May 26, 2009

Encaustic:

portrait in encaustic

portrait in encaustic

Interestingly, encaustic or hot wax painting,  was known as one of the major creative techniques used by the Greeks.  The Egyptian tomb portraits, which are some of the finest examples of encaustic portrait painting available today, were done by Greeks (not Egyptians) – according to Ralph Mayer.  In recent times Jasper Johns 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 chalk gesso as 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 allowed for the pallette to sit 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.  Look around at your local flea markets and you should be able to find 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 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. [I hear these days that encaustic sticks can be purchased with the resin/oil component already mixed in.]

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 was slightly delayed anyway.]

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. [I have never done this phase, I look forward to trying it.]

There are some other resources for encaustic.  One being the International Encaustic Artists website.  And here’s the information that is available on Notebook.

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