Encaustic revisited

May 10, 2011

Nils-26 encaustic
Nils #26, encaustic on collage, summer 1978

About 30 years ago I did some mixed media “puzzle” paintings using, among others, a melted wax technique called encaustic.  Although I liked the final result, the cumbersome nature of the materials that the technique required has just not suited my somewhat nomadic lifestyle since that earlier time.  It’s only recently that I decided to give it a re-try.  In the intervening years, encaustic has become quite a hobby craft, so there is a lot of information and materials available for it on the internet.

One main element needed for encaustic painting is a metal pallette whose heating temperature can be adjusted.  30 years ago, for 5$, I had a welder create a pallette for me from scrap metal, found a few hotplates to insert under it and voila, I could mix my pigments, varnish and melted beeswax, no problem.  However, one piece of equipment I never did get was a hot lamp to “fuse” the final painting. Back then, I just left some of the finished paintings out in the sun (it was summertime) to heat up and “fuse”. It seemed to work just fine, and the paintings I created at that time are still alive and well. The memory I retained from this experiment was that this was a coarse technique full of wonderful textural surprises but hard to control for realistic detail.

Anna #18

Anna, #18, encaustic with collage, April 2011

This time around, I found a raclette warming tray at my local thrift store.  For about 10$ I got my pallette, adjustable hot plate and fusing element all in one.  Nice coup!  Main equipment hurdle, check: done.

Next step: making the medium.   I ordered some bleached beeswax and pulled out my pulverized damar varnish crystals.  I melted the beeswax and then added the damar crystals to it at a portion of 4 to 1 (wax to varnish) by weight.  The varnish requires a higher temperature than the wax to melt, so I had to adjust and stir constantly.  When the liquid was clear I poured it into small molds. Both toxicity and flammability are factors in this process, so if you do it yourself, be sure to research it well first and be attentive all the way through.  Don’t use your favorite souffle pan; any pan or wooden spoon called to arms will be ruined (at least for cooking).

Once the medium is created you can go two different ways: one way is to remelt the medium and add dry pigment directly to it or add oil colors from the tube. Having now experimented with both, I would heartily recommend adding dry pigments directly. Although it’s more effort up front, there is no question of shelf life due to the oxidation of the oil. Thus now I have a few cakes of different colors ready to go. Hurdle #2, paint: done.

Anna #09

Anna, #09, encaustic on panel over egg tempera, April 2011

I began slowy, carefully, selecting the first squares of open abstract patterns, knowing that I had already determined to do half of the face in this technique, so I needed to get up to speed. If the Fayum mummy portrait painters could paint such beautiful portraits, there must be a way. Due to the quick hardening time of the wax, my first strokes reaffirmed the clumsiness I had expected. How to render facial detail?  After more research and surfing, I located a hobby source for an electric hot-pen or brush. Yes! This tool made all the difference. I could load up my hot-brush and render a long gentle stroke without the wax hardening in transit. Fine lines became possible, softer transitions, too. Hooray for hobby-craft!

Even though it is still a work in progress (because the backside of each panel will also be painted) you can view the front side of this mixed media collage here.

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