The Encaustic Palette

October 9, 2020

My collection of dry pigments in the studio

My collection of dry pigments in the studio

I’ve just completed a series of panels executed in encaustic. The palette I used for this work consisted mainly of the same dry pigments that I keep on hand for egg tempera.  (See illustration to the left.) I said “mainly”, because I also began to supplement my palette of home-made colours with the bars of ready made encaustic colours from R&F pigments that I had purchased at my local art supply store. In this way, a few additional colours crept in, most notably Naples Yellow (which I had purchased in search of a Yellow Ochre – which it is not).

Thus, during this process of painting with encaustic I became motivated to pay increased attention to my palette choices. Yes, technically, you can use the same dried pigments that you might use for egg tempera but that doesn’t mean you should. The principle caveat here being toxicity.

I gleaned this information recently from Kraemer Pigmente: “For encaustic, pigments are melted into wax or a wax-resin-mixture. It is very important not to use toxic pigments with this technique. Pigments used for encaustic must not contain lead, arsenic or cadmium. […] The pigments should not be heated over the melting point of the wax and they should not be burnt. The pigments listed here are not safe for use in candle making. We recommend tests prior to the final application. Caution: Heated wax is a fire hazard and should never be left unattended. Wax vapors and fumes are hazardous for the health and should not be inhaled. An exhaust system should be installed to pull out wax vapors.”

My own nota bene: I do not handle lead and arsenic in the form of dried pigments but I DO use the (yellow and red) cadmium colours. In addition, the ready made pigment cakes from R&F paints DO include the cadmium colours as well as the above mentioned Naples Yellow. These are expressly advised against by Kraemer Pigmente. Since I trust Kraemer Pigmente – use these colours with caution (or rather, don’t use them). In any case be sure to install a good ventilation system in your studio and use a vapour mask  I purchased a 3M 4251+ disposable half mask and also wore a set of eye goggles. I highly recommend both! 

My palette:

  • Ultramarine blue (a cool blue)
  • Thalo blue ( a warm blue)
  • Cadmium yellow medium (a warm yellow)
  • Permanent Lemon Yellow (a cool yellow)
  • Cadmium red medium (a warm red)
  • Alizarine crimson (a cool red)
  • Viridian green
  • Venetian red (red iron oxide)
  • Raw umber (fantastic for shadows)
  • Burnt siena (great for achieving quick grounded warmth)
  • Yellow ochre (I used this for all my imprimatura’s )
  • Mars black
  • Titanium white

Dried pigments suggested from Kraemer Pigmente

Historic pigments

  • Smalt Egyptian Blue
  • Han-Blue
  • Han-Purple
  • Alba Albula
  • Red Jasper
  • Côte d’Azur Violet
  • Brown red slate
  • Jade
  • Rock Crystal
  • Fuchsite
  • Gold Ochre from Saxony
  • Burgundy Ochres
  • Spanish Red Ochre
  • Brown Earth from Otranto
  • Moroccan Ochres
  • Onyx Black
  • Obsidian Black
  • Sodalite
  • Lapis Lazuli
  • Verona Green Earth
  • Bavarian Green Earth
  • Ochres from Andalusia
  • Nero Bernino
  • Russische Green Earth  
  • Aegirine
  • Epidote
  • Green Jasper

Synthetic-organic Pigments

  • Phthalo Green Dark
  • Phthalo Green, yellowish
  • Phthalo Blue, primary
  • Phthalo Blue, Royal Blue
  • Phthalo Blue, reddish
  • Anthraquinone Blue
  • Orange DPP RA
  • Scarlet Red DPP EK
  • Red DPP BO
  • Ruby DPP-TR
  • Scarlet Red
  • CPT Scarlet Red
  • Permanent Red
  • Permanent Red FRLL
  • CPT-Red
  • Permanent Yellow light
  • Permanent Yellow medium
  • Isoindole Yellow
  • Pyramid-Yellow medium
  • Quinacridone Pink D
  • Dioxazine Violet
  • Maroon
  • Quinophthalone Orange
  • Pyranthrone Orange
  • Quinacridone Gold, red-gold
  • Alizarine Crimson Light
  • Alizarine Crimson Dark
  • Brilliant Yellow
  • Isoindolinon Yellow
  • Isoindole Yellow-Orange
  • Quinacridone Violet
  • Isoindol Orange
  • Studio Yellow
  • Studio Red

 

I just finished a series of thirteen identically sized panels executed in the encaustic technique. This was the third time in my artistic life that I have jumped into painting with melted wax.

Nils, #53, encaustic on panel. 23.5 x 13.3 cm or  9 1/4 x 5 1/4 in.

Nils, #53, encaustic on panel. 23.5 x 13.3 cm or 9 1/4 x 5 1/4 in.

Anna, #18, encaustic with collage on panel. 12.7 x 9 cm or 5 x 3.5 in.

Anna, #18, encaustic with collage on panel. 12.7 x 9 cm or 5 x 3.5 in.

The first time was back in 1978, with the Nils project. At that time I created approximately sixteen panels in encaustic, see one example here to the left. Relative to the technique, there was no internet to consult. I only had only my handbook from Reed Kay, The Painter’s Guide to Studio Methods and Materials. It contained useful and reliable information that I and others still consult to this day.

The next time was in 2011 so, post internet. At that time I quickly discovered that there was a vast amount of information and resources on encaustic now available. I located a youtube source which showed me on how to create my own ready-to-use cakes of clear medium (beeswax and melted damar resin). This would save me time during the painting process. Also, due to this general new-found popularity in the arts and crafts world, I discovered an electrified hobby pen for encaustic with ironing, drawing and painting nibs. In this way my use of the technique received a leg up (or two).

And then there is today, 2020, where my own education continues – as well as the proliferation of internet resources. Most of what you will discover with a quick Google is a collection of enthusiastic arts and crafts blog sites. I found them to be very informative but also a little superficial. Very few, if any, address the deeper complexities of using melted wax for realistic rendering. Yet since that has always been my interest I would like to address how I have tried to do that with this most recent series of panels. The subject matter is a given, the rendering of it is the challenge.

Ground

Of course, first and foremost, the main issue is the relationship between the support, the ground and the paint. The support should not bend; the ground should be absorbent to the melted wax. I use traditional chalk gesso ground on a 3 mm hardboard panel. That is standard practice. You can buy fully prepared $$ Ampersand panels in art shops but also you can create your own. I have always preferred the latter.

Underdrawing

I consulted the University of Delaware MITRA forum experts about my choice of materials for the underdrawing. They affirmed my intuitive choice of india ink but warned me from using egg tempera for the underpainting. So I used charcoal to transfer my designs and then laid them in with india ink. After the india ink was dry I used a kneaded eraser to erase all traces of the charcoal. That left me with thirteen highly graphic panels, resembling the individual panels of a comic book. But what about the underpainting? Because encaustic is such a viscous, opaque technique would an underpainting be of any help? And was it even necessary? Also, beyond the bare function of outlining would the underdrawings I had already done prove useful? I did not know.

Underpainting

A Piece of Me #53, encaustic on panel. 21 x 13.3 cm or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

A Piece of Me #53, encaustic on panel. 21 x 13.3 cm or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

So I decided to forego the underpainting. Instead I opted to cover each panel with a beginning layer of yellow ochre imprimatura. This was achieved in two steps, first by melting up some yellow ochre paint and slapping it on, then by warming up the iron covering the panel with some cheesecloth and melting it back off. That produced the effect of burning in a yellow ochre glow into the chalk gesso ground. It provided a middle-value, warm starting position, without much wax. Highlights could go in one direction, shadows in another. As the panels progressed, I learned more and more how to make use of my underdrawing. I allowed it to peep through here and there, adding a level of built-in dimensionality and graphical contrast to the shadows. I also learned how to make use of the imprimatura. In the highlights I allowed it to show through on occasion.

As the panels developed in complexity of subject matter I began to reconsider the underpainting question. This happened quite by accident. I had painted a panel with a variety of hues and values. But it was too coarse for my purposes so I decided to (gently) melt it off. I warmed up the iron and covered the panel with cheesecloth. The paint melted quickly into the cloth. Perhaps too much? Yet as I removed the cloth I saw that in the process I had created an underpainting(!). The main masses had melted into the gesso. It would now take only an additional hour or two of fresh impasto to rebuild significant highlights and shadows, add in the final linear touch ups, then I would be done. And I was – for that panel at least. You can read its full story here.

This then became a way forward for me whenever I wished to create an underpainting for more complex compositions. So, underdrawing, underpainting, not to mention collage or pre-sculpted relief can truly enhance encaustic’s ability to describe form in a visceral yet realistic way. I think it goes without saying that this type of preparatory underwork has little significance if you are interested in using encaustic for purely abstract purposes. But then again, maybe not? Show me, baby, I’m open to it. 🙂

 

 

 

Self portrait in Casablanca

Self portrait in Casablanca outside of the Hasan II mosque.

Last week I finished the preparation of 64 identically sized panels (21 x 13.3 cm or 8 1/4 x 5 1/4 in.) for a new project. It consists of cutting up a full length photograph (which happens to be a self-portrait, see left) into 64 identically sized pieces and then painting each piece differently, so in a different medium. Since there are not 64 different mediums, in effect, I’ve reduced my approach to five: egg tempera, encaustic, the mixed technique, oils and acrylics. Preparation-wise then, each medium receives the ground appropriate to it: egg tempera receives chalk gesso; encaustic and mixed technique, ditto; while oils receive an oil ground; and acrylics, acrylic gesso. Additionally each panel receives a pre-treatment (or not) thus: plain wood (so, no treatment); linen (glued on, using rabbit-skin glue); collage (glued on, again using rabbit-skin glue); pre-textured sculpting (I used acrylic modeling paste for the acrylic and oil panels while I experimented with pastiglia for the egg tempera, encaustic and mixed technique panels). Needless to say such an approach presents a bit of a logistical nightmare but excel spreadsheets can, indeed, work miracles.

Nils, final full-sized assembled painting. 6‘ 02” x 3‘ 6” or 188 x 107 cm

Nils, 1978, final full-sized assembled painting. 6‘ 02” x 3‘ 6” or 188 x 107 cm

Anyway, instead of this appearing to be a new direction, actually, it’s not. It’s a return to the kind of work I was doing approximately forty years ago, see “Nils” right. You can read more about that painting project here. I also did a few other smaller pieces at that time trying out that same approach and I briefly dabbled with it again (as an approach) in 2011. But after stumbling upon an appropriate photograph earlier this year, I’m drawn to return to it now with a deeper understanding of many things. So, here we go. I love how the compositions you receive with this approach are completely arbitrary and spontaneous. The challenge, as always, is to create a sensorial unity, something beautiful and interesting in its own right individually and of course, in the final assembled result.

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 not suited my nomadic lifestyle since that earlier time.  It’s only recently that I decided to give it a re-try.  In the intervening years on the world stage, 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 well enough, 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.

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: check.

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.

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.