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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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.

Medium and Pigments

May 18, 2009

Pigments ground into an appropriate binding medium create paint. The medium defines the paint: the handling (brushwork and siccative qualities), viscosity, translucency, toxicity and permanency. Oil paints are pigments ground and suspended in linseed oil, as acrylics are pigments ground and suspended in acrylic resin. Watercolors are pigments suspended in gum arabic and egg tempera is pigment suspended in the yolk of a fresh egg. Encaustic uses resinated hot wax, while for fresco the setting of the fresh plaster creates the permanency of the water diluted pigment.

Quite naturally, the medium has it’s own qualities which then become a matter of personal taste, capacity or preference. Oil, acrylics and encaustic as mediums, leave a tactile residue of their own quality. Does that quality resonate within you? Find out! All mediums require a support, as for some like watercolor or fresco the support plays a critical, essential role. Do the qualities of the support resonate within you? Find out!

Most modern artists don’t need to grind their own colors to practice their art. However, for the artist working in fresco or egg tempera contact with the powdered pigment is essential. In addition, knowing which pigments to use for which medium is critical not only for successful in-the-moment-handling but also for longevity and personal health. Manuals like ‘Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques’ by Ralph Mayer or Max Doerner’s ‘The Materials of the Artist’ are time honoured general resources. Daniel Thompson’s ‘The Practice of Tempera Painting’ is probably the best comprehensive resource for the tempera painter. Each pigment has its own nuances of hue, saturation and value, also transparency and opacity. Getting to know both mediums and pigments qualitively is a real and exciting adventure. At makingpaint.com you can find extensive information from another working and experimenting artist.

Finally each medium defines its pallette. Fresco due to the chemical interactions of plaster and pigment offers perhaps the most limited choice, while oil may offer the widest. Becoming familiar with pigments and mediums up-close-and-personal is like becoming a master chef. You choose the ingredients based upon experience and a good cookbook, but it’s the attention to detail in the processing that determine a truly successful dish. And who doesn’t enjoy a well prepared meal? Should we treat our eyes with any less care?