by Kari Anderson, with Kathryn Bevier
Encaustic painting is an ancient technique that combines heat, wax and color. There is evidence that encaustics were used as early as 448 B.C. in ancient Greece, where statues were painted with pigmented wax to create a lifelike effect. The Greeks took their art form with them when they migrated to Egypt, and introduced encaustics to the Egyptians. It became the primary art form used to paint the famous Fayum (mummy) portraits.
During the sixth and seventh centuries A.D., many religious paintings and icons were enhanced with encaustics. Then, from the Middle Ages to the 18th century, the technique was all but lost as artists turned to tempera, fresco and oil mediums that didn’t require managing fire to liquefy waxy paints.
Interest in encaustics grew in Europe between the mid-1700s and 1800s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1900s that the technique’s popularity began to grow steadily, resulting in today’s encaustic renaissance. American artists Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein embraced encaustics in the 20th century, and contemporary Italian artist Mimmo Paladino and American artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel both enjoy the flexibility of encaustics today. It’s durable, fast drying, and can be used in thin glazes and thick impasto.
Encaustic painting allows artists to use non-toxic, natural materials to create effects similar to oil paint, one of the reasons why the enthusiasm for encaustic painting continues to grow. Colleges and even high schools are adding encaustics to their curriculum.
While some art supply retailers say there still aren’t enough encaustic artists to justify carrying the supplies, retailer Mike Lesczinski of Rochester Art Supply in Rochester, New York, disagrees. His passion for the process led him to create an encaustic product manufacturing division, Enkaustikos! Wax Art Supplies, about 12 years ago.
Mike says his biggest challenge is educating retailers. “Artists are finding out about encaustics through the Internet, books and word of mouth,” he says. “Unfortunately, many books and websites are filled with misinformation. Often artists stumble onto nasty formulas involving damar varnish, bleached beeswax and blowtorches. Artists need to know that there are safe products and safe practices for encaustic painting.”
To help our readers better understand the medium, we asked Kathryn Bevier, product manager for Enkaustikos! and Rochester Art Supply’s director of encaustic studies, to answer some of our questions. Here’s what she had to say.
Why is it called “encaustic”?
The word “encaustic” refers to painting with molten beeswax-based paint. In order to manipulate the paint you have to bring it to a working temperature between 150 and 175 degrees Fahrenheit. The hot wax is then applied to an absorbent surface, usually wood, although other materials can be used. It is important to heat each layer of wax that is applied to create a bond – a process called fusing. In fact the word “encaustic” comes from the Greek word enkaustikos, which literally means “to burn in.”
What is the painting process like?
There are many ways to work with the encaustic medium, but the general process is to simply dip your brush or hot tool into the molten wax, apply it to a surface and then fuse with a heat gun after each layer. You can scrape, carve and even attach collage materials in between layers as long as you fuse as you go. The fusing of the separate layers creates a single paint film, which aids in the prevention of chipping and flaking of the painted surface.
To clean your brush for color changes, reheat the wax on the brush either from the heat of the palette or the heat gun, wipe off any excess paint, dip it into a non-solvent cleaning wax like Slick Wax, and give it a stir. The unwanted wax will come off. Wipe off the brush with a paper towel and you are ready to move on to the next color.
Once you feel your painting is done, you might want to buff it with a soft cotton cloth to bring up the shine on the surface.
Why should an AM retailer carry encaustic supplies?
Interest in the encaustic medium is expanding at a phenomenal rate. Since an artist can work with encaustics in both an additive and subtractive application, it appeals to artists who work in all mediums. You can paint with encaustics by layering wax paint, and you can print with them using monotype techniques. It is a wonderful medium for mixed media and collage artists. Even sculptors are employing the use of encaustics in their work. Because of its versatility, it appeals to realists as well as expressionist and abstract artists.
What materials are needed?
Because the encaustic techniques use many of the tools and materials already available in art supply stores, it is a great way to revisit products such as natural bristle brushes, pottery tools, printmaking and specialty papers, and art panels.
In addition to wax paints and a cleaning wax, you will need containers to melt the paints in. You will also need a hot palette – pancake griddles work great. An additional heat source for fusing is required, and we recommend a heat gun, which is a paint stripper. Heat lamps are also acceptable, however we feel you have more control with the heat gun. (FYI: A hair dryer will not get hot enough.)
Appropriate painting surfaces include anything that is absorbent. Most encaustic works of art are on rigid wood surfaces, including maple and birch panels, masonite and fiber boards. Various papers such as printmaking, watercolor and even fine Japanese papers are also acceptable, but they may require extra protection because of their flexibility. Encaustic artists even paint on unglazed ceramics.
Brushes are needed to apply the wax, and hog bristle brushes are ideal. Goat-hair brushes, such as the Hake brush, are also great and offer a less textured look than the hog bristle.
These are the basic tools for any encaustic artist. Other tools that make the medium so much fun are pottery loops, scrapers and picks of all shapes and sizes – basically anything to help create edges and textures. Even drafting tools like the French curve or rulers come in handy.
Can encaustic paints ruin brushes?
Once you dip your brush into the wax it is officially an encaustic brush. It is very difficult to remove all the wax in order to use it for a different medium. However, the wax coating actually serves to protect the bristles by keeping them in place while not in use. This is especially true for our hot brush attachments and classic brushes since they are made from flexible brass filaments. The only time you need to “clean” your brush is when you want to change colors; otherwise you can let the wax harden directly on the brush.
What about blending colors – how is that done?
Different colors can be placed directly on the hot palette and mixed the same way as any other wet medium, creating a secondary color. You can also layer one color over another directly on the painting surface, and then use the heat gun to bring the wax back to a working temperature and a brush to manipulate the color mixing.
You have to wait for the wax to melt and harden, so is it more time-consuming than other techniques?
Since wax cools as soon as it is removed from the hot palette, it sets up quickly. Therefore, there is no such thing as “drying time.” An artist can work with great speed and immediacy by layering wax repeatedly – and fusing between layers – until the desired effect is achieved. There is no need to worry about fat over lean or even thick over thin. As long as you bond your layers as you go, you will have a stable paint film.
Is it expensive?
Getting started with encaustics is no more expensive than any other medium that requires an initial investment in materials and tools. Palettes are very affordable and you can use illustration board, mat board or masonite panels as practice panels. Really, any hog-bristle brush will work. The paints come in a range of prices, and I would recommend that a beginner buy just a few colors to start with. People tend to add to their encaustics palette just like they do when starting in other media. To extend professional-grade paints that have a full pigment load, you can use a wax medium, which is not only economical, but it also enables you to achieve beautiful glazes and transparent paint films. Getting involved with encaustics doesn’t have to be an expensive venture at all.
Kathryn Bevier teaches encaustic painting at Rochester Art Supply’s Cascade Art Center, where various workshops, demonstrations and lectures are held throughout the year to expose artists to different media and techniques. Other classes include instruction in colored pencil drawings, printmaking, pastels, watercolor and more. For more information, visit www.encausticpaints.com.