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Encaustic: 20 Questions

Artist and Author Joanne Mattera Answers 20 Questions About Encaustic Painting

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In the process of researching The Art of Encaustic Painting, I spoke to hundreds of artists, learning not only what I wanted to know about encaustic, but what others wanted to know as well.

What follows in this article are the 20 questions painters ask most often. Surprisingly, the big question, "Why paint in a process-intensive medium that's over 2000 years old?" is rarely asked. That answer is a given: luminosity, rich surface, the beauty of the wax.

"Why paint in a process-intensive medium that's over 2000 years old? That answer is a given: luminosity, rich surface and the beauty of the wax"

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1. Filtered or bleached beeswax - what's the difference?
Filtering permanently removes the pollen that gives wax its yellow color. Bleaching decolors the pollen but doesn't remove it, so there's no guarantee the color won't reassert itself over time. Bleach may also affect the quality of the wax. Since "bleached" is the term often used to describe both methods of whitening, clarify with your supplier exactly how the wax has been processed. If you work with transparent layers, filtered wax is your only choice.

2. Can I mix beeswax with other waxes?
Yes. You can create a blend that's best for your needs. To lower cost, add up to 50% microcrystalline and you'll maintain everything you love about beeswax, including the aroma. To make beeswax harder, add 10% carnauba or candelilla, but know that these waxes will yellow. Paraffin is inexpensive but too brittle for encaustic. Keep a record of what you do so that you can recreate a mix you like.

3. What can you tell me about microcrystalline wax?
Artists who use it love it. Micro is a relatively new petroleum product, manufactured in a range of consistencies, so ask your supplier for one that behaves most like beeswax. Its big draw, aside from lower price, is that it's more pliable, thus less likely to crack, than beeswax. Its drawback is that it will yellow over time, even with the antioxidant added by refiners.

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4. Do I have to use damar resin to harden my wax?
No, but you should temper the relatively soft beeswax with something. Historically damar has been the best resin for the job. In terms of waxes, try carnauba or candelilla (see Q&A #2) or a hard microcrystalline. The advantage of tempering with wax is that you can bypass the process of melting and mixing damar.

5. Can I change the eight-to-one proportions of wax to damar?
The more damar you add, the harder the wax and higher the melting point. But more than one part of damar in four parts wax will make the wax too brittle, while using just a few crystals will have a negligible effect on the wax.

6. Damar crystals, damar varnish -- what's the difference?
In a word, solvent. Crystals are 100% damar resin. Varnish consists of damar dissolved in turpentine.While varnish is easier to use, its fumes are toxic, particularly when heated. Moreover, a small percentage of turp will remain in the wax, eventually making its way to the surface as the whitish dust known as bloom. (You can wipe off the bloom with a soft cloth, but its appearance may frighten dealers or collectors.) For safety sake, don't use varnish to temper.

7. Help! I strained the medium but I still have tiny bits of plant matter from the damar.
Those tiny particles tend to sink to the bottom of a cake of wax medium. After I pop the cakes out of my muffin tins, I rub the bottom surface of each new cake on a heated griddle and then wipe the "melt" with a piece of cheesecloth. The grit comes off with that wipe.

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8. Can I use paint as a pigment?
Oil paint, yes.The linseed oil in tube colors will soften wax, so squeeze the paint onto a paper towel to absorb the extra oil before adding it to the molten wax. Acrylics are not compatible with wax.

9. Can I use crayons, oil pastels and oil sticks for pigment?
Crayons are typically made with dye and paraffin; use them sparingly if at all. Oil pastels are mostly pigment with a small amount of oil and paraffin as binder; you can use them as a minor part of your palette. Oil sticks are a material to use with the beeswax -- to draw on the encaustic surface, or to rub into incised lines -- rather than as a coloring agent.


10. What are my options for a good ground?
The Art of Encaustic Painting outlines many good options, from traditional hide-glue gesso to a paper-laminated panel, as well as many good options for substrates. Experiment with the combination of substrate and ground that feels best to you.

11. Why can't I use acrylic gesso with encaustic?
Acrylic is not absorbent enough. That said, some artists are experimenting with a sand-textured acrylic gesso. If you try it, work small and see how the bond holds up over time.

12. What do I need to know to paint on Plexiglas?
Everyone asks this question. Given the translucency of wax, it's understandable that you might want to exploit a similar quality in the substrate. Unfortunately, plastic is not absorbent enough to hold the wax. I have done some small paintings on plexi, and here's my advice: Keep the painting under 12" - the stresses on a small painting are slight -- and protect it with a frame. If you sell the work, make it known that archival permanence is not guaranteed.

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13. What's the best temperature for working with beeswax?
About 200 degrees (160° to 250°, depending on the degree of tempering agent). You want the wax hot enough to flow easily from your brush to the painting surface, but not so hot that it smokes. Use appliances with temperature controls.

14. What is fusing and why do I have to do it?
Fusing, an essential part of the encaustic process, ensures that each layer of wax, or group of brushstrokes is securely attached to the ones beneath them. Without fusing you have the encaustic version of phyllo pastry -- lots of delicate individual layers.

15. What's the best device for fusing?
I prefer a heat gun because I can control the surface, whether I'm working textured or smooth, some artists prefer a tacking iron, a samll propane torch, or a 100-watt bulb in a bowl reflector.

16. Must I paint fat over lean as with oil, and is there a limit to the thickness of the wax?
"Fat over lean" doesn't apply to encaustic, because the wax hardens by cooling not drying and because you're fusing layers to create one integrated surface -- but it's always wise to use compatible materials. As for thickness, one of the properties of wax is that it has substance, so you can dig into the surface or create relief effects, and you can actually encapsulate objects into the surface of the painting. With built-up surfaces -- say ½inch or more -- there are two concerns: weight and inflexibility. A large painting can be very heavy, making it difficult to handle or hang, and a thick surface will be less accomodating to the subtle movement of a substrate that expands or contracts in response to ambient moisture.


17. I have allergies: Is it safe for me to work with wax?
That's a question for your doctor. I can tell you that with good ventilation and wax temperatures under 250°, there will be no wax fumes that can irritate the respiratory system. If you use cold wax medium, use it cold; when you add heat, you release solvent vapors.

18. What's "good ventilation?"
For me, good ventilation is a hood above my heating units with enough draft to pull any wax fumes and vapors out of the studio. In a previous studio, I used a louvered commercial window fan at work-table height. If you find yourself leaving your studio with a sinus headache or heaviness in your chest, you're not ventilating properly; make changes immediately.


19. What's the best way to protect my paintings?
I make a foamcore cover, lined in bubblewrap and glassine, to protect the face and sides of a painting when it's on the storage rack at my studio or a gallery. (Spend time in a gallery and you'll see how often paintings are pulled off the racks to be shown to clients.) When I send work, I wrap the covered painting in two layers of bubblewrap and place it into a larger box that is stuffed with bubblewrap and reused styrofoam packing material. Apply "Fragile" and "This Side Up" stickers purchased from a packing materials company; shippers pay more attention to those than to handwritten entreaties.

20. How worried should I be about heat and cold in a delivery truck?
I try not to ship on 100-degree or below-zero days -- why tempt fate? -- but I've found that most shippers have basic climate control. As one driver pointed out, food, cosmetics and medical supplies travel in the same trucks, and they all have a similar range of viability.

About the Author
Joanne Mattera is a reknowned master of encaustic painting and the author of "The Art of Encaustic Painting: Contemporary Expression in the Ancient Medium of Pigmented Wax". Joanne exhibits and lectures widely and her work can be found in museums, as well as corporate and private collections around the world.

For more information about this artist, please visit www.joannemattera.com

Materials List

  • The Art of Encaustic Painting: Contemporary Expression in the Ancient Medium of Pigmented Wax
    I urge you to get this book not because I wrote it, but because it's the only available book on the topic. The technical section takes you from the wax to the finished painting, suggesting many options and alternatives to try.

  • Encaustic Medium
    You can make your own
  • Encaustic Paint
    You can buy readymade encaustic paint from a supplier such as R&F Handmade Paints, or you can make your own by adding pigment (dispersion, tube color or pigment powder) to the encaustic medium to make your own.

  • Hot Plate with Adjustable Temperature Gauge
    Try a Teflon® griddle for the hotplate. You can use the griddle as a hot palette to melt the wax paint directly on its surface, or use it to hold aluminum muffin tins, which will contain individual colors.

  • A Selection of Bristle Brushes
    To apply the paint. (DANIEL SMITH suggests either our Red Boar or our Big Hog brushes

  • A Prepared Panel
    Claybord is a good first choice because it consists of substrate, ground and support in one.

  • A Heat Gun or Photographic Tacking Iron
    To fuse each layer of wax. (You can try a blowdryer, but the heat may not melt the wax.)

  • Ventilation
    You can use a box fan set into an open window