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The Basics of Encaustic Painting

Learn The Basics of the Art of Encaustic Painting

Encaustic Main

Encaustic is a painting process in which pigments are bound in a hot wax mixture and applied to the support with heat from an external source. The name comes from the Greek enkaustikos, meaning "to burn in," and refers to the final step of the painting process. Encaustic paint is highly durable and is not susceptible to yellowing and darkening with age because the oil content is low and the wax is colorless. Paintings do not require a final varnish. Additional surface protection can be provided with a thin coat of wax paste.

Wax Medium
The paint used in the encaustic painting process is called wax medium. It consists of beeswax (white, refined or bleached), dry pigments and a wax modifier (e.g. linseed or stand oil; damar resin, paraffin or Venice turpentine). The oily or resinous substance used as a modifier raises the natural melting point of beeswax, hardens and toughens the paint film and aids the dispersion of pigments in the waxes. The consistency of the wax medium can be modified with pure gum turpentine. To ensure a durable paint film, the wax medium should contain at least 2/3 beeswax.*

Supports and Grounds
A rigid support is required to avoid flexing and possible cracking of the paint film. An untempered masonite panel (1/8" to 1/4") is preferred, with the smooth side sanded to provide tooth for the waxes. To alter the painting surface, the panel can be covered with a glue gesso ground, made of white pigment, rabbit skin glue and water.* Apply equally to both sides of the panel to minimize warpage. This is adequate treatment for the panels up to 14" x 24". Larger panels require the addition of a cradle or brace on the back for stabilization. Paper and fabric can be used as supports if mounted to masonite panels with rabbit skin glue or another adhesive. (Instructions for making your own panel can be found in our Technical Leaflet entitled Make Your Own Two-Sided Masonite Painting Panels.)

Tools and Equipment
Heat is required to manipulate the waxes on the support and fuse the paint film onto the surface. An electric fondue pot is ideal for the preparation of waxes. The basic wax-resin mixture can be started at the lowest temperature that will melt the wax. As the melting resin crystals raise the melting point of the wax, the temperature can be raised in increments until the wax and resin are in solution. The pot is removed from the heating unit to stir in the pigments and any modifiers used in the various encaustic techniques.

The waxes are mixed and kept in a molten state on a temperature-controlled surface, called a hot palette. A hotplate works well for this purpose, as do food warming trays, pancake griddles and electric frying pans which do not have exposed heating elements. Small metal containers or muffin tins make good receptacle for the waxes.

Various tools can manipulate the waxes on the support. Propane and jewelers' torches, hot air guns and heat lamps are the most commonly used. Natural bristle brushes, painting knives, spatulas, wood burning tools, turkey basters, glass eyedroppers and any other heat-tolerant tool can be used for painting with the waxes. These can be stored in hot paraffin to warm them before being used with the wax medium. Paraffin should be heated in a fondue pot and kept at a temperature just below smoking point. Tools, including brushes, can be cleaned by dipping quickly into hot paraffin, then into mineral spirits and wiped clean.

Studio Safety
The combination of fumes which permeate the encaustic studio as a result of heated waxes, pigments, oils, resins and various modifiers can be a deadly mixture to breathe. A ventilation system that removes the fumes as they are generated, during the preparation of waxes an in the burning-in process, is highly recommended. The use of a respirator, with regularly changed filters (or cartridges) is also suggested with this process, in conjunction with proper ventilation. For the safe handling of dry pigments and solvents, protective hand cream and rubber gloves are advisable.

The degree of heat necessary for encaustic is one which is warm enough to keep the waxes molten and low enough to avoid igniting the volatile components of the waxes. The flash point, or temperature volatile fumes spontaneously ignite, varies with the formula of the waxes. If the waxes smoke or burn like butter, the temperatures must be lower. Temperatures which are too high are not only dangerous, but will ruin the waxes. Every encaustic studio should be equipped with a fire extinguisher.

Burning-in is defined as the application of heat at any stage of the painting process. This step is integral to encaustic painting as it permanently fuses the wax layers to the support and to each other.

In addition, heating and reheating the waxes toughens and hardens them. The degree of heat, and how and when it is applied, influences the appearance of the finished work. When the heat source is removed from the painting, the waxes immediately cool and harden on the support. This permanently fixes the image.

The use of a rack, fitted with a bowl-type heat reflector, allows a controlled burning-in, with the heat source moving easily and uniformly over the painting, about 4" to 6" from the surface. One technique involves gently heating the waxes until a dull sheen is noted on the surface. At this point, fusion has taken place, creating a permanent paint film on the support.

2. An entirely different effect is achieved by prolonging the burning-in until the waxes melt on the support. Changes occur because the properties of the pigments influence both the melting point of the waxes and the dispersion of the pigments within them. Wax with dark-colored pigments absorbs heat and melts more rapidly than wax with light-colored pigments. Lightweight pigments, such as most blacks, float to the top of the liquid waxes, while heavier pigments, such as titanium white, sink. With experimentation and experience in applying and removing the heat source, an artist can learn to control this uneven melting and utilize the subsequent color changes which occur in the molten waxes.

3. Burning-in is also done by sculpting the waxes with heated tools after they have cooled on the support. Wood burning tools and soldering guns work well to shape, blend or remove the waxes.

4. Burning-in can also be accomplished from underneath. A painting with a previous was application is heated from underneath, driving the wax up through the pigments and encapsulating them. This method creates a more level surface in a wax painting. One way to melt the waxes from underneath is to place the painting face up on a heated food warming tray and rotate it until the whole surface has melted. By heating the support from underneath, melting occurs more slowly than it does in other methods. This allows the artist to work into a liquid area if needed. A support can be kept warm in this fashion throughout the painting process.

Painting: Classic Method
Portions of the pigmented wax medium are kept in a molten state in containers on a 225° hot palette. A supply of colored waxes can be made ahead of time, or plain medium can be pigmented in containers on the hot palette as painting begins. Waxes are manipulated on the support with natural bristle brushes, painting knives and spatulas, and can be reheated as needed. With this method, wax hardens to a gleaming surface that can be polished with a soft cloth to a brilliant enamel-like sheen. To avoid colors running into each other during the melting process, areas can be shielded from the heat with aluminum foil.

Underpainting is often done with a soft formula (4 parts beeswax to 1 part each of damar varnish and dry pigment), and finish work with a harder formula (2 parts beeswax to 1 part each of damar varnish, Venetian turpentine and dry pigment).

Materials List

R&F Encaustic Pigments
Bees Wax
Daniel Smith Dry Pigments

Wax Modifiers (user's preference)

Pure Gum Turpentine

Natural Bristle Brushes

Painting Knives

Respirator and Cartridges

Protective Hand Cream

Rubber Gloves

Untempered Masonite Panel

Rabbit Skin Glue

Electric Fondue Pot or Hot Plate

Muffin Tin or other Small Metal Containers

Propane or Jeweler's Torch, Hot Air Gun or Heat Lamp

Painting Tools

  • Spatulas
  • Wood Burning Tools
  • Turkey Basters
  • Glass Eyedroppers

Mineral Spirits

Ventilation System

Fire Extinguisher

Soft Cloth

Aluminum Foil