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What is Encaustic Painting?

Written by Ariela Steif - edited by ASC | Posted on Sunday, September 7, 2008

History

Encaustic is considered one of the most ancient painting mediums in the world. The word “encaustic” comes from the Greek encaustikos, “to burn in,” referring to the process of fusing the layers of paint together. The oldest surviving use is the famous Fayum portraits painted on tombs from Roman Egypt around 100-350 A.D. After disappearing for much of history, it was revived in the 1950s by Jasper Johns, who is often considered the father of contemporary encaustic painting. He used the medium most famously in his Flags and Target paintings.

Materials and Tools

Encaustic paint is usually made from beeswax, damar resin, and pigment. The beeswax has a relatively low melting point, approximately 150F, and is strained multiple times to remove impurities. Because of this low melting point, damar resin is added, which serves both to raise the melting point to about 165F and to act as a hardening agent, so the encaustic has a slightly enamel finish when cool.

Beeswax, being both a sealant and a preservative, allows for various materials such as paper to be collaged into the work. As long as the paper is completely covered by the paint it will not degrade because the wax seals it off from oxygen.

There are several tools needed: first is a heat source. This can be as cheap as a hot plate or pancake griddle, or fancy ones can be bought from R&F Paints. Most artists keep the griddle temperature anywhere between 180F and 230F. The paint itself can be bought readymade (it can also be made from scratch, although that is beyond the scope of this article) and comes in blocks. These are melted down on the griddle in anything metal – old soup cans, muffin tins, etc. New colors can be made by mixing paints together when molten; they don't tend to mix on your ground because the paint begins to harden as soon as it is taken away from the heat source. Colors can also be extended or become more translucent by adding encaustic medium. Medium is just the beeswax and resin without any pigment; it is completely clear in its molten state.

Encaustic is compatible with a few other mediums: oil paint, pigment sticks, and oil pastels can be added to the painting in addition to the encaustic. Anything plastic or water-based, like acrylics or watercolors, is not compatible.

There are also particulars to the ground used. The support must be both rigid and absorbent. If it is not rigid (like canvas stretched over stretcher bars) the painting may crack, usually because of the weight of the wax in the middle of the canvas. If it isn't absorbent enough the encaustic might later begin to peel away from the ground. For this reason, acrylic gesso and oil primer also cannot be used. Some possibilities for supports and grounds: wood panels (luan, birch, plywood), claybord, untempered masonite, hardboard primed with Holy Grail, or raw canvas stretched over board or wood panel.

The final major tool that is needed is something to reheat and bind every layer to the one beneath it. Proper fusion is necessary so that the layers of paint do not separate over time, and so that air bubbles do not form between them, which can lead to chipping. Many different tools will achieve this: tacking irons, propane or butane torches, heat guns, etc. Heat guns are probably the safest and one of the easier tools to use because they don't have an open flame, they often come with multiple temperature settings, and the stream of hot air can be used to blow the paint in various directions. The precise temperature and distance that the tool is held from the surface of the paint can vary and require experimentation. Different temperatures and distances yield different results. Encaustic cools in seconds, but fusing tool can be used to reheat and rework the painting at any time – even years later.

The paint can be manipulated with anything you can find: palette knives, dental tools, even fingers. Brushes should be natural hair bristles; most artists use one brush per color and keep them lying on the griddle so they stay warm. Encaustic is conducive to heavy layering, so paint can be added and scraped back: it is both a positive and a negative process.

Safety

Encaustic should never be heated so high that it smokes, which means that it is giving off toxic fumes. Depending on the griddle or hotplate being used, the paint usually doesn't start to smoke until 250F. Below this point, encaustic does have a unique scent. To most people the aroma is slightly sweet, because of the beeswax, but some find that it causes headaches, nausea, dizziness, breathing difficulties and other respiratory problems, although it is not toxic. Your studio should always be well ventilated with exhaust fans or a ventilation hood.

The flash point of encaustic (the temperature at which the vapor directly above the paint ignites) is 385F. Obviously, the paint should never be heated this high.

Water should never come into contact with the molten wax because it can explode.

As oil paint is compatible with encaustic, flammable liquids like turpentine will probably be involved. These chemicals should always be kept far away from heat sources. The amount of oil paint used should also be taken into consideration. Encaustic “hardens,” and oil paint “cures,” thus there should not be equal amounts of the two materials or the finished painting will not harden or cure. As long as there is more encaustic than there is oil paint, the painting will dry fine.

Finally, there are a series of safety precautions associated with dry pigments, which is only used when making your own encaustic paint.

Finished Paintings

Once the painting is considered finished and has cooled, there is nothing more that needs to be done – varnish or something similar is not necessary. The painting can be buffed with a paper towel or a soft cloth, which removes bloom (any impurities in the paint that have risen to the surface during the hardening process), dust, dullness, and restores the surface to a glossy finish. The hardening process will actually continue for a long time and it may need to be buffed every so often to remove any bloom that develops at a later time.

The paint is stable in temperatures ranging from approximately 40F-110F. In cold temperatures it will shrink slightly and if it is very cold it may crack. In high temperatures the paint might soften but there should not be any lasting damage. Paintings should be hung out of direct sunlight.

To read about Ariela or to see some examples of her encaustic painting, visit her website at http://www.arielasteif.com
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