Encaustic Technique#1: Safety and Supports

As my summer winds down, I’m thinking about how to broaden my blog a bit.  One thing I’ve been wanting to do is write about technique. Encaustic technique. I’ve searched for this before online, and found surprisingly little.  Now, I’m not an encyclopedia of beeswax encaustic technique- go to any group encaustic show and you’ll be stunned by the range of techniques and materials artists use- but I can offer a variety of techniques that I’ve used or been shown by others, as well as some basic materials information that anyone starting out should have. In the end, the techniques you settle on will likely be a combination of those taught, and those discovered or invented.  I should also preface this series of posts by suggesting that anyone brand new to encaustic painting should have a look at the safety guidelines in Joanne Mattera’s “The Art of Encaustic Painting” and a look at the safety guidelines at the R&F website.  Also, the information I’m giving here is not is not intended to guarantee safety or replace common sense or your own judgement.  Encaustic painting does involve heat and flammable materials, and I’ve talked to at least one artist who accidentally set things on fire messing around with wax. No kidding.  I’ve never had a personal catastrophe, though, and as long as you respect some very basic principles, it’s really not terribly dangerous. The things I do to stay safe are:

I always have a source of fresh air in my studio.

I don’t heat my wax above 220 degrees. I always use a candy or a surface (depending on the situation) thermometer to check this. This is mostly because above this temperature, the wax starts creating fumes that really rip my throat up. After years of turpentine exposure, that’s the last thing I need. If you over heat your wax, you do risk flames.

I’ve never used a torch to fuse.  I’ve always used a heat gun.  Sometimes a travel iron.  A torch may be in my future, but I’ll wait until I can learn to use it with someone who has some experience!

I melt small amounts of wax at one time. Even for large pieces, I’ve learned not to heat more than I need. This is for both safety, to reduce fumes, and to preserve the integrity of the wax, which starts to shift color (to amber) if heated too long or too hot. Not good for someone like me who works with a lot of transparency. 

I keep a fire extinguisher next to my work table.

I’d also like to install a fan system in my studio for sucking fumes away as they rise from my hot palette. Soon. 

Here’s a look at my modest little set-up. This should convince you that it doesn’t take a lot to get going with this:

This is just a pancake griddle from Target. I have a fancier, anodized aluminum one, too, but I’ve been using this one lately. It’s bigger. When I start working with color more, I’ll probably get the other one fired up, too.

So what can we paint on? Let’s talk about supports. 

The cardinal rule for encaustic supports is that your surface MUST be absorbent, and ,ideally, rigid. The reputation of the structural integrity of your work rests on this (literally).  If your base layer of wax cannot be fused into your support surface, you’re going to run into problems. Not right away, but eventually you’ll be faced with a painting flaking, chipping, or sliding off the support. It is possible for the entire painting to just pop right off the support. A flexible support (such as canvas or paper) is problematic because it will flex, and your wax will not- or not much, anyway, depending on it’s thickness. Not good for you, not good for your collectors. So, with this in mind, what are the options?

untempered masonite panels- flat or cradled

clay board

absorbent paper adhered to most rigid surfaces ( I use acrylic medium to adhere)

wood

absorbent ground (more on that later)

canvas or other fabric stretched over a rigid support

hollow-core doors

photographs printed on paper (not plastic)

plaster

I’ve probably missed some, but you get the idea. That first layer of wax has to be able to sink right into the surface. I’ve mostly used cradled untempered masonite panels for my own work, with printmaking paper or canson type paper adhered to the surface. I’ve also tried claybord, painting directly onto wood doors, and plywood panels with paper. Lately, I’ve been using a product from Golden called an absorbent  ground. I was skeptical about it, but it seems to be working fine. R&F is marketing a similar product under their own name- not sure if golden is making it for them or what. Since this was a new support surface for me, I tested it. I covered a wood surface with several layers of the product, then two layers of beeswax. I fused the wax into the surface, and allowed it to cool. Then I abused it. I dropped it on the floor. I whacked it, and carved into it, and it held up. You can test surfaces you are unsure about this way. The wax will show the abuse, but it shouldn’t buckle up off the support, and the wax should not chip or separate in large sheets. 

I’ve seen artist’s use flexible supports for their work, and it can be beautiful. No hours spent building and preparing supports. But the resulting work is fragile, and must be handled very carefully. Shipping could be a bear. That’s the hitch. I am thinking of doing a series of very small works on paper, and mounting them on board for support and display when I am done. We’ll see how it goes. Just be aware that the thicker the beeswax, the less flexible your art will be, and handle and protect it accordingly. 

Another consideration for supports is weight. Wax is heavy. Putting wax on a heavy support makes it difficult to hang, ship, and handle. So keep that in mind when considering your materials and size. When I am working large, I prefer to use hollow core doors that I cut to the size I want, and then finish my edges with pine stripping. In the future, I’d like to try some of the panels manufactured by Rodney Thompson. 

That’s all for now, I hope this has been helpful. If I’ve left anything out here, please feel free to add it in the comments.

10 thoughts on “Encaustic Technique#1: Safety and Supports

  1. Maribeth SOLOMON

    Lisa, I love your detailed technique descriptions, and I totally love your work.

    I’m working on Ampersand clayboard tonight for the first time, and find it dampish! It doesn’t take the abuse I usually give wood, and it looks kinda flat to me ( for the kind of work I do which is heavily leans to image transfer . I scrape off the paper pulp with a sponge so things get a bit damp. Wood doesn’t mind this treatment, but my clayboard is balking and also looks kind of dull. I haven’t seen this in anyone else’s work though so it could be my own bad habits…

    Reply
  2. Janis Edwards

    Glad I found your website. I am planning to start working with encaustic soon–not paiting, but transparent wax with paper & fabric collage. I am so used to paper as a ground I was wondering about paper adhered to masonite, so OK there, but it will be a switch to envision masonite as a ground. I guess with encaustic=no glass? So I should plan to wax the whole piece, not just use encaustic(ized) elements in a larger paper-surfaced piece?

    Reply
  3. Pingback: New Project « AisA Academy

  4. Surya Govender

    Thank you Lisa! I find myself accidentally teaching encaustic techniques to a group of mums in a learning group in Squamish, without ever having done it myself (the intended teacher didn’t show)…so I’ve been scouring the web trying to teach myself. Your blog has provided exactly what I need and in a completely accessible way. I really couldn’t have asked for more. Your work is also gorgeous and I look forward to seeing where you take it next. Thanks you again!

    Reply
  5. murals2go

    I am looking into ventilation for my basement studio. I have considered the “Vent-A-Fume” system recommended for encaustics which is 250 CFM and 27″ in diameter. After comparing with ventilation needs for a dark room, they recommend 400 CFM. I happened to locate a range hood fan with 400 CFM. May I ask what CFM you are using on your hood? I saw no CFM recommendation listed on the R& F PDF file. I also have a concern with regard to the height of my basement windows and if window fans would adequately bring in fresh air. Lots of questions, but mostly I am interested in the recommended CFM. Any recommendations are gratefully appreciated.

    Reply
  6. Elle

    Thank you for your generous help. It helped me understand what encaustic is all about. I just tried out beeswax and some other wax on an acrylic mixed media painting l had finished. I only wish that my layers were thicker but it looks great and maybe l will add more later. Again thank you!

    Reply
  7. Linda Leonhart (McCall)

    I am an oil painter wanting to try adding encaustic. You mentioned that stretched canvas was a good support but would the commercially built canvases that come already gessoed be absorbent enough to hold the wax; or does it need to be unprimed canvas? Also, is it possible to paint encaustic on top of finished oil paintings?

    Reply

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