One of the most captivating things about encaustic is the way that the thin layers of beeswax lend an atmospheric quality to the paintings. While this layering is one of the main things that encaustic artists enjoy and exploit with the medium, it can also be tricky to manage- the layered structure of the paintings can be their downfall if not done correctly, leading to chipping, peeling, or separation of the layers. This can mean disaster for the longevity of the artwork. But by following some basic working guidelines, these problems can be avoided.
The first thing to consider is the type of wax you use. Traditionally, encaustic painting employs clarified beeswax. You’ll want to make sure that your beeswax is mechanically clarified, and not simply bleached. If your was is bleached to become white, it means that the impurities in the wax have not been removed, and may revert to their original colors, or become cloudy in the future. Most encaustic artists use tempered beeswax- wax that has been combined with a small amount of a harder substance that gives the wax a harder surface when cool. Damar crystals are popular, and a ratio of 1:9, damar to wax, works well. You can play around with this ratio to get results that suit you and your work. Other artists may use caranuba wax pellets. If too much of the hardening wax or resin is added, the wax may become too brittle for painting and actually contribute to the finished painting breaking in the future. You can buy damar crystals from Daniel Smith, or R&F. R&F Encaustic also sells blocks of encaustic medium that are ready to go… and wonderful to use, though the cost adds up fast. An alternative is to make your own.
You might be wondering- what about other waxes? Can’t I use the big block of candle wax in my garage? There are artists out there experimenting with various types of wax…. every wax has it’s own qualities: Different hardnesses, different melting and burning points, different smells, or clarity or color. If you are interested in different waxes, I’d say go for it- but be careful. And be sure to test the strength and resilience of the wax as used in your work. All of this said, I stick with beeswax. It has stood the test of time (thousands of years!), is predictable, and smells wonderful in the studio when heated. I keep some melted parafin wax in a container on my pallet for rinsing my brushes between colors, and that’s about it.
Laying down the wax, above, and below.
When painting in encaustic, we are essentially laying down layer after layer of thin wax. It may look solid, but what you can’t see is that these layers will remain discreet- and susceptable to separation until fused. Fusing is simply the process of applying heat to create a bond between the wax layers, making the piece into one whole, instead of many sheets of wax. I talked about this in my safety post- what tools I use and why.
Above, beginning to fuse the first two layers of wax with a heat gun.
Here, you can see where the wax darkened as it seeped into the paper ground. This makes for a very stable base to work on.
To make things more complicated, different waxes on your painting may melt at different rates. Beeswax medium made with damar melts at a lower temperature than plain beeswax. encaustic paint melts at different rates, depending on the pigment used. So, when it comes to fusing, it really pays off to play around and get to know your tools and materials.
Melting a block of paint onto the griddle.
Mixing some beeswax into the melted paint can give it some luminosity.
When I paint, I deeply fuse my underlayers of the painting. If the painting is backed with paper or fabric, I fuse until the backing darkens slightly, indicating that the wax has penetrated. (like in the picture above) It is a little harder to gauge when painting directly onto wood, or encaustic gesso, as those surfaces don’t darken, but you essentially want to make sure that you are creating a solid base for your painting. As I add the first layers, I continue to fuse thoroughly. As I work my way up to the surface of the painting, I fuse more and more lightly, so as to not upset the paint I’ve already laid down. I tend to lay down layers of clear beeswax between collage or painted layers to act as a buffer to subsequent heating. My final layers are usually delicate, and require only the lightest of fusing. I run the heat gun at a bit of a distance, and only until the wax goes from matte to glossy, then I immediately move the heat.
Through trial and error, experimentation and observation, you’ll get to know the wax, and find a way of layering and fusing that works for you and your work.
*In the previous version of this post, I advised using beeswax in the under-layers of a painting to save money. I stopped that practice long ago. I found that some of that early work had a tendency to bloom especially badly, taking a year or more before it stabilized. I now only work with encaustic medium. I’ve also switched to a torch! Saves so much time….