Category Archives: encaustic technique

Experiments In Wax and White

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I’ve been having some fun in my studio this week experimenting with wax inlay (intarsia). Here are some of the results-in-progress.

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First, I tried putting oil paint into the texture and doing a wipe, but it didn’t work as well as I had hoped, so I tried filling with wax and scraping back, and I’m much happier with it. I like using intarsia in my underlayers, as I like to imagine that they are more stable, and an oil wipe in the last stages of a painting. But, Oh! The scraping- my fingers don’t like it much. I need to do a serious perusal of my local hardware store for a razor holder that works well for this. I took good photos of the intarsia process this time, so I’ll do a technique tutorial on it soon.

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Above: a detail of a larger acrylic painting. I’ve been trying some new things with acrylics, too…. laminating milky, transluscent papers into this painting, tracing some of my field sketches, and using a graphite paint that I found recently. It is such a good exercise to try to explore the same aesthetic and formal concerns as the white encaustics, but it a radically different medium. I think it keeps things fresh all around, with each medium informing the other. Well, we’ll see. I don’t think the above painting is really successful in the way I want it to be, yet, but I’m going to keep on playing with it. I’d love for it to segue into a new (and parallel) body of work.

And I’ll leave you with one last image, something I picked up on a walk the other day. I don’t know what my neighbors thought, with me traipsing through the neighborhood with my dog and a dead bush, but I love it- it’s color and form- and can’t wait to take an hour or two and draw it from different angles. 

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P.S. I’m going to the opening for “Working in Wax” tonight in Walnut Creek (see announcement below) and am so excited to see so much encaustic work!

Encaustic Technique #5: Working With Wax

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Mmmmm. Beeswax. I just ordered 25 beautiful pounds of it from Swan’s Candle Making Supply. I’ve always ordered from R&F Encaustics (and their wax is lovely, too), but since I’m on the west coast, it’s great to have found a source here in California (and their customer service has been great- as I found out when I botched my initial order… ahem.).  I also ordered some microcrystaline wax- I’m adding a small amount to my beeswax to improve the tack in the clear layers that I use so often. I’m blending in about 1/10 microcrystaline, and it does seem to be improving the adhesion of layers. This has been a concern of mine as my paintings grow in size. I often find myself trying to find a balance between adequate fusing and avoiding disturbing my layers. It’s a tricky thing.

As you can see from the (slightly blurry) picture above, I’ve also adjusted my set up to accommodate larger amounts of wax at a time. I’m using a single burner with an adjustable thermostat, a small pan, and a thermometer. I’m finding that I really have to keep an eye on that thermometer! I used to melt smaller amounts in the small bread tins you can see on my palette, above, but it takes 45 minutes to melt a batch, or longer if it has damar resin in it, and I’ve needed more than that at once. I tried using a crock pot, but found that the temperature was unreliable, and that having it sit for long periods of time melted eventually turned my wax a deep amber color. I ruined quite a lot of wax that way. So far, this is working great- the only downside is that if a drop or two gets on the burner, it smokes up the studio, and reminds me that I really need to get fans in there and stop relying on my windows for ventilation!

The next thing I want to try is a torch for fusing. I’m hoping that it will speed up my process a bit. If anyone has a favorite torch, I’d love to hear about it… fewer people use torches for fear of lighting things on fire, so it’s harder to find recommendations, but I’m looking for one that is not too heavy, and has an adjustable tip, so that I can fan the flame out, or concentrate it. I’ll post about it when I’ve found one that I love.

New Work #8: more winter wax

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We are having a delicious, drizzly February day here, and the starlings outside are making quite a racket. My wind chimes are going a little crazy. I’m just enjoying it all, taking care of family life, and baking ginger cookies (because that’s what I do when it drizzles outside!) Also, sharing the latest “Winter” piece, above. I feel like I’ve finally struck a balance between complexity and simplicity in these latest pieces. I am enjoying letting the wax be what it is, not fighting or trying to overly control it. For instance, when I first started adding the tiny white dot areas, it frustrated me to no end that I couldn’t get them all to look uniform. Some of them are big, some small, some stick up and others are flat. And it’s all dependent on too many factors- like if my pallet is heating up or not (it’s on a thermostat, so there are slight variations in temperature as it cycles on and off), or how long I hold the brush on the pallet to warm it up again, or how many dots I try to make before returning to my pallet (which, of course, has everything to do with my mood and patience that day). Etc, etc. But then I just gave up. It is what it is. And I fell in love with the variation. Now, I just let it be, and I think it is one of my favorite things about these little paintings. Sometimes, acceptance can truly transport us to new places!

Encaustic Technique #4: Color

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Encaustic paint is truly different from every other kind of paint. It looks different, smells different, feels and behaves differently. All encaustic paint comes in solid form. Heat must be applied for the wax to become liquid. Encaustic paint does not dry, it hardens. Quickly. For this reason, an encaustic artist must work with purpose and speed. This can be exhilarating, or exasperating, depending on your method of working, and your goals. Or maybe just your mood that day!

You can see my paints above. I’ve ordered them from R&F Paints, but a quick internet search will turn up several other suppliers. I like the quality of these paints, and have relied on them for years now. The little round cake off to the right is a color I mixed to have on hand- you can custom mix colors in small muffin tins, or in recycled small cans. If you put the muffin tin in the freezer, the paint will pop out, and if you mix it in a can, you can just leave it there and put it on and off your pallet as you need it. I find that the solid paints are very concentrated, and I usually dilute the color with clear beeswax medium. To use and mix the paints, the block of paint is touched directly to a hot pallet (at aprox. 200-220 degrees), and it instantly melts into molten paint. A little goes a long way. A natural bristle brush is used to apply the paint, and it hardens quickly on the surface of the painting. How much working time you have between the moment your brush leaves the pallet and the hardening of the paint and brush depends on how hot your pallet is, how warm the surface of your painting is, and how warm the room you are working in is kept. I have a small space heater in my studio for cold days or nights- mainly because it extends that brief working time. 

Just like other types of paint, different colors of paint behave differently- some are more transparent than others (manganese violet, cerulean blue, zinc white), some tend to separate if they sit on the hot pallet (cerulean blue, indigo, zinc). Some are more ferocious than others (alizarin crimson, phthalo green), and tend to dominate when mixing with other colors. The earth colors can be ever so slightly grainy sometimes. R&F offers a color chart for ordering their paints that are actually made with little squares of paint- and if you are thinking of ordering online, it is a great resource to have, as it gives you some clues as to the nature of each color.

Some artists make their own paint, using beeswax medium and powdered pigment. I’ve never tried this, and if you decide that this is the way you want to go, I’d do some research on handling powdered pigments safely. Sinopia Pigments, Earth Pigments, and Daniel Smith are all resources for powdered pigments.

I have mixed my own colors using beeswax medium and a dab of oil paint. In this case, you want the mixture to be mainly beeswax. If you use too much oil in the mix it will neither harden, nor dry properly. Not good. So just a little pigment to a greater amount of wax. This is really handy if you already own oils, and have a limited color range in the pre-mixed wax blocks. It’s easy to occasionally mix a little of a custom color this way. Powdered graphite can also be mixed with wax medium to create a warm grey with some luster, and you’ll feel just like Jasper Johns.

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Whether you buy your paint, or mix your own batches of color, you’ll want to get to know your paint. A great way to do this is to create your own color charts. I’ve been working on this project myself, and it has taught me so much about my paints. And I’ve discovered some really unusual, subtle colors in the process by mixing unlikely colors together. Here is how I approached this project:

First, I made a list of my colors. Then I created grids on printmaking paper (other thick, absorbent paper will work too). I wrote the first color at the top of the page, and painted the color next to it. This was my base color. Then, I labeled each of the boxes with the remaining colors. I mixed each color with the main color, and some clear beeswax.

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I added a bit of white for each stroke, increasing the tint a little each time. I designed it this way because I often work with tints.  For the next chart, I’ll delete Alizarin Crimson off the list, so the charts get a little smaller each time. When I’m done, I’ll have a sample of how every color interacts with every other color in my pallet.

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Here is the finished chart. (See what I mean about surprising color combos? Check out the great earthy orange you get by combining green gold with alizarin crimson!)

Depending on your techniques, color range, and inclinations, you could use this idea in a variety of ways. You could make charts exploring shades, or transparency. You could design a color wheel instead of grids like these. The point is that a systematic exploration is a great way to get to know how colors in this medium (or any medium) behave.

Some Encaustic Goodness

We have a chilly, rainy day here in Half Moon Bay, and I just went out and turned on the heater in my studio. I’m nursing a cold (*sniff*), but am still hoping to get a little work done. I’m working on a larger encaustic piece right now, another in the white series. This one is the other half of that hollow core door that I sawed into pieces a while back. 

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When I’m working on larger pieces, I find it helpful to break down work sessions into smaller chunks. An hour, or two. Just getting a single layer on there, and fusing it can take over half an hour. Whew! 

In the background above, you can see some home made encaustic color charts… My next technique post will be about color, and I’ll go over the how and why of making those charts (plus, it’ll get me to finish my own set! )

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And here are three acrylic paintings waiting for some embroidery thread… I am especially happy with the grey one. This is a terribly wonky photo- my camera shoots wide angle whether I want it to or not- and the texture just didn’t show up, but I almost always like what happens when I restrict my pallet. I’m funny about color. I’ll tiptoe my way out on some colorful limb, and then always come back to my neutrals. I hadn’t done a nest yet with such somber colors, and I like the way it turned out. 

For those of you who are looking for information on encaustic technique, check out Malissa Martin Wilkes’ blog. She’s got some great information and photos, some studio shots, etc. Her set up is a little different from mine, and it’s good to see how different people work.

Encaustic Technique #3: Collage and Enclosures

One of the outstanding properties of encaustic is it’s translucency, which makes it a great medium for collage. Collage can be used with encaustic to provide the main focus of a painting, or it can be used in under layers of the painting to give a sense of depth that is hard to accomplish in any other medium. It can be combined with many other techniques without any trouble. 

I’ll also be talking here about “enclosures”, or adding small objects to your paintings. This can be a bit trickier, and I’ll explain why and give some tips for successful enclosures. 

The first thing to understand about encaustic collage is that your collage materials must be compatible with your beeswax. By this, I mean that they must be an absorbent material, especially if they are large. They must also be compatible with heat, since you will need to apply heat for fusing your layers. I also don’t recommend anything perishable, unstable, or moist. Materials must be dry and clean. Consider the stability of any inks used on papers- newspapers, ink jet prints, and other printed papers may fade rapidly, even in low light, over time. Most printed paper will fade to some degree, but some will fade much more dramatically than others. Basically, get to know your materials, and how they relate to the nature of your work. If in doubt, do a light test by putting the papers in sunlight for a few days and seeing what happens. 

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Here is a little selection of things I had lying around my studio. Paper, tissue, fabric, photos printed on paper, ribbon, lace, all work.  Other materials I’ve seen people use are clean feathers (especially small, wispy ones), plant materials such as rose petals, string, wallpaper, and wood. Anything relatively flat, and absorbent. Be careful with coated papers, and any paper that is rigid and may react to the heat by curling or buckling. Again, there is no real substitute for getting in there, trying some things out, and getting to know your materials. One of the great things about encaustic is it’s forgiving nature. If something doesn’t work out, you can always take it out, re-fuse, and keep on going with the piece. Some of my favorite pieces have been happy accidents.

When you know what you want where, just place it on your wax.

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I use a wooden spoon to carefully burnish the paper onto the wax. You don’t need to press very hard to do this; the wax is generally receptive, unless it is very cold in your studio. You want to press out any air bubbles, making sure that your paper or other collage material has good contact.

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Then, lay down a layer or two of beeswax over the collage, or over the whole panel if you like, and fuse. I like to use cheap 3-inch natural bristle brushes from the hardware store to lay down even, thin layers. At first the wax will appear milky, as in the photo above, but as it cools, it will become clearer.

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You can add layers repeatedly, as long as you remember to fuse between layers. Depending on what kind of surface you are aiming for, you can fuse lightly or heavily.

An “enclosure” is when you add an object to your painting. This is trickier, and I suspect not as archival as adding thin layers of absorbent materials, but I’ve seen it used to great effect. One painting I remember involved perhaps a hundred white buttons, and rose petals. 

The idea with enclosures is to use small objects that can be contained, or enclosed by the wax, or objects with perforations, such as doilies or produce netting, which will still allow for a matrix of wax on all sides, so that the integrity of the wax is maintained. If the ratio of objects to wax is too heavy or if the piece is not properly fused, it could crack or break off. On the other hand, it is worth experimenting with, and I’ve seen some really nice work with objects incorporated into wax. 

SO- go on, fire up that hot plate, and get to work!

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)

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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.