Around 1992, I saw a fascinating show at the Palo Alto Cultural Center about encaustic painting. I loved how the combination of the wax and pigments made a lustrous, textural surface with many layers of colors. I started to experiment with encaustic painting and it has become my primary method of painting since.

"Encaustic"means "to burn in" in Greek, and is one of the most ancient wall and easel painting techniques. The ancient Greeks used it extensively. Oil painting and egg tempera displaced it due to changing requirements of European art, along with the cumbersome equipment and difficult technique, and it became a "lost art" in the medieval and Renaissance periods. Eighteenth century mural painters revived encaustic when they began to search for materials that would supply permanent results under drastic conditions, especially dampness. The process is simple: raw pigment is mixed with molten refined beeswax and perhaps a small amount of resin, such as damar. The palette needs to be kept warm to mix the wax and pigments together. Once these are mixed together, the artist needs to work very fast, since the wax cools quickly and becomes unworkable. In ancient times, the Greeks used a metal palette over a barrel of hot coals. Today one can buy a metal palette heated electronically. This is the "hot wax"method.

Encaustic painting is considered one of the most archival painting techniques, since the wax, unlike the traditional oil painting mediums of oils and resins, doesn't become brittle and crack over time. It hardens once it cools, yet one can go back and re-work a painting years later (I've re-worked paintings ten years old). Because the wax remains malleable, the painting needs to be done with on a hard surface such as panel rather than canvas.

Most of the time, I use the "cold wax" method, in which 50% tube oil paints are mixed with 50% cold wax medium. Dorland and Gamblin both make wax mediums. First I underpaint with either acrylic, alkyd or oil paint mixed with an alkaloid medium such as Liquin for a permanent base. Then I start to layer the encaustic paint, first with a brush and then with a palette knife. It's a tricky medium to use, since one can pick up the underlayers of paint if one is too heavy-handed. It's also hard to paint very tight, since the wax is thick. This works for me, since I'm always struggling with my tendency to nit-pick a painting to death. The cold wax method allows for more finesse in paint handling than the faster-drying hot wax technique. I use the hot wax method when I want to add bolder textures.

The painting must thoroughly dry and then the "encaustic" part comes into play.
A painting is not considered to be an encaustic painting unless it's been "burned in". A heat source is passed over the surface of the painting, which re-melts the wax and pigment and fuses them together. This causes the surface of the painting to become satiny, multi-layered and transparent, yet textural. There are many stories about the various heat sources used to burn in. One eighteenth-century writer suggested using an open flame, and cautioned the artists to have buckets of water nearby in case the painting caught on fire, which it often did. I always have three fire extinguishes within arms length. Most of the time I use a 100-watt light bulb in a reflector lamp. This is a very painstaking, laborious process when the painting is 4' x 7'. Sometimes I've set the painting out in the sun, although a few times the whole painting started to slide off the panel when I tried to move it too soon. Since most of my paintings take about four months to complete, you can imagine my horror to see my whole painting sliding off into a pool of wax!

Once the painting is burned in and cooled, the artist buffs it to a satiny sheen with a soft cloth. This is also the way to restore an encaustic painting after it's been hanging for awhile, since it tends to pick up a lot of dust and lose its sheen. Encaustic paintings are difficult to handle and move, due to the softness of the wax, but once they are in place, they are the most archival of paintings. Like all paintings, they should not be hung on an exterior-facing wall, over a fireplace, heating vent or in direct sunlight!

The process of painting in encaustic is an alchemical one for me, in which fire, color and wax interact and change each other into a surface that is archeologically rich visually and contextually. The difficulty of the technique forces me to rely both on driven focus and happy accidents to the point that the painting becomes ultimately a visual reminder of a long journey. Usually the painting doesn't end up where I thought it would, but the road there sure was interesting!

Resources and Links:

"The Artist Handbook of Materials and Techniques" by Ralph Mayer
Viking/Penguin Books, NY

"The Art of Encaustic Painting: Contemporary Expression in the Ancient Medium
of Pigmented Wax" by Joanne Mattera
Watson-Guptill, 2001