What is Encaustic?

Most of my work is painted in encaustic and oil. Often people are familiar with oil paints, but what is encaustic?

The term encaustic refers to the process of painting by capturing pigments in wax and setting them with heat. The medium, or base of the paint, is typically 8-parts beeswax and 1-part damar resin, though this ratio varies by artist and technique. The term encaustic comes from the Greek word enkaustikós, meaning “burning in.”

Encaustic is one of the oldest forms of painting, but it went largely unused until the mid-20th century. In 100-400 BCE the Egyptians used encaustic to paint the Fayum mummy portraits. Use was sporadic through the centuries until artists such as Jasper Johns, Esther Geller, and Karl Zerbe began utilizing the techniques again. In the 1980/90s the methods became more widespread and manufacturing of the paint began.  

Artists use encaustic for a variety of reasons, as it has a wide range of special properties. Some artists love encaustic for its luminosity. Some artists work with encaustic because there is no dry time, only cooling time which is practically instant. Some artists work with encaustic by pouring encaustic around three-dimensional objects. Some artists, like me, love encaustic for the way you can build texture and then carve back into it.

A couple technical notes...a complete guide and resources page are coming soon.

MEDIUM

I typically make my own medium to save money, but you can buy it pre-made as well. I go through 10lbs of medium every couple months between my painting and teaching encaustic painting workshops. I’ll film a whole tutorial on making medium soon, but the basic method I use it to melt 4lbs of non-chemically bleached beeswax from Swans in an old crock pot, melt 0.5lbs of the damar crystals in an electric frypan, filter the damar through cheesecloth, and then combine the two.

PIGMENTS

I buy all my colored wax rather than pigment my own wax, mostly for health reasons. R&F Paints in Kingston, NY does a great job of making incredibly pigmented paints. I love working with their products. I either melt the colors in large pots (if I want a lot of one color) or melt the bars directly onto a hot palette.

FUSING

The key to archivally create encaustic work is to consistently fuse between each layer of paint. This is extremely important. Your entire piece will delaminate over time if you don’t. I use a butane blow torch in my studio but teach with electric heat guns.

SAFETY

Encaustic painting does require a solid understanding of the safety issues involved. Encaustic paints should never be heated above 220 degrees Fahrenheit, as toxic fumes are produced at a high volume at that point. All heating of encaustic releases some fumes, so all work should be completed in a well-ventilated area. See these technical articles from R&F for more details.

Some people regard encaustic as a highly dangerous medium, but I’ve found that these people generally still think artists utilize the technique of the 1970s of thinning the medium with turpentine. Most artists I know do not use this technique, as the impact on your health is far worse. Some artists still use full respirators.

More on how I am currently using encaustic with oils in my next post. 

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