Encaustic Slide

Myths and Realities about Acrylic Gesso and Encaustic

August 07, 2012 - Written by  Darin Seim

This past June at the 6th Annual International Encaustic Conference in Provincetown, I had the opportunity to sit in on Richard’s session about the adhesive properties of different substances and their compatibility with encaustic paints and mediums.  There was an abundance of information about a variety of different materials and it was all pulled from real-world testing done here at R&F.   (Read more about testing here)   One thing that really struck me more than anything else is that it is not the binder that dictates whether or not a ground is suitable for encaustic - it is how you use it.


(Adhesion Test Samples)

To be clear, very early on we were advising artists against the use of encaustic over acrylic mediums.   From 1988 (when Richard began advising artists) until 2007, that was perfectly sound advice.   We did not feel that the acrylic mediums and grounds that were on the market at that time had the porosity or “tooth” necessary for encaustic paint to reliably adhere to a substrate.   Then in 2008, after quite some time in development, we introduced our acrylic based “Encaustic Gesso”.  But how does this work?

Acrylic is bad, right?

Well, no.

Used properly, acrylic is a very reliable, and durable binder.  It has wonderful adhesive properties and flexibility. Carefully tweaked with some other materials, it is quite suitable for use with encaustic paint.  What I took away, more than anything else, from Richard’s presentation in June is that it is not about the binder.

(Cadmium Red Encaustic on a “typical” Acrylic Gesso)

Think of it this way: For years artists have quite successfully used traditional rabbit-skin glue gesso as a ground for encaustic.  Rabbit-skin glue by itself is a slick, non-porous, brittle medium.  On it’s own it is not a very good ground for encaustic.  When you combine it carefully with the right proportion of solid materials (titanium, chalk, etc) it becomes a very suitable ground for encaustic.  So, one more time:  it’s not about the binder.

The reason I feel confident about this (like all our products) is that we test them.  Again and again, until we feel confident about their performance.  Then we test them some more.

When we developed our Encaustic Gesso, (and later, when we worked with Ampersand to create Encausticbord) we wanted something that was absorbent and felt like watercolor paper but could be brushed on smooth and dry quickly with little effort.  We also wanted something that was not soluble with water after it dried since many artists combine encaustic with other media.  And we wanted a gesso that had excellent adhesion on all kinds of substrates and would be flexible and durable to withstand changes in the environment over very long periods of time.   After a lot of hard work and lots of testing we got all of these things.  And some acrylic.

(Encaustic Gesso applied)