What is Encaustic?
R&F Encaustic is a paint composed of beeswax, damar resin and pigments. The term “encaustic” is often used to describe both the paint itself, and the method for using it. Encaustic paint is applied molten to an absorbent surface, and then fused, (or re-melted), to create a variety of effects. Unlike other paints, encaustic goes from a liquid to solid state and back again in seconds, which means layers can be built up immediately, without any drying time. Once the surface has cooled, the paint has reached a permanent finish, but the painting can be revised and reworked with heat at any time – minutes or years later.
Is encaustic toxic?
When encaustic is melted, it releases a mixture of chemical decomposition products in the form of fumes. Some of these components are toxic, as are many things that we put into our environment, but what is important is the concentration of the toxins. This concentration correlates directly with temperature, so it’s always advisable to work at the lowest temperature you can. At a low concentration, say at melting point, the effect of wax fumes is negligible beyond their pleasant sweet odor. At a higher temperature, around 200-220°F, which is the working temperature of encaustic, it is important to have ventilation, because the fumes can be irritants, causing headaches, nausea, and respiratory problems. It is important to keep the temperature of the encaustic well below 140°F and do not let it get to the point where it smokes because then toxins become much more concentrated. Pigments used in encaustic should be stable at the working temperatures for encaustic and not volatilize. As with all paints, however, make sure to clean your hands before eating to avoid ingesting pigments that are toxic internally.
With adequate ventilation and proper working temperatures (between 180 and 200°F) encaustic is not dangerous. In many studios, working next to a window exhaust fan and having a source of fresh air coming in from another part of the studio, gets rid of fumes adequately. It is important to create cross-ventilation in your workspace, because even at recommended working temperatures, wax fumes can be irritants, causing headaches and coughing. Warning signs that your wax is too hot include an acrid odor and smoking. For more information on ventilation, see our ventilation technical sheet
What do I need to get started?
Encaustic requires a basic set-up which includes: An Encaustic Palette, or other appliance to melt the paint in; A variable speed heat gun, or alternative tool to fuse the wax. The space you work in should be well-ventilated. Click here to read our Ventilating Your Studio for Encaustic Technical Sheet.
Can I teach myself?
Artists have been teaching themselves to use various painting mediums since the beginning of time, but because of the unique attributes of encaustic, it can be extremely helpful to take a workshop. Click here to get find the right workshop for you.
Is there any literature on encaustic painting?
Why use encaustic medium as opposed to just plain beeswax?
Medium is made up of beeswax and damar resin. It can be used as an extender for colors, as an isolator between layers in order to create a sense of depth, and for dipping paper or objects. The damar resin raises the melting temperature so the wax is less susceptible to heat damage, allows it to cure and harden over time making it more durable, and prevents blooming (a whitish haze that can appear on the surface of a painting). Resin also allows the encaustic to be polished to a high gloss, giving it more depth and intensity- although beeswax and medium are translucent, beeswax by itself will not maintain its’ translucency, while medium (because of the presence of damar resin) will.
What can I use straight beeswax for?
Beeswax can be used for sizing supports (if used thinly) as a cheaper alternative to medium. It can also be used when artists want to make their own medium. Beeswax is also suitable for some works on paper, where the attributes of the resin discussed previously are not a concern.
What is Impasto Modeling Wax?
Impasto Modeling Wax is made up of beeswax and microcrystalline waxes (petroleum based wax). It is useful for building up texture. Since it has a higher melting temperature than encaustic which allows for more time to mold, shape, model, cast, carve and form objects; this also allows encaustic to be painted on top and fused without loosing its’ shape beneath. It is less expensive than medium so building up those layers doesn’t break the bank. Please note: Impasto Modeling Wax will oxidize and yellow over time. It is recommended that you do not use it as a top layer (unless you want those results). Keep in mind that any transparent color used over it will have the impasto undertone that may eventually yellow.
What is the difference between Paraffin and Soy Wax?
Paraffin is a white wax that comes from the refining of petroleum. R&F used to recommend paraffin for cleaning brushes for no other reason than that it was the cheapest wax available. But paraffin is derived from petroleum, and we needn't tell you that the cost of petroleum has been skyrocketing. In addition, we all know that petroleum is one of the biggest environmental contributors of carbon dioxide. So this combination of increased price and environmental impact has caused use to search for potential alternatives. We at R&F as well as a number of our customers have been experimenting with partially-hydrogenated soy wax as a replacement for paraffin. The results have been encouraging. Soy wax is non-toxic and burns cleaner than paraffin. Soybeans are a renewable source, unlike paraffin. Soy wax is naturally biodegradable. Soy wax is also easier to remove than paraffin wax, so after the color has been cleaned out of the brush, the brush can be washed with soap and water and is reusable in other mediums.
What supports can I paint encaustic on?
For best results, encaustic should be painted on a rigid, absorbent, and heat resistant surface. Some examples include: wood (maple and birch plywood work very well); lauan plywood, doorskin (i.e. hollow core doors), heavy watercolor or printmaking paper glued to board, raw canvas glued to board (avoid pre-gessoed canvas boards); plaster; brick; unglazed and low-fired ceramic; or cast paper.
Do I have to prepare my supports?
You can paint encaustic directly on any rigid, absorbent, heat resistant material but in cases where you want a white ground, we suggest priming with our Encaustic Gesso.
Can I use Encaustic with other mediums?
One of the best attributes of encaustic is its ability to be combined with other painting mediums. Take a look at our workshop program or our gallery of artwork to see the endless possibilities.
Can I paint encaustic over or in combination with acrylics?
Not advised. Acrylic is not an absorbent enough ground for encaustic. Acrylics should not be used in combination with encaustic since it is water-based and not compatible with wax.
Can I paint encaustic over or in combination with oil paint?
How do I ship my encaustic work?
For good reason artists are often concerned about shipping or transporting works in encaustic paint. Encaustic in extreme situations is particularly vulnerable to cracking, chipping, flaking, or softening (or worse, melting). This is especially true when the shipment or transportation is done in very hot or very cold temperature conditions.
How do I store and clean my encaustic work?
Encaustics should be cared for as you would for any fine art piece. Work can be stored, wrapped in waxed paper and bubblewrap (be sure to face the bubbles out so they don’t make imprints in your work) at room temperature and out of any direct sunlight. Encaustics can be wiped clean with a soft cloth or paper towel. If the piece is especially dirty, it can be wiped with a water-dampened cloth.
Can / Should I varnish my encaustic work?
No, varnish will partially dissolve the wax, “reactivating” the surface. In addition, encaustic has the natural appearance of a varnished surface (the damar resin creates a “varnish within”) and can be buffed (rubbed with a soft cloth or paper towel) to enhance that quality.
How do I go about exhibiting my encaustic work?
We find the best way to exhibit your work is by first educating the gallery on the medium. Encaustic has exploded in the last few decades and more and more gallery owners are familiar with it as an important painting medium.
Can / Should I frame my encaustic behind glass?
The greatest attribute of encaustic is its’ exquisite surface quality. A good deal of this gets lost when the painting is framed behind glass. Although, the glass does protect the surface from denting or scratching, but if the painting is properly exhibited/stored/shipped, this danger is minimized. Almost all encaustic works exhibited today are done without being glassed. We suggest, that only when the painting is done on paper that is not completely dipped in the wax, or if it is extremely old (as in the case of the Fayum portraits), should it be glassed. In addition, framing behind glass can intensify the heat (particularly from gallery lights or sunlight) causing a greenhouse effect, that could soften or even melt the wax.
How can I achieve an enamel-like surface?
This is a technique that requires practice. Enamel or glass-like finishes are achieved by slow, thorough fusing. It can help to pre-warm your panel before you begin painting, and use a soft brush, as wide as you can get away with. This way, your layers of paint will lie down easily, and you will not have as many overlapping brush strokes to even out. It can also be helpful to gently scrape your layers after you apply them, so that you even the paint out and do not have to labor over the fusing for as long.
How can I achieve a highly textural surface?
The advice for this is basically the opposite of the advice above for a smooth surface; use less heat, rough brushes, and cooler paint. Fuse less frequently and at a lower temperature. R&F’s Impasto Modeling Wax can also be helpful in building high relief.
Will encaustic paintings melt if left in a warm environment?
In certain extremes it is possible, but not typical. Cars are the greatest hazard because the heat of the sun is intensified through car windows. Indoor environments, even very warm ones, are not usually hot enough to melt wax, though they could make the wax soft, and therefore difficult to work on. It takes at least 160 degrees to bring wax to a molten state, and probably a little bit more than that to actually cause it to move.
What is Blooming, and how can it be prevented?
Blooming is a whitish haze or spots that appears on the surface of a wax painting. This can occur when the wax has been exposed to extreme cold, causing unsaturated hydrocarbons in the beeswax to migrate to the surface and crystallize. The addition of resins, or waxes that contain saturated hydrocarbons help prevent this. These include damar resin or microcrystalline wax. The saturated hydrocarbons solubalize the unsaturated hydrocarbons of the beeswax and prevent the blooming that occurs from cold.
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