Encaustic is a wax based paint (composed of beeswax, resin and pigment), which is kept molten on a heated palette. It is applied to an absorbent surface and then reheated in order to fuse the paint. The word ‘encaustic’ comes from the Greek word enkaiein, meaning to burn in, referring to the process of fusing the paint. Although they come from the same root word, ‘encaustic’ should not be confused with ‘caustic,’ which refers to a corrosive chemical reaction. There is no such hazard with encaustic.
Encaustic painting was practiced by Greek artists as far back as the 5th century B.C. Most of our knowledge of this early use comes from the Roman historian Pliny the Elder whose Natural History, written in the 1st century A.D. was a monumental encyclopedia of art and science. Pliny seems to have had little direct knowledge about studio methods, so his account of techniques and materials is not thorough, but his discussion gives us an idea of its general usage. According to Pliny, encaustic had a variety of applications: for the painting of portraits and scenes of mythology on panels, for the coloring of marble and terra cotta, and for work on ivory (probably the tinting of incised lines).
Encaustic is a beeswax-based painting medium that is worked with heat. It can be used as a luminous traditional painting medium, but it also has the potential to obscure the boundaries between mediums like no other art material, resulting in works that are just as much about painting or sculpture as they are about photography, drawing, printmaking, installation or a variety of craft techniques. Artists of all kinds are discovering its unifying potential, unique properties and versatility.
Painting with encaustic is a multi-step process. First, the paint must be melted, or liquefied. Next, the molten paint is applied to a porous surface. Then the applied wax is reheated, or fused into, the working surface, allowing it to form a good bond. As a final option, the cooled paint can be buffed to bring up the luster of the wax and resin.
Ready to get started but not sure where to start? Take a look at our Basic Encaustic Manual. This fourteen page guide lays out the basics of encaustic paint, how to set-up your workspace and gives you tips and information regarding basic techniques. This manual is sure to answer some of your questions.
A support is a structure on which the group or the paint layer of a painting is laid.
R&F recommends Ampersand Encausticbord panels as the preferred support for encaustic painting.
Encaustic paint is best used on a rigid surface that is absorbent and heat resistant. Wood supports make great, stable panels. A lightweight panel can be made from 1/4” luan plywood braced with a wooden frame in the back. Heavier and sturdier panels are made from 3/4” plywood.
The term ground refers to a prepared surface for painting. A ground is applied to a substrate, or support, that can be wood, board, stretched canvas, or an alternative. As a general guideline, grounds for encaustic painting must be absorbent, so acrylic gessoes are not recommended.
Following is a list of ways you can prepare panels for encaustic painting, in order of combined ease and effectiveness:
This pdf provides comprehensive information about different substrates and their adhesion rates with encaustic paint.
The first step to painting with encaustic is melting the paint. At room temperature encaustic paint is a solid. When heated it becomes a workable liquid. In this liquid state it can be applied to the surface with brushes, but you can also get paint on the surface by pouring, dipping or using heated tools. Here are some basic hints for starting:
Make sure your temperature is between 180-200°F and you have your surface thermometer on your palette
Select the colors you will be using and decide if you want to melt paint directly on your palette or in palette cups
Decide which brushes you would like to use and arrange them on or next to your palette. You will notice that it is necessary to keep your brushes warm so that they remain soft and ready to use. You will find that if you pause with your brush the paint will cool and harden.
Beeswax is a natural preservative, making it an ideal material for artists who want to incorporate fragile or non-archival elements in their work. Absorbent papers, cloth, yarn|string and plant materials are all ideal components for a successful collage. Using encaustic medium with the these objects adheres them to your support.
Medium is a mix of pure filtered white beeswax and damar resin. Essentially, it's encaustic paint without pigment. Add it to encaustic paints to increase translucency for glazing, or as an economical sizing for panels. On its own, it can be used for effortless collage work.
This video from R&F demonstrates how simple it is to use encaustic medium to get more mileage from your paint!
Images can be created directly on a heated palette and then lifted onto a piece of paper much the same way that a monotype is made in printmaking. The benefit to creating encaustic monotypes is that once you lift your paper and it cools there is no drying time. This process has an immediacy to it that many others do not. You can pull multiple prints in a relatively short amount of time.
After painting with encaustics, clean your brushes, tools, and heated surfaces with Soy Wax. This natural product allows you to wash your brushes with soap and water after its use, leaving them soft and supple, unlike other petroleum based cleaners.
To clean brushes, keep a container of soy wax melted on the palette. Pour some on to the palette and work off the paint, using more cleaning wax as needed and blot your paintbrush on newsprint or paper towel.
There are a multitude of tools that can be used to create scraped lines and edges in encaustic. These range from sculpture, ceramic and dental tools to found objects and string. Masking tape can be used to mask surfaces that can be painted into, then pulled back to create a line.
Pouring is a technique that can be used to build up the surface with encaustic without using brushes. By creating a barrier around your support, which can be masking tape that has been burnished to your support, you can simply pour melted encaustic paint or medium (tinted or untinted) onto your panel. After you allow the encaustic paint or medium to cool back to room temperature you can then remove the barrier and are left with a smooth surface. *Hint - it is helpful to heat up your support prior to your pour that allows your encaustic to fuse without an additional heating.
This method blocks off certain areas in preparation for painting. By taping off an area with either painter's tape or simply using the edge of a piece of paper you will have a high degree of control when applying paint. Simply remove your stencil and you will be left with clean lines, shapes or pattern.
Beautiful effects can be achieved when combing oil paints with encaustic. Oil can give to encaustic greater fluidity, color diffusion, and in some techniques, precision. Encaustic gives to the oil immediate “drying” time, the muted or gloss surface effects of wax, and greater textural variety. But is this combination structurally sound? It can be, but it is important to understand the ways in which a wax paint and an oil paint are and aren’t compatible.
Encaustic image transfer is the transference of a printed or drawn image onto wax. The adhesive properties of wax allow images to be transferred; a burnisher or spoon is the only tool necessary for transferring onto wax. (The solvents commonly used for other methods of transfer are unnecessary).
Work in encaustic 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. Encaustic 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.