Painting with Wax – Why Has No-one Ever Heard of This!
Oil, watercolour or acrylics. They are the big three. When I say I paint with wax, I get some odd looks.
“How does that work?” is a common question. When I try to explain that I use an iron, it gets even more confusing. “An ordinary house iron? For ironing clothes?”
Well, not exactly…
Encaustic wax has become the primary medium I use when painting, now. How I do this, is that I will melt coloured wax blocks directly onto the hot iron to produce molten flows of colour, which I apply straight onto sealed card.
This dries almost immediately, and can be worked into with the edges, point or flat of the iron which re-melts the wax on the card surface, letting it flow into new forms and shapes. This can create very vibrant, yet translucent images. The wax can also be wiped off quickly, while it is still hot, to produce hazy effects of sky or water.
As you can see from this short description there is more to painting with wax than just melting wax onto an iron. There are specific techniques to wielding the tools of the trade, which must be learned, the same way any other art techniques must be learned.
Other hot tools I use to manipulate the wax are the stylus dip pen, which has a nib for sucking up the molten wax, and which is used for fine details; and the hotplate for melting the wax blocks directly onto the card, without the use of the iron, and which is used for broader strokes and swathes of colour.
But, encaustic wax is a medium which is as old as the hills. First used in ancient Greece, and said to have been invented during the age of Classical Greek Painting (c.480-323 BCE), the Roman historian Pliny explains that artists of that time borrowed the techniques of ship-painters, who used wax in order to weatherproof their boats (in fact encaustic artists of that era may have trained as shipwrights before learning to paint).
Encaustic is a Greek word meaning “to burn in” (enkaustikos), this refers to the way that the colour is applied to the painting surface. By heating the surface (in ancient times, usually wood panelling), the wax pigment was sealed in and all brush strokes were blended into uniformity.
“Ancient artists applied the paint using brushes and spatulas to create the image. On completion, they applied a flaming torch to the painting's surface to reheat the wax, causing it to meld permanently with the pigments and with the panel/wall.” (Online encyclopaedia of art)
In order to use the wax to paint with, it needed to be softened by heating first. In ancient times, wax would have been melted in metal pots over a fire. This was a very time consuming and laborious process.
Unfortunately, none of the original Greek panel paintings of that time survived into the modern era, and the best examples of encaustic wax paintings are the Fayum Mummy Portraits (c.50 BCE - 250 CE) painted by Greek painters in Egypt.
At this time, the many Greeks settled in Egypt, adopted the customs of that land, including mummification. Important families commissioned the portraits as death masks, which were affixed to the mummy or sarcophagus, in memorial of the dead.
Other important historical works of encaustic wax art are the Byzantium icons; wood panel paintings of saints for alters. In fact, it is believed, that early Christians in Egypt set up a place to house the bodies of their martyred comrades, and fleeing from Egypt, took the funerary masks with them. “Thus, the practice of painting a small, easy-to-transport eikon (Greek for icon) in Egypt, may have developed into the Byzantine icon tradition.” (Gallagher 2011)
In Western Europe, encaustic painting fell out of fashion in the Dark Ages (c.400-800 CE), largely due to the iconoclastic controversy, but also because of the costly nature of the materials, and was replaced by tempera, which was an easier and cheaper process.
After that time, during the Renaissance and into the modern era, there was occasional use of wax in painting, but not to the extent and skill employed before then. This is the historical grey area. However, it is speculated that Leonardo Da Vinci may have experimented with the medium.
When archaeologists discovered the beautifully preserved walls of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the 18th Century, it was revealed that they exhibited very fine encaustic paintings. And it was at this time that a serious study of the artistic technique began.
Several French artists of this era experimented with the technique such as Joseph-Marie Vien, Alexandre Roslin, and Jean-Jacques Bachelier. The techniques of encaustic painting slowly began to spread through Europe again, but did not gain in popularity at that time due to the complex nature of the processes needed to heat the wax. Even Vincent Van Gogh mixed wax with oil to add luminosity to some of his works.
There was much experimental painting at the turn of the 20th Century, with wax mixed in turpentine or linseed oil, creating a form of wax emulsion. This is not, however, ‘true’ encaustic painting, as the application of the medium was not heated in any way.
The first truly modern encaustic wax painting is Jasper Johns’ painting of the American flag, ‘Flag’.
So, although encaustic painting is an ancient technique, the modern revival of it only came about due to the availability of hot electrical tools, and particularly that of a hot iron, which is the main implement used to paint with. Previously, artists would have had the cumbersome task of building a charcoal fire before starting to melt the wax.
The encaustic medium, today, consists of a mixture of natural beeswax and dammar resin, which is a crystallized tree sap. Ground pigments can be added to this, or wax blocks can be purchased with traditional artist pigments already added.
Modern improvements to the quality and clarity of pigment colours, the beeswax and the resin, as well as the ease with which artists can melt the wax, has led to a rebirth of the art form.
“Pliny’s writings describe three separate methods of using encaustic: 1) application of wax with a cauteria, a tool used to heat wax; 2) engraving on ivory and filling with wax using a cestrum, a long tool with a spoon-like end, and a rhabdion, a stove; and 3) wax colors dissolved in pitch and applied warm with a brush.” (Sanderson 2015)
There we have the three separate tools used in encaustic painting today. Updated, the cauteria (a form of branding iron) is our craft iron, the cestrum is the stylus pen tool, and the rhabdion is our hotplate.
Wax begins to melt at 165°F (73oC) and begins to smoke and become toxic at 250°F (121oC), therefore, when painting, it is necessary to keep the wax between 180-200°F (82-93oC). This is achieved on modern tools by means of a temperature regulator, and encaustic irons are designed to only give off a very low heat.
High or Low?
“Encaustic supplies became more commercialized and accessible in the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps leading to an interesting debate about the high-art versus low-art nature of the medium today.” (Gallagher 2011)
In America, encaustic has taken a different direction to that of the European/British. In Britain, Welsh artist Michael Bossom has created his own encaustic tools (which are the tools most British encaustic artists will be familiar with – the nice green iron and stylus – which I use). In America there are different types of waxes (using different formulae) and more of an emphasis on using the hotplate (or hot palette) and scrapers to produce art.
Due to the commercial nature of these tools (especially the arts-encaustic iron, which was marketed as an ‘arts and craft’ iron), and the much more user-friendly nature of the medium (it is relatively easy to produce results quickly), encaustic painting is often seen as a ‘craft,’ rather than a serious art form.
This is a shame, and is something that, hopefully, this article will help to rectify. Indeed, encaustic art has history, and is a valid artistic medium.
But does that mean that painting quick and satisfying landscapes with a few sweeps of the iron is any less creative than painting a portrait brushstroke by brushstroke with a brush dipped in hot wax?
The whole idea behind the creation of encaustic painting tools such as the iron and stylus, is to facilitate ease of use. A work of art does not have to be valued on how difficult it is to produce.
True, skill is a factor, and skill is still necessary, but time is also a factor. And if an artist can produce two skilful paintings in the time it previously took to produce one, that is a bonus, and not a problem.
The application of the wax is free-flowing and is a very relaxing and meditative process. Remarkable effects can be produced by it. In fact, often, no two people will see a picture in the same way. This is what originally drew me to the medium, which I first encountered in high school.
This highly subjective nature to the perception of the images, has led some artists to use the technique (appropriately named ‘scrying,’ where wax is swept over a card in a single stroke to produce art out of random marks) to provide psychic readings. As it is claimed that no artistic skill is needed to produce these random pictures, and results magically appear, these images can be used for meditation purposes as well.
The alchemy involved in encaustic painting, the transformation of matter (from solid wax to liquid to solid again, while painting), produces a very visceral response from some artists. And I have found that there is a tension to the production of an encaustic picture unlike that of any other medium, perhaps due to the very process of working from solid to liquid and back again.
With encaustic, the vibrancy of the colours was also one of the main attractions for me. The colours, remarkably, retain their vibrancy even when different colours are added to existing ones, creating blends, which, in other mediums would not work together harmoniously.
The translucent layers of the wax, building one upon another, can speak of layers of memory or time. This was the way in which Jasper Johns initially employed the medium. Obscuring and revealing as he saw fit.
Some techniques I have employed in my own practice are the use of card masks to create forms in pictures, in the same way a spray paint artist would (particularly planet and moon shapes) and the use of stylus pen detail to create mandalas, similar to dot mandalas created with paint. I also enjoy creating misty skies by rubbing back the wax with a soft tissue.
And there are many more experiments I could try out. I have only recently acquired my hotplate, and I am constantly finding new ways to work the wax. It is pure magic.
Discoveries in Encaustic: A Look through History by Kristen Gallagher in “Explorations: The Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities for the State of North Carolina” Volume VI, 2011
The online encyclopaedia of art, encaustic painting http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/painting/encaustic.htm
Encaustic Painting in Period, A Research Paper by Domina Arria Marina (Angela Sanderson), 2015