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.