Archive

How to:

Part II: I wanted to explain some of the properties of encaustic and provide a guide for understanding more about the medium for artists, galleries and buyers/collectors.

Steenstrup, Encaustic on Panel, 2013

Steenstrup, Encaustic on Panel, 2013

Good adhesion is one of the most important characteristics of an archival painting. Encaustic has excellent adhesive properties. When working in encaustic the artist brushes on layers of wax which are heated and fused into one another. Most of the encaustic work I make is on wood, metal or paper. On wood and paper the first few layers are heated into the substrate. The paper or wood literally soaks it in like a sponge making adhesion even stronger. In metal pieces adhesion is still high, I have never had a failure. I take care to give the metal a lot of tooth before beginning to encourage the adhesive qualities of the beginning layers giving them something to hold onto.

Encaustic is impervious to moisture. Colors mixed or encased within layers of encaustic will not yellow or change over time. Therefore, pigments will retain their original luminosity for years to come.

As it cures, a process that takes about 1 year from the date the painting was completed, encaustic actually gets more transparent. When on display, plain Beeswax on its own will sometimes get cloudy blooms, making the work less transparent. Not so with encaustic. Encaustic will not get cloudy over time. This is because encaustic medium is not only beeswax, but also is made with a resin.

Encaustic medium is made up of just 2 main components: Purified beeswax and dammar resin crystals. Dammar crystals are a natural resin, a tree sap, that when thinned with turpentine traditionally made dammar varnish. Dammar varnish is a common final coat to traditional oil paintings to seal and protect them as well as drastically increase the luminosity of the colors underneath.

Adding Damar Resin Crystals

Adding Damar Resin Crystals to Purified Beeswax to make Encaustic Medium

The dammar does a few key things to the properties of the wax.

  1. Dammar acts as a hardener, making the wax stronger and more resistant to abuse.
  2. Dammar increases the melting point of the beeswax to above 160 degrees. Making the medium stable in a variety of conditions.
  3. True encaustic medium made with dammar will not get cloudy over time. As the piece cures over a period of about 1 year (from the last time it was heated) the surface will become more clear. It will also hold a higher sheen when buffed.
Galbraith, 2013, Encaustic and Oil on Found Wood, 16" x 26", Vincent Colvin

Detail from “Galbraith”, Encaustic and Oil on Found Wood, 16″ x 26″, Vincent Colvin, 2013

I’ve noticed that there are concerns and misconceptions out there about encaustic art and how to care for it in your home. I wanted to shed some light on this and provide a guide for understanding more about the medium for artists, galleries and buyers/collectors. I’ll do this in 2 posts.

Fayum Funeral Portrait, 98-117 A.D., Encaustic on wood. (That's old! Older than any oil paintings on wood in existence I know of...)

Fayum Funeral Portrait, 98-117 A.D., Encaustic on wood. (That’s old! Older than any oil paintings on wood in existence I know of…)

The take away from all this: Encaustic is one of the oldest and most archival of all paint mediums. The care of it is not very different than that of any oil painting.

Care for Your Encaustic Painting:

What is it?: Encaustic is a painting medium made of natural beeswax and dammar resin.

Sunlight: While it is not recommended to display your encaustic piece (or really any work of art) in direct sunlight, do not fear the heat of the sun. See below.

Temperature/Mositure: In your home as long as temperatures do not drop below freezing or get over 160 degrees your encaustic piece will remain unchanged. Normal home temperatures fluctuate between 60 and 90 degrees. I have had many pieces in very cold temperatures with no issues, think Philadelphia-snow-magedon no heat… I have displayed works that get sunlight in the morning or afternoon with no damage to the work over years of time. I have even displayed encaustic work in the bathroom, a place with quick temperature changes due to steamy showers and seen no issues or change in works. Wood substrates should be sealed on the back to discourage moisture absorption.

Surface: In the first year your work will go through some slight changes. The piece will become more clear over time increasing the beauty of the surface and transparency between layers. Occasionally, gently wipe dust off of your piece with a clean and lint free rag. I prefer lint free cotton rags, or even better eye glass/computer cleaning cloths. Optional: With a new clean rag, for encaustic that has a smooth final surface you can gently buff, in a circular motion, the surface of the wax. This will add a beautiful sheen to the work and discourage dust buildup on the surface. In the first year if you want the sheen all the time in the work you may need to do this once a month or so. After a year when the wax cures you will rarely to do this to keep the sheen, maybe once a year. Note: Works with high surface texture or oil paint on the surface should not be buffed in these areas. Dust these with a soft brush.

Shipping or Moving Homes: Transporting encaustic is best left to an art handler as is any high quality work of art. If you choose to do this yourself there is a right way, a wrong way, and an easy way.

  • Living in the "Danger Zone", How I brought my work to my recent show.  Rented a cargo van and got the A/C steady to beat the TX summer heat.

    Living in the “Danger Zone”, How I brought my work to my recent show. Rented a cargo van and got the A/C steady to beat the TX summer heat. Worked great for this short distance.

    The right way is to build a box unique to the piece that allows the encaustic surface to never make contact with anything other than a silicone release paper. Contact the artist or an art dealer to make this.

  • The wrong way is bubble wrap or newspaper or transporting in anything hot, ie: back of the moving truck during summer or your car without the A/C on, your hot trunk etc.
  • The easy way is to go to the local arts and craft store and buy a few large clear plastic bags that are designed for buying sheets of high quality paper like Arches or Rives. Even better, also buy silicone release paper and cover the surface first. You can wrap the piece in the release paper, plastic and then foam or bubble wrap, put it in a box etc. Still  be sure to consider temperature. This way is suitable to get the work to a destination, but not a good way to store the work long term.
  • Do not lean an encaustic work against a wall, or any art work, on its front edge, you may damage it.

Wrapping Up: Okay so this sounds like a lot of special consideration right? Well honestly, not really…. lets consider an oil painting on canvas. It needs to be dusted and cleaned yearly or more, to be displayed out of constant direct sunlight, to be properly packaged when moving or it can warp or the canvas can be torn, be protected from extreme temperatures or the paint can crack or flake off. There really is very little difference.

Generally when I am transporting works, I wrap them as I mentioned in plastic and take them directly to the destination. When I stop on the way I keep the A/C on and the car running ( I live in Texas now after all) When I ship them I send large works with a art shipper and small works overnight (not in the summer). In most cases encaustic can be repaired if an accident occurs. Contact the artist to see if they can provide the service. I do, if anyone needs advice or help just let me know.

My next post will be about the archival characteristics of the encaustic medium! Stay tuned. – Vincent

Well its that time again, time to either make an order with R&F Encaustics and get some new bricks of wax on the way… Or! You could order bulk supplies from them and make about 5 times as much for the same price.

So set aside the better part of a day and get to work. Here is how to make your own encaustic medium.

I have been using this recipe since 2002 when my professor Reni Gower encouraged our class to learn encaustic. The class all pooled together money for a bulk material order and I and a few others made our own mediums. I was immediately fixated on this material and after the semester I bought all the left over medium my classmates had made and not used.

Starting out here is what you need:

Ingredients:

15% by weight dammar resin to beeswax a good ratio is 4.5 lbs of pure filtered beeswax (I prefer bleached) to 1 lbs of damar resin crystals.

Equipment:

  • Large Crock Pot
  • Candy Thermometer
  • Large Pot (Stove top style)
  • Cookie Sheets or Cake Pans
  • Wooden spoon or an old paint brush handle
  • Piece of silk screen big enough to cover your “Large Pot” by about 2 inches all around
  • Handful of Clothespins
  • Ladle (unless your crock pot is easy to pour from)
  • Note: All this kitchenware is now forever, encausticware, so don’t try to cook food with it!
  • Clean Utility Knife
  • Large Freezer Bags

The Beeswax is obviously the primary ingredient in your medium. Your second ingredient: the dammar crystals, are what traditional dammar varnish is made from. If your an oil painter you’ll recognize it right away. Dammar varnish is made by dissolving these crystals into a liquid state. The dammar protects the wax, keeping it from blooming and clouding during room temperature fluctuations. The resin will also make the wax cure clearer over time. The most important quality that dammar imparts on the wax to me is a hardness to the medium.

Caution: Throughout the process your going to need to keep a close watch on the temperature of the wax. Be sure to never heat it above 230 Degrees F. For me this means I have to vary my crock pot between the high and low setting. I would recommend a crock pot with a variable temperature setting if possible so that temperatures can remain more constant. Use your candy thermometer to measure this each time you stop to check on your brew.

Start by adding half of the beeswax to the crock pot. It may take a while to fully melt. Once this has completely melted then add all of the Damar Resin Crystals. Be sure to stir this in and let it start to melt. You may want to use a dust mask to avoid the dust that comes out of the damar bag. (It can’t be good for you)

Adding Damar Resin Crystals

Once the damar is in the crock pot you will need to monitor it about every 30 minutes by stirring. Use your wooden spoon or brush handle to stir the resin. Your goal is to encourage melting and also to keep the resin from burning on the bottom.

Dissolving Resin

As you stir you will notice there are bits of debris accumulating in the mix. Don’t worry, that is just bugs, elephant hair, bark and whatnot detritus priorly trapped within the solid damar resin. All of this will get strained out later. Be sure to be monitoring temperature throughout the process.

Resin Dissolved

When all of the damar has melted you will need to add in the rest of the wax and allow it to fully melt.

Adding Remaining Beeswax

Now ready your strainer by clothes-pining the silk screen fabric around the lip of the Large Pot. I like to try and make the middle of the screen sit a bit lower than the edges so that was pools up in the center of the pot. Then pour or ladle the wax medium over the screen.

Straining Medium with Silk Screen

This is going to strain all of the debris from the mixture. You will need to go slow when pouring as the wax can only get through so fast. When the screen clogs up with bark, etc. wipe it off with chipboard or cardboard. The silk screen is reusable so once this step is done squeegee it clean. It is okay to let a thin layer of wax dry on it. You can heat it up in the oven on a cookie sheet for a few seconds to get it ready next time.

Now that you have the medium strained and the screen removed, clean out the crock pot with an old t-shirt. Pour the mix back into the crock pot and brew this for another hour. Mixing every so often. Then, if you still have debris floating in the mix strain it again. If not just pour/ladle it back into the large pot. Now you are ready to pour this into your cookie sheets, muffin trays or whatever shape of mold you like to use!

Pouring strained medium into pans

Be sure to cover the top of the trays with old cardboard or in my case plastic storage bin tops so that wax does not pick up dust from the air as it cools.

Hot Medium

Once the wax has had some time to cool off it will start to do some interesting things so sneak a peak every so often!

Cooling Meduim

Now that the wax has completely cooled off in your cookie sheet take either a heated spatuala or a utility knife and cut the wax into whatever useable size you see fit.

Final Results of 4.5 lbs of Beeswax and 1 lbs Damar Resin Crystals and 6 hours of brewing

Note: The amount of medium homemade compared to one large cake of store bought medium.

I prefer to store mine in large freezer bags to keep them dust free and easy to access. Store all of your materials in a container and label it so everyone knows that old crock pot and cookie sheet can no longer be used in the kitchen.

Congratulations you have just earned your cooking badge, revel in the knowing of the process your materials were made with! Now go paint something! Thanks to my sweetie pie Michelle for taking the photos!