Encaustic Technique #2: Wax and Layering

One of the most captivating things about encaustic is the way that the thin layers of beeswax lend an atmospheric quality to the paintings. While this layering is one of the main things that encaustic artists enjoy and exploit with the medium, it can also be tricky to manage- the layered structure of the paintings can be their downfall if not done correctly, leading to chipping, peeling, or separation of the layers. This can mean disaster for the longevity of the artwork. But by following some basic working guidelines, these problems can be avoided.

diffwaxes

The first thing to consider is the type of wax you use. Traditionally, encaustic painting employs clarified beeswax. You’ll want to make sure that your beeswax is mechanically clarified, and not simply bleached. If your was is bleached to become white, it means that the impurities in the wax have not been removed, and may revert to their original colors, or become cloudy in the future. Most encaustic artists use tempered beeswax- wax that has been combined with a small amount of a harder substance that gives the wax a harder surface when cool. Damar crystals are popular, and a ratio of 1:9, damar to wax, works well. You can play around with this ratio to get results that suit you and your work. Other artists may use caranuba wax pellets. If too much of the hardening wax or resin is added, the wax may become too brittle for painting and actually contribute to the finished painting breaking in the future. You can buy damar crystals from Daniel Smith, or R&F. R&F Encaustic also sells blocks of encaustic medium that are ready to go… and wonderful to use, though the cost adds up fast. An alternative is to make your own. Another alternative that I use is to do most of the under painting in plain beeswax, and finish the upper layers with tempered wax. I imagine that the slightly more flexible under layers fuse a bit more readily, making for a less brittle painting, and cutting the cost and work of making/buying medium.  

You might be wondering- what about other waxes? Can’t I use the big block of candle wax in my garage? There are artists out there experimenting with various types of wax…. every wax has it’s own qualities: Different hardnesses, different melting and burning points, different smells, or clarity or color. If you are interested in different waxes, I’d say go for it- but be careful. And be sure to test the strength and resilience of the wax as used in your work. All of this said, I stick with beeswax. It has stood the test of time (thousands of years!), is predictable, and smells wonderful in the studio when heated. I keep some melted parafin wax in a container on my pallet for rinsing my brushes between colors, and that’s about it. 

wax1

Laying down the wax, above, and below.

When painting in encaustic, we are essentially laying down layer after layer of thin wax. It may look solid, but what you can’t see is that these layers will remain discreet- and susceptable to separation until fused. Fusing is simply the process of applying heat to create a bond between the wax layers, making the piece into one whole, instead of many sheets of wax. I talked about this in my safety post- what tools I use and why.

wax2

To recap, people use many tools, ranging from incandescent light fixtures to torches. I use a heat gun almost exclusively- occasionally I use a small travel iron. R&F sells a stick fuser, with exchangeable tips, and I’ve heard that someone out there designed an encaustic pen, though I’ve never seen one. I’d like to learn how to use a torch sometime, but for now, a heat gun is my indispensable tool. I can control the heat, the depth of the fusing, and any movement I get in the wax. Using a heat gun takes a lot of practice, and with time, you will develop your own intuitive sense of how to use the gun to best effect for your work. The drawback is that if I am not paying absolute attention, I can fuse too deeply and accidentally melt areas by accident. This is true for any fusing method, though. So remember: fusing takes attention!

wax3

Above, beginning to fuse the first two layers of wax.

wax4

Here, you can see where the wax darkened as it seeped into the paper ground. This makes for a very stable base to work on.

To make things more complicated, different waxes on your painting may melt at different rates. Beeswax medium made with damar melts at a lower temperature than plain beeswax. encaustic paint melts at different rates, depending on the pigment used. So, when it comes to fusing, it really pays off to play around and get to know your tools and materials.

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Melting a block of paint onto the griddle.

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Mixing some beeswax into the melted paint can give it some luminosity.

When I paint, I deeply fuse my underlayers of the painting. If the painting is backed with paper or fabric, I fuse until the backing darkens slightly, indicating that the wax has penetrated. (like in the picture above) It is a little harder to gauge when painting directly onto wood, or encaustic gesso, as those surfaces don’t darken, but you essentially want to make sure that you are creating a solid base for your painting. As I add the first layers, I continue to fuse thoroughly. As I work my way up to the surface of the painting, I fuse more and more lightly, so as to not upset the paint I’ve already laid down. I tend to lay down layers of clear beeswax between collage or painted layers to act as a buffer to subsequent heating. My final layers are usually delicate, and require only the lightest of fusing. I run the heat gun at a bit of a distance, and only until the wax goes from matte to glossy, then I immediately move the heat.

wax6

Through trial and error, experimentation and observation, you’ll get to know the wax, and find a way of layering and fusing that works for you and your work.

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16 thoughts on “Encaustic Technique #2: Wax and Layering

  1. erin

    You were right when you said there wasn’t enough on the internet about encaustics. I know because i have looked. This is awesome and i look forward to seeing more, both because i hope to be trying my hand at them in the not to distant future and because I love the thought of watching one of your ethereal works of art take shape.
    Happy Thanksgiving Lisa!
    xo
    Erin

    Reply
  2. haynesbe

    Your paintings are so simply elegant – I had no appreciation before of how complex the process is!
    Thanks….and Happy Thanksgiving.

    Reply
  3. Malissa Martin-Wilke

    Hi – I’m an encaustic artist also. I just found your blog, and despite the fact that this is a post from November, I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed seeing your setup and reading about your work. I’ll be sure and check back to read your new posts. I love your work – very delicate and ethereal.

    Reply
    1. LisaK Post author

      Thanks for the feedback, malissa. It’s always encouraging to get comments like yours! Anywhere I can check out your work? I keep a list of other encaustic artists on my Delicious account.

      Reply
  4. nancy

    I am just beginning, trying to fuse photographs with layers of wax. Thank you for an initial lesson. I do look forward to more.

    Reply
  5. website

    Really great!
    Thanks for your stuff on the write-up Encaustic Technique #2:
    Wax and Layering | Lisa Kairos: Open Studio.
    They are generally quite practical! I enjoyed checking your piece of writing.

    Reply
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  7. Jenna

    Hi!
    I’m at work surfing around your blog from my iphone 4S! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts!

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  8. Michael Ghoustianbach

    I would like to know more about recycling candle wax onto creative surfaces, encaustic processes, and resin layers. Has anyone ever heard of mixing resins or applying bar top on top of wax surfaces? I like to recycle any ideas with candle wax?

    Reply
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  10. gene jaress

    I have not yet painted in wax,but am going to give it a shot.About pens, I am a jeweler and work in wax [lost wax] there are a couple of good wax pens available through jewelry tool supply outlets like rio grande they last forever and have a variety of tips

    Reply
  11. Brenda

    Lisa,
    Do you have any tutorials or tips around the use of stencils in encaustic? For example, what do you use to cut the stencils from? Something that does not melt or get stuck in the wax? I have used my Photoshop C26 to design stencils and then linked it up with a Cricut stencil cutter. My hands become too sore if I cut it by hand.However, I cannot find the right medium for the stencil.

    Reply
    1. LisaK Post author

      Hi Brenda, I cut all my stencils by hand and use either shelf liner or manilla folders. I can re-use the manilla folder ones several times before I discard them. Sorry, no tutorials. good luck finding a solution that works for you!

      Reply

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