Category Archives: encaustic technique

Whatever Works…

The other day I was working in my studio, and this was the scene… and I thought, “How strange this looks!” So I ran to get my camera to share it with you all. I’m so fascinated by other artist’s processes, and the unusual ways that we problem solve when we are trying to get an idea out of our heads and onto the image. Encaustic is such a “new” medium in it’s current usage, and as I meet more and more artists using wax in their work, I am struck with how we are inventing it as we go.

I also thought this was funny because I’m often told that my work is delicate or ethereal, and yet the process is so… scrappy. I knew here that I wanted a large, white circle on the painting, but I didn’t know what to use to guide the circle. none of my usual objects were large enough. And then the garbage lid called to me from across the studio…  “Me! Me! Use me!”

So I did.

Encaustic Technique #8: Gesso

A small holiday gift for you all: a new tutorial. This one is a little different. It’s not about the wax, but what we put under the wax.

I’ve written here before about using paper or claybord as a base for painting. About a year or so ago, R&F came out with an encaustic gesso. It doesn’t smell and isn’t labor-intensive like rabbit skin gesso, and, unlike regular acrylic gesso, it is absorbent enough to be used under wax. Until recently, I’ve just used it as it comes: bright white.

Recently, though, I started experimenting with tinting it with powdered pigment before applying it. My aim was to create an aged looking, darker background for painting.

In the above example, I started off with a layer of white gesso. I let that dry completely. Then, I mixed a portion of gesso with my powdered pigment and applied it in large, sweeping strokes to most of the canvas.

After letting this dry slightly, I sprayed the panel randomly with water and scumbled the surface with rags, creating a textured looking surface. When the gesso was completely dry, I sanded portions of it where I wanted more light to come through.

The point here is how flexible this could be- try using different colors, layering colors, or painting into the dry gesso with water based paints, such as guache. The surface could also be stamped with homemade stamps before applying your first coat of wax.

My one critique of the gesso is that it pinholes like crazy (similar to claybord). I remedied this with a lot of fusing and additional layers of wax. I’m not sure what causes the pinholes- If any of you know why it does this, please leave a comment! I’d love to know how to control it.

Studio Update: Fire

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Meet my new best friend in the studio. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get on board with a torch. I’ve procrastinated about it for months, and didn’t realize that underneath that procrastination was fear. Until I was in Carmel for the IEA retreat in October, and was faced with a bevy of torches, waiting to be tried. It was the last morning, and a wonderful demonstration had been given by Pamela Blum. We were invited down on the floor to try out some of the techniques she had demonstrated, and I found myself hesitating around the torches. I hadn’t even realized I was afraid of them until that moment. Linda Womack saw me, and must have sensed my trepidation; she rescued me with a two minute lesson that has cured me of my torch phobia! 

I went out as soon as I could and purchased a basic torch, with a few necessary frills: an adjustable nozzle, and an automatic ignition trigger. It’s a Bernzomatic propane torch from Home Depot, and it cost about 35 dollars. 

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I don’t know how I got along without this thing before! It works so well for every application, that I haven’t pulled out my heat gun a single time. It is much more gentle than the heat gun, and doesn’t move the wax around nearly as much. I can even fuse lightly while a large piece is upright on my easel. I think it produces a glossier surface than my heat gun did, too.

And the best thing about it is-  its fast.

Well, maybe the best thing about it is that I haven’t lit my hair on fire yet. So far, so good.

Encaustic Technique #7: Smooth Surface Tips

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It seems that for many encaustic artists, the smooth surface is like the holy grail. Beeswax painting lends itself to almost instant surface texture. Wonderful, to be sure, and fun to exploit, but sometimes we want something glassy and smooth. Developing a smooth surface especially on any piece over, say, 12″ x 12″, takes patience and restraint. Although I cannot boast a perfectly smooth surface on my paintings, and in fact don’t aim for that, they do fall in the category of smooth rather than textured. I tend to use the smooth texture to contrast with the final touches of paint that I use to create a subtle relief (see above). Here are my tips for working toward a smooth surface in your paintings:

1. I use a heat gun to fuse, and am very careful to not over-fuse. The wax should not be blown around, or you will create a wavy surface. I’ve also read that torches can work well.

2. I use a wide (4″) hake brush to lay down layers of clear beeswax. The hake brushes are inexpensive, and have a fine texture that lays down smooth, thin layers of wax.

3. Scraping the surface from time to time with a razor blade will even out your surface and encourage subsequent layers to go on smoothly. If you use intarsia in your paintings, this will be a built-in texture regulator.

4. When I want to lay down a smooth layer, I turn the heat up on my wax slightly. Usually I keep it at 200 deg. F., but I’ll turn it up to 220 or so for brief periods. The hotter wax is more likely to smear color directly beneath it, so use this tip carefully.

5. If I am putting down more than one layer of smooth was, I alternate the direction of my strokes with each layer. I load my brush, keeping it nice and hot, then use one sweeping stroke to cover the entire width of the painting. Then I apply a stroke beneath that one, etc. When that layer is done I turn my painting a quarter turn, and put down another layer, etc. I fuse every two thin layers as I go.

6. Many artists use a “pour” method for their paintings. They tape the edges of their painting to create a lip that comes up to create a clean edge. Then pour the hot wax onto the surface. The drawback is that this can melt and/0r pit the surface of any painting beneath the pour. This is worth experimenting with, though, as I’ve seen some really beautiful work done this way.

6. Some artists use a solvent at the very end to smooth the surface. You can put a bit on a rag and rub the surface. What I’ve noticed about this technique it that it creates a matte finish. The painting must be buffed periodically to maintain a glossy finish.

7. Which brings us to buffing. You’ve created your smooth surface, and you want to make it look glassy? Clean, lint free rags work. I like to use white t-shirts that I get from the thrift store, wash and dry, and then cut up. Another option is to use chamois, which is completely lint-free, and can work up a high shine. You don’t need anything but your buffing rag and some patience. Work on small sections at a time, rubbing lightly in small circles. This is a great way to “polish” your finished piece.

What about you? do you have any smooth surface tips you’d like to add? Leave a comment, and add to the list.

Encaustic Technique #6: Beginning Intarsia

 Intarsia techniques truly set encaustic painting apart from other painting mediums. It is a technique that borrows from wood, clay, metal, or fiber intarsia where a different color material is physically inserted into the base color or surface. It is an exciting technique with a distinctive appearance, one that often leaves the viewer scratching their heads and wondering, “how did they do that?!”. It is a technique best employed when you want crisp edges and contrast, with a smooth surface.

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To begin, I brushed on several layers of color- blue and green, for variety- and fused the surface with my heat gun. Then I let the wax cool down. I tried to get the surface as smooth as I could. You’ll see why in a moment. If you are a true perfectionist, you might want to take a single blade razor, and, holding it perpendicular to the paint surface, lightly scrape it until it is level.

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Next, I incised the surface with a variety of tools. From left: a small exacto knife (the outline of the smaller flower), a plastic clay tool (the wavy shallow lines in upper right), two more metal clay tools (wide strip far right), an awl (used to draw larger flower, write with, and make dotted lines at lower left), a sewing tool (wavy dotted lines lower center), a fork (lower right), and above, a set of numbers originally used for imprinting sheet metal (center). You’ll want your designs to be fairly deep, and flick off any large burrs of wax that may curl at the edges of your wax. If you make a mistake, you can usually re-fuse and start again when the wax cools.

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Next, I brushed on a contrasting color of encaustic paint, filling in the designs in the wax. I used a vivid yellow, just to make this easy to see. Sorry if this is hurting your eyes! You may find that if your paint is really hot, you start melting your underlayer with your brush strokes. In this case, turn down your palette heat a bit, and use more of a dabbing motion than a brush stroke. Either way, you want to fill those incisions. 

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After letting all of the wax cool to room temperature, take your single razor blade and carefully start scraping the surface, keeping your blade at approximately a 45 deg. angle. remove the curls of wax as they build up on the razor, or they will stick to the painting when you least want them to. It is not showing all that well in the photograph above, but the result is color inlayed into the wax, with a nice level surface. I’ve left the left side of the flower unfilled to demonstrate another technique later. I’ve also left the lower right portion only partially scraped back, so that you can see what it looks like mid-scrape. It can be a nice effect, with a little halo of color around the marks, and random areas of color. Also, you see little bits of yellow here and there- that is where my surface was not absolutely level. Paint settles into the low areas, and I had to stop scraping before they were gone, or I might have lost too much of the design. 

At this point, you can keep on adding layers, and building your painting surface. Keep in mind that if you fuse heavily right after using this technique, you will lose the crisp lines, and your design will melt together. Also, sometimes different colors melt at slightly different temperatures, so this can cause a mess. With some experimentation, you will learn when to stop. I usually fuse very very lightly, or add a few layers of clear wax before fusing to protect the design. 

I hope this is helpful! I’ll continue the intarsia technique next time, with a slightly more advanced approach.

Experiments In Wax and White

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I’ve been having some fun in my studio this week experimenting with wax inlay (intarsia). Here are some of the results-in-progress.

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First, I tried putting oil paint into the texture and doing a wipe, but it didn’t work as well as I had hoped, so I tried filling with wax and scraping back, and I’m much happier with it. I like using intarsia in my underlayers, as I like to imagine that they are more stable, and an oil wipe in the last stages of a painting. But, Oh! The scraping- my fingers don’t like it much. I need to do a serious perusal of my local hardware store for a razor holder that works well for this. I took good photos of the intarsia process this time, so I’ll do a technique tutorial on it soon.

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Above: a detail of a larger acrylic painting. I’ve been trying some new things with acrylics, too…. laminating milky, transluscent papers into this painting, tracing some of my field sketches, and using a graphite paint that I found recently. It is such a good exercise to try to explore the same aesthetic and formal concerns as the white encaustics, but it a radically different medium. I think it keeps things fresh all around, with each medium informing the other. Well, we’ll see. I don’t think the above painting is really successful in the way I want it to be, yet, but I’m going to keep on playing with it. I’d love for it to segue into a new (and parallel) body of work.

And I’ll leave you with one last image, something I picked up on a walk the other day. I don’t know what my neighbors thought, with me traipsing through the neighborhood with my dog and a dead bush, but I love it- it’s color and form- and can’t wait to take an hour or two and draw it from different angles. 

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P.S. I’m going to the opening for “Working in Wax” tonight in Walnut Creek (see announcement below) and am so excited to see so much encaustic work!

Encaustic Technique #5: Working With Wax

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Mmmmm. Beeswax. I just ordered 25 beautiful pounds of it from Swan’s Candle Making Supply. I’ve always ordered from R&F Encaustics (and their wax is lovely, too), but since I’m on the west coast, it’s great to have found a source here in California (and their customer service has been great- as I found out when I botched my initial order… ahem.).  I also ordered some microcrystaline wax- I’m adding a small amount to my beeswax to improve the tack in the clear layers that I use so often. I’m blending in about 1/10 microcrystaline, and it does seem to be improving the adhesion of layers. This has been a concern of mine as my paintings grow in size. I often find myself trying to find a balance between adequate fusing and avoiding disturbing my layers. It’s a tricky thing.

As you can see from the (slightly blurry) picture above, I’ve also adjusted my set up to accommodate larger amounts of wax at a time. I’m using a single burner with an adjustable thermostat, a small pan, and a thermometer. I’m finding that I really have to keep an eye on that thermometer! I used to melt smaller amounts in the small bread tins you can see on my palette, above, but it takes 45 minutes to melt a batch, or longer if it has damar resin in it, and I’ve needed more than that at once. I tried using a crock pot, but found that the temperature was unreliable, and that having it sit for long periods of time melted eventually turned my wax a deep amber color. I ruined quite a lot of wax that way. So far, this is working great- the only downside is that if a drop or two gets on the burner, it smokes up the studio, and reminds me that I really need to get fans in there and stop relying on my windows for ventilation!

The next thing I want to try is a torch for fusing. I’m hoping that it will speed up my process a bit. If anyone has a favorite torch, I’d love to hear about it… fewer people use torches for fear of lighting things on fire, so it’s harder to find recommendations, but I’m looking for one that is not too heavy, and has an adjustable tip, so that I can fan the flame out, or concentrate it. I’ll post about it when I’ve found one that I love.

New Work #8: more winter wax

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We are having a delicious, drizzly February day here, and the starlings outside are making quite a racket. My wind chimes are going a little crazy. I’m just enjoying it all, taking care of family life, and baking ginger cookies (because that’s what I do when it drizzles outside!) Also, sharing the latest “Winter” piece, above. I feel like I’ve finally struck a balance between complexity and simplicity in these latest pieces. I am enjoying letting the wax be what it is, not fighting or trying to overly control it. For instance, when I first started adding the tiny white dot areas, it frustrated me to no end that I couldn’t get them all to look uniform. Some of them are big, some small, some stick up and others are flat. And it’s all dependent on too many factors- like if my pallet is heating up or not (it’s on a thermostat, so there are slight variations in temperature as it cycles on and off), or how long I hold the brush on the pallet to warm it up again, or how many dots I try to make before returning to my pallet (which, of course, has everything to do with my mood and patience that day). Etc, etc. But then I just gave up. It is what it is. And I fell in love with the variation. Now, I just let it be, and I think it is one of my favorite things about these little paintings. Sometimes, acceptance can truly transport us to new places!

Encaustic Technique #4: Color

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Encaustic paint is truly different from every other kind of paint. It looks different, smells different, feels and behaves differently. All encaustic paint comes in solid form. Heat must be applied for the wax to become liquid. Encaustic paint does not dry, it hardens. Quickly. For this reason, an encaustic artist must work with purpose and speed. This can be exhilarating, or exasperating, depending on your method of working, and your goals. Or maybe just your mood that day!

You can see my paints above. I’ve ordered them from R&F Paints, but a quick internet search will turn up several other suppliers. I like the quality of these paints, and have relied on them for years now. The little round cake off to the right is a color I mixed to have on hand- you can custom mix colors in small muffin tins, or in recycled small cans. If you put the muffin tin in the freezer, the paint will pop out, and if you mix it in a can, you can just leave it there and put it on and off your pallet as you need it. I find that the solid paints are very concentrated, and I usually dilute the color with clear beeswax medium. To use and mix the paints, the block of paint is touched directly to a hot pallet (at aprox. 200-220 degrees), and it instantly melts into molten paint. A little goes a long way. A natural bristle brush is used to apply the paint, and it hardens quickly on the surface of the painting. How much working time you have between the moment your brush leaves the pallet and the hardening of the paint and brush depends on how hot your pallet is, how warm the surface of your painting is, and how warm the room you are working in is kept. I have a small space heater in my studio for cold days or nights- mainly because it extends that brief working time. 

Just like other types of paint, different colors of paint behave differently- some are more transparent than others (manganese violet, cerulean blue, zinc white), some tend to separate if they sit on the hot pallet (cerulean blue, indigo, zinc). Some are more ferocious than others (alizarin crimson, phthalo green), and tend to dominate when mixing with other colors. The earth colors can be ever so slightly grainy sometimes. R&F offers a color chart for ordering their paints that are actually made with little squares of paint- and if you are thinking of ordering online, it is a great resource to have, as it gives you some clues as to the nature of each color.

Some artists make their own paint, using beeswax medium and powdered pigment. I’ve never tried this, and if you decide that this is the way you want to go, I’d do some research on handling powdered pigments safely. Sinopia Pigments, Earth Pigments, and Daniel Smith are all resources for powdered pigments.

I have mixed my own colors using beeswax medium and a dab of oil paint. In this case, you want the mixture to be mainly beeswax. If you use too much oil in the mix it will neither harden, nor dry properly. Not good. So just a little pigment to a greater amount of wax. This is really handy if you already own oils, and have a limited color range in the pre-mixed wax blocks. It’s easy to occasionally mix a little of a custom color this way. Powdered graphite can also be mixed with wax medium to create a warm grey with some luster, and you’ll feel just like Jasper Johns.

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Whether you buy your paint, or mix your own batches of color, you’ll want to get to know your paint. A great way to do this is to create your own color charts. I’ve been working on this project myself, and it has taught me so much about my paints. And I’ve discovered some really unusual, subtle colors in the process by mixing unlikely colors together. Here is how I approached this project:

First, I made a list of my colors. Then I created grids on printmaking paper (other thick, absorbent paper will work too). I wrote the first color at the top of the page, and painted the color next to it. This was my base color. Then, I labeled each of the boxes with the remaining colors. I mixed each color with the main color, and some clear beeswax.

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I added a bit of white for each stroke, increasing the tint a little each time. I designed it this way because I often work with tints.  For the next chart, I’ll delete Alizarin Crimson off the list, so the charts get a little smaller each time. When I’m done, I’ll have a sample of how every color interacts with every other color in my pallet.

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Here is the finished chart. (See what I mean about surprising color combos? Check out the great earthy orange you get by combining green gold with alizarin crimson!)

Depending on your techniques, color range, and inclinations, you could use this idea in a variety of ways. You could make charts exploring shades, or transparency. You could design a color wheel instead of grids like these. The point is that a systematic exploration is a great way to get to know how colors in this medium (or any medium) behave.

Some Encaustic Goodness

We have a chilly, rainy day here in Half Moon Bay, and I just went out and turned on the heater in my studio. I’m nursing a cold (*sniff*), but am still hoping to get a little work done. I’m working on a larger encaustic piece right now, another in the white series. This one is the other half of that hollow core door that I sawed into pieces a while back. 

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When I’m working on larger pieces, I find it helpful to break down work sessions into smaller chunks. An hour, or two. Just getting a single layer on there, and fusing it can take over half an hour. Whew! 

In the background above, you can see some home made encaustic color charts… My next technique post will be about color, and I’ll go over the how and why of making those charts (plus, it’ll get me to finish my own set! )

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And here are three acrylic paintings waiting for some embroidery thread… I am especially happy with the grey one. This is a terribly wonky photo- my camera shoots wide angle whether I want it to or not- and the texture just didn’t show up, but I almost always like what happens when I restrict my pallet. I’m funny about color. I’ll tiptoe my way out on some colorful limb, and then always come back to my neutrals. I hadn’t done a nest yet with such somber colors, and I like the way it turned out. 

For those of you who are looking for information on encaustic technique, check out Malissa Martin Wilkes’ blog. She’s got some great information and photos, some studio shots, etc. Her set up is a little different from mine, and it’s good to see how different people work.