How to Do Encaustic Painting

By Cynthia Reeser
An anonymous encaustic icon on panel residing in St. Catherine's Monastery dates from around 600 A.D.

Encaustic painting, or painting in wax, predates oil painting. Encaustic portraits dated from 100 B.C. to 200 A.D. are extant from ancient Egypt. American painter Jasper Johns is largely responsible for reintroducing encaustic painting into the contemporary art world. Encaustics, which are created with pigment and beeswax, have strong archival qualities. hey do not require varnishing and are resistant to moisture and to yellowing with age.

Break the beeswax into chunks and melt it in the hot palette. The temperature should reach no higher than 220 degrees F, but is ideal around 150 to 175 degrees F. Add damar resin and mix well.

Pigment can be mixed with melted wax in separate tins with a palette knife. Alternatively, depending on the degree of preparation required by the pigment you are using, place encaustic pigment in tins on the hot palette to melt.

Have a clean brush available for each separate color you are using to avoid unwanted color mixing. According to Paula Grasdal, natural bristle brushes should be chosen over synthetic brushes, which will not hold up to the high-heat process.

Apply the hot encaustic color to an absorbent surface, such as wood panel. Paper can be layered in with the paint to create various effects. Try drawing on rice paper with oil pastels for a collage effect. When the wax is layered over the rice paper, the pastel pigment will remain while the paper melts away.

Try additional techniques. Paula Grasdal suggests several techniques, such as adding gilded metal leaf, embedding line drawings by incising the wax surface and adding oil pastel line details, burnishing a photocopied image onto the pre-painted surface with a bone folder to transfer and more.

Finish the painting by using a heat gun, propane torch or tacking iron for a final process known as "burning in." If you are using a heat gun, pass it back and forth 4 to 6 inches over the surface to heat the wax. Then let it dry. This process fuses the layers together.

Make repairs and alterations as desired. Then repeat burning in for a final process. The final burning in causes the paint to dry to a velvety, smooth finish.

Tip

Methods for nearly every step of the encaustic process vary widely. Take a class from a qualified instructor to learn various approaches and techniques.

To remove areas of paint from the surface, simply heat the surface and use a palette knife or similar object to scrape the paint away.

Use mineral spirits to clean brushes after wiping off the paint.

Warning

Use ventilation with an overhead fan or portable fan, since fumes from wax that becomes overheated can be toxic.

According to Mark David Gottsegen, "Repeated heating and cooling of solid cakes of encaustic paint may eventually cause the oily or resinous content to break down." This is the primary cause of deterioration in an encaustic painting.

About the Author

Cynthia Reeser has been editing for three years and writing for 18. A former columnist and staff writer for a military newspaper, she is the editor of a literary journal. Her book on publishing for children is forthcoming in early 2010 from Atlantic Publishing, and she is currently writing a book on Kindle publishing. Reeser has a Bachelor of Arts in English literature.