Encaustics: warm work for cold days

Ecaustic paint is a mixture of pigment and beeswax, tempered with damar varnish and kept molten on a hot plate or griddle. Now that the temperature is dropping and snow is piling up on the studio stairs the thought of a cold November day spent leaning over warm dishes of fragrant wax is very tempting. My set-up consists of an electric pancake griddle, metal condiment dishes purchased in bulk from a restaurant supply store, and hog bristle brushes.

hot plate encaustic

I use a 1:10 part mix of bagged damar crystals melted into plain, unfiltered beeswax. The damar is available from most art supply stores – don’t use damar varnish because it contains solvents. Filtered, bleached, and cleaned beeswax is also available.  I use wax from my beehives and it’s VERY unfiltered so I do pick bees, sticks, and flower parts out of it occasionally.

You can purchase special encaustic painting surfaces but any sturdy, stable surface will do. Canvas and other fabric mounts will crack and peel when the wax hardens. This is an ancient technique and extremely durable when the surface is stable. Special paint and brushes are available, but honestly oil pigment (not more than 1:20) and regular bristle brushes work just as well. Make a place to rest your brushes on the heat source to melt the wax coating. Keep your fingers away from the metal ferrules – they will be very hot!

There are many detailed tutorials on the web on encaustic media. Most are very good on the basic steps but I’ve been disappointed in the imagery. Don’t assume that the wax somehow demands soft colors and undefined contours! This is the first in a series of bouquet paintings from Thuya Lodge, part of the Mount Desert Land and Garden Preserve on Mount Desert island. This piece will be available at their auction in 2015: Nasturtium in a Brown Vase, 16 x 12, encaustic media.


Encaustic painting, Act 1, Scene 2

Last Monday I coated 4 Homasote and gesso panels with a thin coat of wax medium. On Thursday I had a chance to mix some colors and experiment with actual paint.

Thug life bird

My experience so far:

  • The base coat of wax medium should be thinner and less textured. It really is startling how quickly the wax hardens on the brush. I need to use shorter strokes and not try to “rebrush” into the hardened surface.
  • Fusing the wax medium to the board with a heat gun is efficient and makes a slick, hard painting surface. The process does not do as much as I thought it would to smooth out the bumps, however. You’d think the wax would melt flat to the surface, but no. Perhaps I’m not heating it long enough – time for another experiment.
  • Wow, the wax hardens quickly. I am learning to hold the brush in the small pot of pigment and wax (heated to molten on the griddle) until I am mentally ready to place that mark on the board. It’s a wonderful disciplinary exercise.
  • The painting is always dry – that is, the surface of the drawing is always ready for a new mark to be added. It was also very easy to scrape the wax away. This is a wet media with all the advantages of a dry media – cool.
  • Fusing the paint layers to each other is an additional, separate skill set. Too little and the layers stay dry and adjacent to each other. Too much and the pigmented wax blurs as it all slags together. Somewhere in the middle is a chance to overlap translucent layers with distinct edges to really show off the medium.
  • Blue jays are noisy thugs, but very entertaining to draw.


Encaustic Painting, Act 1 Scene 1

The supplies are corralled on the new, plastic-draped, work surface and I had to take some photos because nothing you see here will ever be this shiny ever again.


The first step is to make the plain wax medium: beeswax and damar resin in a ratio of 8 : 1. Or 10 : 1 or absolutely no more than 9 : 1, or possibly just until the mixture “looks right”. Every source I found had his or her own convictions. Beeswax is the medium that will carry the pigment to the surface and the damar raises the melting point of the wax enough to fix the result. Too little and the painting will react to moisture in the air with a white “bloom” and never fully dry, too much and the surface will crack and peel.


I’m using beeswax from our hives because we have pounds and pounds of the stuff. It’s like a natural resource around here. This first batch is a mix of yellow and white – the lighter wax was bleached by longer exposure to sunlight. It took me the entire summer to figure out that I could get lovely white beeswax simply by forgetting a batch in the solar melter for a few days but by that time it was September and the days were too short to re-engineer the yellow batches. Encaustic painting uses such thin layers that I don’t think the tint will make much difference, but we’ll see. I admit that I like the gold color produced by all those tiny bee feet tracking  pollen and propolis around the hive interior like children on Grandma’s kitchen linoleum.

I never noticed that our kitchen drop scale (pictured by the double boiler above) is calibrated in Newtons. Fortunately I was working from a ratio so all I cared about were the markings but seriously, Newtons?

The first batch is done and poured off into small stainless steel “monkey cups” to cool. It did indeed take longer than I thought it would for the damar to melt into the wax. The online boards repeatedly warn not to short-cut this step; “It takes as long as it takes!” The gentleman who insisted that the wax has a different “feel” once the resin is incorporated also had a point. The transition was not unlike testing custard or jelly on a spoon – difficult to describe but easy to see in practice. As with my first forays into beekeeping lore I feel more confident in the source material now that I’ve seen it in action.

Tomorrow I can pop out the solid wax and clean any sediment off the bottom in preparation for melting it again and brushing a thin coat on the painting surface. Act 1, Scene 2 coming up!