encaustic painting n+4


nebulas. this one’s the swan nebula, m17. here is the reference for the painting i’m doing. it’s rotated 90 counterclockwise from the way i’m painting it. so bend your head to the left when you see it.

i started with an about 8×10 masonite panel jim prepared a long time ago for his egg tempera painting. acrylic gessoed in a medium gray tone.

i’d read somewhere (let me just find it now) that you don’t want to put wax down on acrylic gesso because of some reason. so i figured i’d sand the surface, then put in the first coat, on top of the sketch, in acrylic paint and then it would be okay to use wax. i have to figure that out. there is so much misinformation, and so many technicalities that it’s very difficult to figure out. chemistry was never my strong point.

anyway, i used brown-blue as my dark, but instead of mixing ultramarine with raw umber as usual, i used phthalo blue, which is strong and very greenish. but i’ll never run out of that pigment if i don’t use it in underpaintings sometime. the white is titanium white, and because i’m too impatient to wait while the acrylic dries, there are light blue areas that indicate nothing more than that.

i had to use a hair dryer to get the acrylic dry. i just dipped out some pigment and mixed it with acrylic medium and water, and splashed it on with one of my watercolor brushes. i never use acrylics. that’s jim’s forte. i don’t like the way they smell, and hate them for drying so fast compared to oil. but now i’m into wax, so never mind.


for my next step, i stuck raw umber over the dark half of the painting, and went ahead and put in the dark blue and purple of the background. i’m  making this part much darker than it’s going to end up, figuring a couple of layers of translucent wax medium will give it the atmosphere it needs. that and some smeared white paint.

everything’s getting melted in as it goes on the painting. i work one color at a time, melt it, let it dry, and then start in again. after awhile of this, i put in a few colors at a time as long as they don’t overlap, and then melt it all.  i’m melting it until it’s liquid for this painting. for others, say, the koi one, i’m hardlly melting it at all, but for this one i wave it around under the light until the surface starts wiggling with my movements, and then i back off in a big hurry and raise another area of the painting  up under the lamp.

i’m practicing making large areas liquid all at once. it takes careful observation and a responsive hand to get this to happen, because you basically have to focus the light on the leading edge of the wax, where there’s  border between hard wax and molten wax. you use the light to constantly break down the leading edge, and the timing has to be such that a great deal of liquid wax doesn’t pile up behind a dam of half-solid wax. unless you like great runs. because eventually the leading edge encompasses half the painting, and it’s all as liquid as mercury. i’ll do great runs in another painting, i’m sure.


now i’m putting in the lights in the foreground. but no white. i’m saving white until last, because it’s the hardest to melt. because it’s the brightest and most reflective, where as all you have to do is turn the heat lamp on and the brown and blue start to shine.

the yellow likes to melt completely away. i have to be extra delicate with it. i saw several nice blobs of yellow sort of explode when i thought they were just going to subside and run.

jim tells me that some colors, the cadmiums especially, turn color when you get too close with the heat lamp. they turn brown. i suppose this is how you get burnt sienna from raw sienna, etc. 

it’s true that every pigment has its own character. i couldn’t really tell when i was using paints somebody else mixed up and put into a tube, but when i control the process and the ingredients, i can clearly see how different pigments absorb, spread, dry, disperse, and pile up. and now melt.

i started messing with the background at this point. i stuck some red in at the base of the purple part. all of this has to get acres lighter, but beneath the lighness i can see pink, which comes from red. that’s how i’m building this thing. i’m putting in all the colors i can see and somehow expect to end up with loads of solidity and dimensionality.


more color. more. more. i put some blue in the far background, restate the reds on the purple cloud, and dump in orange and red. i’m starting to restate the darks within the lightest parts, and i recall doing a lot of finger painting in the still warm wax to smoosh some of the color around.


now i go in with the yellow ochre and stick more lights in. i work over the cloud in the background, too. i probably used some raw umber as well, but they’re analogous colors. the paint’s starting to get thick on the left side.


it’s time for more darks. i mix up a more ultramarine than raw umber dark, and go in on the left side, making sure all my darks are indicated. since the dark colors melt and run so easily, heating is a finicky process that involves lots of rapid movements and darting angles away from the light.

my dilemma is that i’m trying to thoroughly melt the areas of bright color while not blasting the darks. i’m mostly successful in this. there are lumps left in the center of the strings of color, but it all shimmered and flowed before i lowered it from the heat and started blowing on it.


i left the left side alone now, it’s starting to intimidate me. what do i do next? what if i ruin it? things like that. so i mixed up a very thin batch of ultramarine, and put it all over the background, separating it completely from the foreground.


and for the last step of the evening, i put a healthy coat of wax medium over the background and melted it in. the glow you’re seeing in the middle is where i didn’t let it cool enough before taking the shot, and the surface is still a bit wet and shiny.

wonder what it looks like this morning.

an update on the mixtures. i probably haven’t mentioned it, but i’ve been using a homemade cold wax mixture. jim and i, being miserly, wouldn’t dream of paying for someone else to make it for us, so we start with the raw ingredients and go from there. this is not to say we mull our own pigments. or a number of other nit-picky studio tasks. we just won’t buy ready-made if we can avoid it.

so when we got interested in encaustic, jim mixed up a medium that his teacher, joel reeves, had taught him lo those many years ago, back in the late 50s and early 60s. he painted in cold wax.  never used heat on it. once the volatiles evaporate, you have beeswax all stuck together because of the solvent action. walt martin used cold wax exclusively, and his paintings are still holding up after 50 years.

anyway, for my first batch of medium, jim used a cold chisel on a block of beeswax, put it into a jar, and mixed it with turpentine. within a day it was a gel, and ready to use. he made me another jar ful that had more thinner in it, as well. i ran thru those in a couple of days. but i had immediately put the block of beeswax in the freezer and hit it with a hammer, and so had another jar fermenting. i’d used our new citrus-flavored mineral oil on it.

then i decided to follow at least part of one encaustic rule. the medium for encaustic is strongly said to be beeswax with a little damar resin in it. the only way to dissolve this resin, the only two ways, is to melt it, or to put it in turpentine. so i figured, i’d melt it first, and mix it with the wax, and while it was all still molten, i would take it away from the heat – duh – and pour some citrus thinner into it. and this worked really well. sort of.

the first thing that happened was that the wax turned instantly solid, into these little needle-like shards of translucent wax. then they kind of went into solution. but the whole thing started getting difficult to work, and so i let it sit overnight.

next day it was solid and lumplike, so i cut it gently in half and put it into two jars, and dumped loads of citrus-flavored thinner into one of the jars and started cutting and stirring again. into the second jar, i put turpentine, because only turpentine will dissolve damar, and that was apparently what was wrong with the first jar. they wouldn’t mix. it wouldn’t dissolve. now that it had damar in it, it was sitting there like a lump of wax.

let me just mention that neither jim nor i will use wild abandon around heat or flames. an artist’s studio is horribly flammable, and we’ve got an old house with many years of flammable paintings stored in the studo and the attic, so i shudder at the thought of using a blow torch to melt my encaustic paintings. i go so far as to put my tempered jar containing beeswax into a larger tempered jar containing water, and hover over the thing waiting for activity. fire is bad.

the next steps with the mediums is to figure out the chemistry. i need to take the wax and damar lumps out of the thinner, dry them, and then remelt them and mix them with turpentine like i’m supposed to. but really, i need to have another jar of medium soon because i’m running out and keep dreaming up new paintings to do.

of course, some time soon i’ll do this completely conventionally so i can see the standard. we’re still gathering materials. jim hasn’t yet started his first encaustic, tho he’s fixing the drawings as we speak.

One thought on “encaustic painting n+4

  1. WordPress sent me here as a “possibly related post” to one of mine (which it wasn’t). Your work is really interesting and since my sister also works with encaustic, I’m going to send her a link to your blog.

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