cold wax encaustic

there’s a certain rigidity in the modern definition of encaustic painting.  according to fundamentalists, encaustic painting is done with molten wax and resin applied to a surface and then remelted to fuse the layers.  anything departing from this simple, ‘ancient’ method is deemed not ‘true’ encaustic, especially the use of solvent-processed, or cold, wax.

the modern objection to using solvents arises from the fear of toxic materials and the modern artists’ almost pathological avoidance of them.  when you heat wax mixed with solvents, the solvent evaporates and you inhale it, and then you die.

let me tell you how unpleasant it is to be exposed to hot turpentine fumes all day long.  your eyes sting.  you get a headache.  you feel nauseous.  and if you’ve been exposed to it all day long while you melt more wax and more wax, you’ll end up puking on your knees in the evening.  i know.  i did it, stubbornly insisting that i like the smell of turpentine.

but the convenience and subtlety of wax applied in a slurry rather than molten is too wonderful to give up just because the fumes are dangerous.  but i would get sick if i used it.  so after a few minutes, i figured out that i needed a better solvent.

there are several things that will dissolve wax.  just look at your laundry treatment guide.  most of them are toxic.  some, like xylene, are carcinogenic.  these are not chemicals you want flowing heated into your nose and lungs.  i agree.  but we ran across citrus oil solvent, and this has been about perfect.  citrus solvent is generally recognized as safe (gras), has very few effects, smells good, and is available by mail-order.  it dissolves wax well, evaporates quickly, and creates no harmful fumes when heated.

the prejudice against solvents is bolstered by the claim that the ancients did it that way (applying their wax molten) and so should everybody else.  i’ve seen forum posts where participants fumed that people would dare to call solvent-based wax encaustic when obviously it was cheating.  but encaustic is a lost art that was only revived in the 20th century, and its most ardent fundamentalist supporters are all about computer-controlled hot plates and factory-made blocks of wax.

in all probability, there were as many ancient wax techniques as there were artists, some hot, some cold, some using resins, some using solvents.  wax paintings exist from the ancient greek and roman culture as well as egypt, and so it’s easy to assume that wax painting was popular all over the mediterranean basin but that examples tended to survive only in the deserts of egypt.  in moister climates the substrate would have rotted away.  i’ll bet india and china used wax, and africa too.  but there is little left to examine with x-rays and spectroscopes, and the rest is all supposition and guesswork, belief and received knowledge.


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