encaustic painting n+3

an update. the first encaustic painting, the dragon, is still drying with loads of wax coats still too translucent for my taste.

i was reading in an encaustic forum about this paste wax preparation called dorland’s wax medium, and it said you had to cure the painting by suspending lights above it at such a distance as to melt the wax but not let it bubble, and keep it melted for some ungodly amount of time – one to six hours.

dorland’s wax medium: “It contains pure fossil earth reinforced with additive waxes, resins, and oils.” pure fossil earth sounds suspiciously like they’re trying to hide petroleum products. according to this site, the technique i’ve been using is hot wax painting. “Paint the picture cold with knife technique and then heat it to melt and fuse the wax colors.

dorland’s suggests you use tube oil colors; i use dry pigment. they use mineral spirits, unnamed waxes, resins, and oils. i use beeswax and citrus thinner. the point is spreading it on and evaporating the solvent out of the beeswax with heat and exposure to air.

that brings me to a little rant. pure fossil earth. natural. organic. these are meaningless labels being used solely for the marketing lie. don’t you just hate that?

like this citrus thinner we just bought for !6 bucks the quart. turns out it’s not anything like citrus solvent, because it’s mostly mineral spirits, i mean petroleum products, with .001%, one thousanth of a percent, of citrus oil. i want real citrus oil, dammit, not pure fossil earth with flavoring. grrr. there’s this one company i’ve found so far where they sell 98% pure citrus oil with 2% water additive. i’m going to order online tomorrow and we’ll see.

i’m trying to avoid harsh solvents at this point, as a direct reaction to both of us getting really ill after spending all day in my studio breathing turpentine. (Madge: “You’re soaking in it.”)

solvents are bad. odorless mineral spirits are bad. citrus oil is bad. but i’ll bet i’m not as reactive to it as i am to gum turpentine.

my thought was that maybe i could use the suspended light, liquid for hours trick on the dragon picture, see how it turns out. 


the second painting is this one, the koi. last seen with a coat of wax medium on it, drying. today i added more paint, overpainting the wax where the fish come out of the water. you can mostly see it in the photo, where the colors, mostly red, are brighter.

i know i’m struggling in this process. truthfully, i feel like i’m reinventing the wheel. but is that such a bad thing for an artist to do? looking back at my career, i’ve mostly reinvented the wheel, learning techniques and media by trial and error, figuring it out at each step, getting hopelessly lost right in the middle of the process. i ask the newbie questions, and then go off in my own direction anyway.

one of the reasons i like encaustic, aside from the seduction of the wax, is there’s not a lot of dogma about it. with egg tempera, say, the tendency is to take cellini as a line in the sand. thus far and no further. that’s not right. it’s not how you do real tempera. real tempera is this and this and that’s it. they get rather fundamentalist about it.

but we’re in a modern age, and artists in whatever age have turned the materials at hand into art.  now we’ve got plastics and digital, and we’re soon going to have nanothings. conservatives will go apeshit.

so, as far as i’m concerned, because nobody did encaustic for about a thousand years, and since we picked it up again in the 1700s we’ve used modern technology to make it into a substantially new art. we’ve got heat-control now. we’ve got solvents. we’ve got modern pigments. i say use them.

encaustic means heating the wax to fuse it. but you can burn it in with chemicals as well.

there’s evidence, according to either doerner or mayer, that there was a cold wax process that is now lost. so i’m going to play with that. and that’s encaustic too. because we’re not ancient greeks anymore.

my 2nd encaustic 2


after the first day’s work, i’ve got a very thin, very abstract little painting here.

i’m very encouraged by my progress so far. it now looks like the way i was painting koi when i stopped in 2003. my kid hates that style of painting. she calls it ‘unfinished.’ but back in 2003 i wasn’t painting them finished. i was painting them rough, looking at the patterns of color, the rhythms of light and shadow. i no longer wanted things to look like what they were so much as to celebrate their hubris and joie de vivre. you can read greed for life in the scrabble above, right? it’s harder at this point to read fish, but you can get the emotional part.


now for a look at my materials. i’ve got the upper left corner of my painting in the lower right. i’ve got my thick paste wax in the jar on the bottom, and a much more thinned down version in the jar on the top (i usually keep them capped). there are little piles of hardening white and indian red on the left, an almost completely hardened test blob of orange clockwise from that, and then a blog of raw umber, a blob of mixed raw umber and ultramarine, a blob of ultramarine, and then the edge of my palette knife holding the blue-umber i’ve been scraping on its tip.

i’m finding that using a wax paste, meaning using a solvent, has its advantages and disadvantages. the bad part is that i’m standing there breathing in turpentine fumes all day long, which gets you kind of lightheaded and punch-drunk after awhile. the good part is that turpentine is a solvent, and it works on wax, so when my little lumps start getting stiff, i can just moosh some more wax paste out of the jar and mash it together with my palette knife, and it gets all nice and creamy again.

today i made up all my little batches of pigment powder that i’d had lying around on the palette. you’re not supposed to breathe the stuff, so i breathed turpentine fumes instead and made up all the little piles of pigment into batches of  buttery wax paint. for the whole time whe i was painting, i was constantly running out of one color or another, either blue or white as i recall. so i’d stop scraping the palette hoping to get the very last molecule, take out the jar of pigment and scoop some out with the tip of the knife, sweep some out of the pile of wax paste, and mix it up until it was like mayonnaise, and then scoop some up onto a small palette kife and start putting it on.


the first thing i did was to work in some more reds, top picture, and then increase the darks. one of the things i’d decided yesterday was that i needed to make the paint thicker over the surface, which means, since i’ve basically got a painting, that i needed to restate pretty much everything in the painting.

it doesn’t look like it at this small size, but the painting changed dramatically every time i did something small. i put blue-umber on and it changed. i put purple on and it changed. i put red on and it changed. it impressed me. maybe not you.


but putting more white on, that impresses somebody. i’ve never painted with white before where it added so much. usually white is such a detriment. but it sure does help build form.

i’m using a palette knife for everything but the most general shadows, which i put on in the first couple of steps. now i’m laying the wax on thick.


you can barely see the thickness of the paint if you look at the dabs of red and orange.

i was careful to take pictures of each step before fusing with the heat lamp, and afterwards, because i saw such a difference in what i was doing with the dragon, my first encaustic. but whatever i’m doing with the dragon i’m not doing here. when i heated up the dragon, with a hair dryer, i got runs. here i’m taking care not to let the wax get hot enough to run. i want it where it’s just wet, maybe even a little bloomed up. but right after the bloom it looses all cohesion and just runs like mercury. (i’m not talking about the bloom of mold-like substance on old wax, i’m talking about the way the wax seems to blossom up as it reaches its melting point and turns to liquid.

in this case, i’m trying not to make the paint run, because i like the little dabs and brushstrokes. i like what the wax is doing. but then i’m being seduced by the wax. and that’s supposed to be something we can rise above. however, there are very powerful arguments for getting lost in the wax and letting your materials guide you thru your art.

i’m thinking i’ll do a painting with nothing but the wax paste, and let it set up on its own without trying to fuse it with heat. the solvent will fuse it, especially if i work fast and don’t let the painting dry out.


i went around and put in a lot of little color touches. there’s some fresh yellow mixed with ochre, some bright orange, i’ve reddened the reds that are in shadow, i’ve picked out more daks, i’ve put some whites in the depths of the water.

it’s beginning to look like fish. it’s beginning to read three dimensional.

it seems important now that i’m working in wax, to work in dimensions. there’s so much depth when you put a layer of wax over something. that’s what encaustic demands that you acknowledge. paint layers that you can see. optical color mixing. real form, real texture. life turned to wax.

remember those wax candles you made in girl scouts or summer camp or something? you melted the wax and then poured it into a bowl and whipped it with egg beaters. and it turned all frothy and light. it was the kind of wax they’d use to make pretend whipped cream drink candles.

that’s what i think about every time i put a layer of white on. i think of wax food.

tomorrow i have to put some lights into the shadows. and pull out more highlights.

then i’m going to bury the fish in paste wax, several coats. and then maybe i’ll scrape the clear wax away from the fish that have their heads sticking out above the water. dimension. it seems possible for the first time to make a painting that you can actually walk ito. that’s always been my goal, something so real it comes alive, like the pictures on the wall in the chronicles of narnia.