What it is:
Encaustic painting is a process of heating wax mixed with a resin and pigment to around 200 degrees, applying it to a sturdy substrate such as wood, and then fusing with a heat source such as a heat gun, iron or propane torch. It’s possible to scrape and incise the wax, as well as to collage materials into it, and to paint on it with oil paints. Layers are built up and fused, scraped back and incised and built up again. Each layer is fused with heat. The final painting is buffed with a soft cloth to bring out the shine of the wax. This ancient and durable medium has a mystery, a luminosity and an organic quality that give the final pieces a spiritual feeling.
How to care for an encaustic painting:
An encaustic painting is durable and archival. There are encaustic paintings from Greco-Roman Egypt that have survived in good condition. Encaustic paintings also need care. They will melt at 150 degrees so storage in a hot car trunk is not an option. Below freezing, the wax can crack. So, the encaustic painting needs to be kept between 35 and 120 degrees, kind of like people.
If the surface of the painting becomes cloudy, it can be buffed with a soft cloth and it will regain its shine. Since it can harm the surface to lean something up against it or to put cardboard on the surface, I carry my paintings flat in my car with the painting surface facing up. Small repairs can easily be made by the artist.
The following is a quote from an excellent book encaustic artists use… one of the few books about this form of painting: The Art of Encaustic Painting: Contemporary Expression in the Ancient Medium of Pigmented Wax by Joanne Matera (Watson-Guptill, 2001)
Quoted from the book’s introduction, “The Apian Way”: When I interviewed Jasper Johns in 1986, he remarked rightly of encaustic, “It’s an archaic medium, and few people use it.” Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he was virtually its sole practitioner, and at the time we spoke, just a handful of artists had gone beyond experimenting to create a serious body of encaustic work. Yet now, a decade and a half later, thousands of artists impelled by the zeitgeist, the luminosity, or perhaps simply by the recent availability of good tools and materials are exploring the possibilities of expression in pigmented wax. What a sweet irony it is that at the beginning of a new millennium, when cyber images are generated at the speed of light as pixels on a screen, a laborious medium that flourished over 2000 years ago should once again become a hot commodity. And hot is the appropriate word here, for encaustic, from the ancient Greek enkaustikos, means “to heat” or “to burn.” Heat is used at every stage of encaustic painting. The medium consists of beeswax melted with a small amount of resin; it becomes paint when pigment is added to the molten wax. What makes encaustic unique indeed, what makes encaustic encaustic is the application of heat between layers of brushstrokes. Heat binds each layer to the one set down before it, so while the image may consist of discrete compositional elements, structurally the entire surface is one carefully crafted mass, a whole ball of wax, if you will.