Monday, February 16, 2009

Wonderful Wax

Encaustic Painting
Originally published February 7, 2009 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

Have you ever lingered after a quiet, candle-lit dinner, and played with the drips that have accumulated down the sides of the candle? Wax is appealing in many ways, not the least of which is its smooth, tactile quality.

Honeycomb—that marvel of engineering that bees construct for raising their young and storing honey and pollen--is made from wax, which is secreted by abdominal glands of young worker bees. Foragers must collect nectar from about 2 million flowers to make 1 pound of honey. The average forager makes about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.

So wax is fun to touch and essential to honey production. What other ways is wax—and beeswax in particular—of value?
• Well, because it’s nonporous it’s great for preserving and protecting things like cheese, furniture, and skin.
• Because it’s readily pliable and impressionable, it’s been used to record music, shape moustaches, and in the casting metals for jewelry, sculpture or industry.
• Because it contains sweet-smelling pollen oils and melts at a fairly low temperature, it can be used as a fuel to keep candles burning or to give a high sheen when used as polish.
• Because it can bind and adhere, it’s been used for sealing envelopes and in the production of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

For all these reasons, beeswax is also an ideal, archival medium for artists. When beeswax is combined with resin and pigment, it’s called encaustic painting. The resin gives the beeswax a hard, durable finish and the pigment provides a broad array of colors.

Encaustic painting was practiced by Greek artists as far back as the 5th century B.C. Fayum funeral portraits painted in the 1st through 3rd centuries A.D. by Greek painters in Egypt have survived until today, with their still-fresh colors preserved by the protection of wax.

I recently attended one of the best workshops I’ve ever experienced—a two-day emersion in encaustic painting (info at Local instructor/artists Wendy Aikin, Judy Stabile and Daniella Woolf demonstrated numerous processes over the two days and provided all the materials and help needed to practice each one in their well-organized Corralitos studio. Their excitement about the encaustic process was infectious, and by the end I felt so creatively invigorated by the weekend that I went and jogged three miles in the beautiful backroads of Corralitos.

Wax Works also provides “playdays” so you can return to the studio, use their equipment and materials, and continue experimenting safely with encaustic. Having a large, well-ventilated workspace is important when working with materials that require a certain amount of safety considerations. Heated wax emissions can be hazardous without proper ventilation, especially when overheated and hot wax itself can be a fire and burn hazard.

If you want to try an inexpensive way of working with wax at home, open two windows to create a cross-draft and turn on a the canopy hood fan over the stove and/or a floor fan to draw any fumes away from the workspace; or, better yet, work outdoors. Beeswax will melt at 146 degrees, and, when heated, should always be kept at or near this melting point. Here’s a simple wax project to introduce you the process.

What you need:
Beeswax (Beverly Crafts has solid bricks and textured sheets of 100% beeswax)
Wax paper
Empty tuna can
Electric pancake griddle with temperature control, protected with foil
Dedicated paint brush
Dress pattern tissue
Small stretched canvas or piece of sanded plywood and glued-on watercolor paper
Travel iron (smooth bottom with no holes)
Hair dryer
Items to collage

What you do:
If you use plywood, coat in Yes Paste and adhere watercolor paper to start with a white surface. (You can also apply watercolor paints to the paper before applying any wax.)

1. Melt small pieces of beeswax in a tin can placed on an electric griddle covered with foil until liquid is heated just to the melting point.

2. Cover your workspace with a piece of wax paper. Apply a thin layer of beeswax to the entire surface of the canvas or board, including the sides, with a paintbrush. (Alternately, you can cover the edges with burnished painter’s tape to keep the edge free from wax, then remove the tape when you’re done.)

3. Cover the warm wax surface with a piece of pattern tissue big enough to cover the sides and press into the wax.

4. Coat the tissue with another layer of wax.

5. Use the travel iron to smooth the dress pattern down to create a flat, smooth surface. Trim off any excess pattern.

6. Add cut out of your focal image and bush over with more wax. A porous paper will bond with the wax better than a shiny paper. I used an image printed onto ink-jet printer paper.

7. Apply more wax and iron flat. The image may slide around, but you should be able to maneuver it back into place.

8. To add color, drip crayons onto the wax by holding the crayon directly to the iron surface. (You can also add color by using oil pastels.) Blend in the color with the iron. Clean the warm iron off with a paper towel.

9. Add small objects, images, fabrics, papers, etc. to the piece, adhering each with wax top and bottom.

10. If you don’t like the look of something you’ve added, you can scrape or melt it off. If you need to resmooth the surface, use the iron or a blow dryer, although the force of the air might also move items around.

11. Try transferring laser-jet images into warm wax by burnishing the back of the paper with a brush handle. Draw lines with a Sharpie. Incise the wax with a sharp tool. Imprint shapes with rubber stamps. Experiment and be open to unexpected results.

12. Two websites with beeswax tutorials and

There’s a big difference between what you can do at home with crayons and a travel iron, and what you can do in an encaustic studio with torches, heat guns, a hot stylus, high-quality medium and encaustic paints, a bin full of various incising tools, scraping tools, Stabilo wax pencils, India ink, joss paper, stamps, stencils, metal leaf, oil sticks, and all the rest. But either way, the texture, aroma, luminosity and potential of wax, can be as enticing and exhilarating as a candle-lit dinner for two.