Encaustic Painting Information & Resources
Christine Toth Art Studio
Encaustic Information Sheet
Safety is of utmost importance. I can’t stress this enough. A good reference book is Monona Rossol’s The Artist's Complete Health and Safety Guide. As with any art process or materials, you are your best advocate and need to educate yourself regarding the materials you choose and the space that you work in. Rossol’s guide is a good one, and there are plenty of web sites and other resources available. My list here is by no means exhaustive, but I’ve tried to include as many main points as I can to get you started.
Above 250 degrees F, beeswax breaks down into toxic gasses. It is essential to use a thermometer such as the kind used in ovens to monitor your hot palette in order to keep your wax below 250^. R & F Paints sells one; it is flat and sits directly on the palette. Kitchen supply places may also have a usable version. The flash point for wax is slightly higher, but good to keep in mind to avoid fire danger.
Proper ventilation is crucial. If you experience headaches, confusion, or breathing trouble after working with wax, you certainly don’t have adequate ventilation. But, if you keep the wax under 250^ it should not produce the gasses; however, a good window fan near your worktable, or a ventilation hood, and a well-ventilated area is still essential.
I avoid using any solvents in my encaustic process, such as those found in some oil paint mixes and in cold wax mixtures. If you use cold wax medium, keep it cold. Heating it will release the solvents in it that keep it pliable.
Never leave melted wax unattended.
NEVER let water come into contact with hot wax: it will explode.
Use an electric heat source for keeping wax melted to reduce the chance of igniting wax fumes.
Have a fire extinguisher handy & familiarize yourself with it. Hopefully you will never need to use it.
Have hot pads & oven mitts handy for grabbing hot equipment.
Mixing Dry Pigments with wax:
Even dry “earth color" pigments aren’t necessarily safe. Inhalation, ingestion, and skin exposure can cause health problems, so it is important to know what you are working with.
If you are mixing melted wax with powdered pigment, familiarize yourself with which pigments are toxic in that state. I don’t recommend using toxic powders, since these pigments are available already milled & many are safer once they are combined with the binder or medium. However, if you choose to use them, toxic pigments should be mixed in a safe “glove box" that won’t allows the dust to be released in your studio. I purchase pigments such as cadmium red already milled into wax paint bars, rather than risk releasing cadmium dust into my environment. (Cadmium needs extremely high heat to release toxic gas, so melting an encaustic paint bar such as those sold by R & F on your palette is not going to produce that particular problem.)
You should use a dust mask for handling any dry pigments.
• I’ve used an electric pancake griddle with an adjustable temperature gauge as my hot palette, with my flat thermometer perched on top. R & F sells anodized aluminum palettes that sit above standard hot plates, but these are more expensive.
• Natural bristle brushes.
• I use a crock-pot with an adjustable temperature gauge to melt larger quantities of beeswax.
• Paint filter (the cone-shaped kind used by house painters – you can find these at the hardware store) for filtering the damar crystal/ beeswax mixture. Damar resin comes from a tree, and often bits of bark or insects are embedded in it. Once the wax and damar resin are mixed, I filter the mixture through one of these filters.
• A tool for fusing the wax once you paint a layer on your surface. These tools range from heat guns, electric tacking irons, and propane torches. If you choose to use a propane torch, know that you are introducing an open flame to your studio & take necessary precautions to keep you & your environment safe.
Basically, your painting surface should be rigid (encaustic will crack on canvas or paper or any flexible surface) and absorbent. The wax needs to be able to be absorbed by the surface. Wood panels are commonly used.
A bit about chemistry. Or, what you can & can’t use with beeswax.
Beeswax is chemically compatible with oil paints, and you can use oils with your encaustic palette. However, it is important to keep in mind a few things regarding proportion.
Adding a little oil paint to the beeswax allows the painting to cure like an encaustic painting, meaning that it will cure as it cools. If however, you mostly have oil paints with a little wax included, then your painting will need to cure like an oil painting and dry over a period of time. A proportion of 50% wax and 50% oil paint is not recommended, as the curing process is held in check: it can neither cure over time like an oil paint or cool to harden like an encaustic painting, as it is held in a kind of chemical stasis.
Some artists put a dab of oil paint on a paper towel to absorb much of the oil before using the rest to paint with.
Anything you paint on or with in encaustic must be compatible with the beeswax. Materials such as plastics (and acrylic paints and grounds) are not compatible. The wax needs to be fused with the materials you combine it with in order to be structurally sound. A painting on an acrylic surface cannot fuse with that surface and will be unstable and liable to chip off. If you choose to paint on a Plexiglas surface (a tempting, but very smelly endeavor), you will need to be clear that it is not a structurally sound archival painting.
If you are not sure whether something is going to be structurally sound, do a little test and see how the paint behaves. If you can chip the encaustic clean off the surface of your support, then it is not fused to the underlying layer.
Every layer, once it has been painted on your support, must be completely fused to the layer below it. It can be tempting to add a few layers at once before melting them onto the painting, but this can lead to small air bubbles forming between the layers. The painting will then be susceptible to chipping.
Organic materials such as fibers, papers, etc. can work with the wax as long as they don’t have synthetic materials or sizing added to them. If you add a layer of paper to your wax surface, make sure there are no bubbles present once it’s fused. Some photocopiers use papers and inks that have synthetic materials in them that won’t bond to the wax.
Joanne Mattera has worked and written extensively about encaustic. Her book, The Art of Encaustic Painting is a good resource; you can find out more about it on her web page: http://www.joannemattera.com/pages/book.htm
Mattera’s “20 Questions" about encaustic on the Daniel Smith site:
R & F Paints has a lot of technical information as well as paint and other encaustic materials: http://www.rfpaints.com/1-Encaustics/EncausticTop.htm
The Artist’s Complete Health & Safety Guide by Monona Rossol. Rossol is an artist and a chemist; her book is a good resource for keeping you & your studio safe.