Question #16

Today’s question can be filed in the art department:

What exactly is encaustic?

I get this question a lot. It’s an unusual word, and although encaustic art has grown in popularity by leaps and bounds over the last decade or two, it’s still largely an unknown word in our vocabulary.

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My encaustic paints are in little metal tins, which allow the wax to stay in molten form on our old pancake griddle. I use a variety of paint brush sizes and shapes.

Encaustic comes from the Greek enkaustikos: “to burn in.”

Encaustic painting, also known as “hot wax painting,” involves using molten bees wax, resin, and pigments to create an encaustic medium (an encaustic paint), which may be applied to wood, clayboard, or even canvas.

Often images and found objects are imbedded in the wax, and various tools are used to scrape, texturize and shape the wax.  To fuse each layer of pigmented wax together, a heat gun, hot iron, or even a blow torch is used so that all the layers of wax become one solid entity.

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Encaustic paintings are extremely durable due to the fact that beeswax is resistant to moisture. Because of this it will not deteriorate, it will not yellow, and it will not darken.  Examples of encaustic paintings have survived from the Greek and Roman empires and are still as vibrant and colorful today as they were when they were painted. Pretty amazing, huh?

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Dorothy and Melinda came for an encaustic play session one day and they loved the surprising waxy goodness of the process!

Encaustic paint is pigment in a beeswax and resin base (the resin is basically crystalized tree pitch!). The resin raises the melting temperature of the paint, hardens it, and helps it to resist dust.

I make my own encaustic wax using beeswax (usually the natural/yellow kind), damar resin, and oil pastels that I melt into the wax to provide the color. I use a heat gun for fusing, though I have used irons in the past. I would LOVE to try a blow torch to see what different effects I get with the wax layers.

Cure for Tough Transitions, mixed media encaustic by Courtney Putnam.

Cure for Tough Transitions, mixed media encaustic by Courtney Putnam.

Encaustic painting fits my artistic sensibility so well because I can’t predict what will happen with my art. I create layers and layers of wax and images and then once I add the heat gun, I never know what colors will merge to create a whole new color or what image will become hidden or reappear from a deeper layer. I have tools for scraping the wax and making indentations in it, as well, which adds to the intuitive fun. For me, encaustic painting is experimental, intuitive, and imprecise (at least in my creative process), and “creative mistakes” are not only encouraged in my book, but inevitable with this process.

Synchronicity, encaustic painting by Courtney Putnam.

Synchronicity, encaustic painting by Courtney Putnam.

If YOU would like to learn how to do encaustic painting, I invite you to join me in my own home studio for a one-on-one or one-on-two session! And if you’re not in Seattle, check out encaustic teachers in your area, or check out these books for inspiration:

Encaustic Workshop (Patricia Baldwin Seggecruch)

The Art of Encaustic Painting (Joanne Mattera)

Encaustic Art (Lissa Rankin)

Encaustic Mixed Media (Patricia Baldwin Seggecruch)

And if you should buy an encaustic painting or make one of your own, here are some tips for care of your painting:

Care of Your Encaustic Painting

  • Encaustic paintings do not have to be varnished or protected by glass; they will not deteriorate, or discolor.  Paintings are best when allowed to breathe and should not be varnished or kept under glass.
  • People often ask “Will my encaustic melt?” The melting point of wax is between 160-180 degrees Fahrenheit, so if your paintings are melting your house is likely on fire! However as with any fine art, you should keep your paintings away from extreme heat and cold so do not hang anywhere that receives direct sunlight or place in your car on a hot day!
  • Be aware that for some time the surface of the painting will develop a natural whitish dust known as “Bloom.”  Encaustic paintings can be buffed to a high gloss using a soft, lint free cloth.  This sheen dulls over time and can be brought back by repeating the process.  Be gentle with buffing!
  • When transporting your encaustic painting, the piece must be wrapped well. Wax paper protects the surface well. For a major move, wrap the work well in wax paper and bubble paper and box it.

wax on and wax off colorfully and messily,

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About Courtney Putnam

I first came to healing work through art and writing. Creating collage art and poetry in particular allowed me to deeply understand the benefit of self-expression in the healing process. But, I also began to see the benefit of bodywork (manual work in the form of massage and energywork in the form of Reiki) as keys to unlocking the emotional stresses we hold in our bodies. I became a Reiki practitioner in 2002, received an MFA in Creative Writing in 2003, received my massage license in the spring of 2006, and became a Reiki Master in 2010. In my practice I bring together these three areas -- the body, the mind, and the spirit (or energy body) -- so others may experience profound and positive change in their lives.
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