Thursday, 13 October 2011

Elephant No. 11: Encaustic Painting

Encaustic painting is something I've been wanting to try for years, so I was happy to find a local art store offering a free demonstration this morning.

The word encaustic is derived from the Greek enkaustikos, meaning "to burn or apply heat". Encaustic painting, also known as hot-wax painting, involves the application of liquified wax—usually containing pigment—to a hard surface such as wood. Canvas and cardstock are often used as well, the main criterion being that the support not bend too much if the paint is applied thickly.

There are many recipes for encaustic paint, the simplest of which involves adding pigments to beeswax. Other recipes contain damar resin, linseed oil and even other types of wax. Pigments are available in powder form, but other pigment sources, including oil paint, can be added as well. The most convenient form of encaustic paint comes in pre-mixed colours, which can be blended when hot.

As long as the wax remains warm, it can be shaped with tools such as metal spatulas, knives, scribes and natural bristle brushes. Unusual effects can also be achieved with techniques such as blowing hot wax around with a straw or a heat gun. Many artists embed additional materials into the surface, such as photographs, drawings, fibres, metals and so forth.

Encaustic painting was probably first used in the fifth century B.C. by the Greeks, but is perhaps most closely associated with Egypt's Fayum mummy portraits. Until new materials and methods such as tempera, fresco and oil began appearing around the seventh century A.D., encaustic wax was the most popular painting medium.

Portrait of a wealthy woman
A.D. 160–170, Fayum, Egypt
British Museum, London

From the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, encaustic was virtually a lost art. In the twentieth century, however, it enjoyed something of a resurgence among artists such as Georges Rouault, Diego Rivera and Jasper Johns. Over the past twenty years, as new materials and tools have developed, encaustic has become popular again.

Much of the beauty of encaustic painting lies in the translucency of the material, which gives the paintings depth and richness. Because the medium is wax, the paint can also be reheated and reworked. When cooled and dried, encaustic is a highly durable surface, in part because of its resistance to moisture.

Today's demonstration was given by Kathryn Bevier of Enkaustikos, a company that makes encaustic paints, mediums and tools. The process is quite straightforward: melt some wax, paint it onto a surface, set it with a heatgun, add more paint, set it again, repeat.

My main problem was that I didn't have any of the materials. We were each given a couple of small paint samples, which was great; unfortunately, I didn't want to paint a green and crimson elephant. So of course I bought some encaustic paints. And some mediums. And some masonite. And some panels. And some brushes—because who, after all, doesn't need to own 187 paintbrushes?

Good thing most of this stuff is pretty cheap. The paints were the most expensive item, but I used surprisingly little on today's elephant, leaving lots to use on...oh, I dunno...maybe Christmas gifts I can foist on family and friends. (Well, my family has probably had enough of such experimental gifts, but my friends are forewarned.)

Most of the brushes below were from the dollar store, which seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, who wants to "wreck" good brushes with wax? However, if you choose to use cheapies like this—eight brushes for $1.50—be prepared to pick a few bristles out of your painting.

I also discovered that one of the most important pieces of equipment—a pancake griddle—was something I didn't have. How do I not own one of these? That being said, why did it take me nearly two hours in a city of almost one million people to find a plain pancake griddle? I almost settled for a red plastic quesadilla maker from a thrift store (and if ever an item were made for thrift stores, it would surely be a red quesadilla maker). Luckily, I found a really good griddle on sale—at only about twice the cost of the quesadilla maker.

While the paints and mediums were melting on the griddle (which took way longer than I expected), I sketched an elephant onto a piece of masonite. Once the wax was liquified, I brushed wax medium over the entire thing, then set it with a heat gun. This melts the wax into the masonite, essentially priming your painting surface.

After the surface is prepared, it's pretty much like any other kind of painting. The paints can either be used right from the tins, or blended on the griddle surface. The paint should not be heated beyond 200˚F—and 175˚F is better. This means, however, that the paint can cool and harden almost before you can paint it onto the surface. At first I ended up with a bunch of chunky lines and a sort of a dry-brush effect, which wasn't at all what I had in mind. Even though I had the masonite right next to the griddle, it was a bit of a struggle to keep the paint liquid.

Eventually I discovered that it helped if I thinned the paint with a bit of wax medium. Not only does this seem to slow the cooling process, but it also allows for much finer lines and a certain translucency.

In between layers of paint, the heat gun should be used to set the paint and fuse the layers. This has to be done carefully, however, or you end up spreading the paint around, as it can easily liquefy. The effect is something like what the surface of water looks like when a search-and-rescue helicopter is hovering too low.

Another thing I found helpful was adding a thin layer of wax medium, reheating the surface almost to liquefaction, letting it cool until it was warm, then blending the semi-soft wax with the side of a paring knife. If I was relatively quick, the colours blended nicely.

To give this the glassy finish of traditional encaustic painting, I would need to scrape the entire surface to something relatively smooth, give it a coat of wax medium, then heat it to smooth it out further. I wasn't skilled enough to manage it over the entire surface, but I did get a bit of glassiness in a few spots. Given that this is a wax surface, I can still revisit it at some point when I have more time.

If you're interested in encaustic painting, there are lots of videos online to give you the basics. I'm sure the method I used today is semi-crazed, because all I did was take what I learned this morning then come home and muck about with the materials.

One word of caution: make sure you do this in a well-ventilated space. Although melted beeswax isn't particularly noxious, the paints I used contain resin, which smells something like sealing wax as it heats up. It won't kill you, but it might give you a bit of a sore throat and raw eyes. Don't ask me how I know.

Elephant Fact of the Day
In ancient times, one of the most popular supports for encaustic painting was ivory. This was partly because ivory gave the painting a subtle glow it might have lacked on a darker surface such as wood.

In ancient times, ivory was used for everything from carvings and religious objects to false teeth and the eyes of statues. Although elephants were the most important source of ivory in the Classical world, hippopotamus and mammoth ivory were also used. The word ivory actually derives from the Ancient word for elephant, âbu, and the related Latin, ebur.

Elephants have been endangered since antiquity, due largely to our demand for ivory. The elephants indigenous to Syria and North Africa, for example, became extinct nearly two thousand years ago, likely killed off for their tusks.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society

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