Wax On

Though you might not know it to look at them now, a lot of the wall paintings, temples and statues of ancient civilizations were once vivid and brightly colored. The preferred medium? For many in Egypt, Greece and Rome, it was encaustic, or wax painting.

Made of beeswax and pigment, encaustic couldn?t withstand the millennial ravages of relentless weather. But when not subjected to such abusive outdoor exposure, modern encaustic mediums are extremely durable and as permanent as any other medium. Encaustics won?t yellow, they?re unaffected by moisture and can withstand higher heats than oil paintings. Add to that some intriguing textural possibilities and a high degree of versatility, and it?s easy to see why the medium is enjoying something of a revival.

The term encaustic is derived from the Greek word enkaustikos, which means ?burn in.? Heat is an integral part of encaustic painting, used first to melt the pigmented wax into liquid form and then to affix it (?burn it in?) to a surface. Unlike most kinds of paint, the liquid wax doesn?t ?dry?; it resolidifies, usually within seconds after removing the source of heat. But it can be reworked indefinitely with the reapplication of heat.

Artists can create delicate layers of thin, transparent glazes or build up heavy impasto textures within minutes. The fat-over-lean rule doesn?t apply here. While the process may sound complicated, it?s actually easier than you might think. Modern technology and ingenuity have created an abundance of new tools and stylistic options (see Different Strokes below for some examples). And while care must be taken to avoid burns and accidental fires from both the hot liquid wax and the heating tools used with it, such mishaps are very rare and avoidable with a few basic safety precautions.

Encaustic supplies aren?t readily available in art stores, but a simple Internet search will hook you up in no time. For the adventurous artist, encaustic offers a viable and intriguing opportunity.

Different Strokes
Modern technology—mostly in the form of electrically heated tools—has considerably expanded the creative options for contemporary encaustic artists. I did the little squiggly line (at left) with a hot pen (the wax medium, when molten, is as fluid as ink). The broader brushstroke (at right) was painted with an all-metal hot brush.

The swirling-color effect in at left was created by applying several overlapping strokes of red, yellow and blue encaustic with a hot brush and then holding a heat lamp over them until the colors ran. When that layer of paint resolidified, I ?burned in? the circu- lar shapes with two round, electrically heated spatula-like tools. Last, I added the two little dots with the hot pen.

Kristin D. Godsey is a senior editor for Artist’s Sketchbook and The Artist’s Magazine.

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