Having recently taken up encaustic painting—painting with molten beeswax–I thought it would be fun to share my experiences. But first the disclaimer: don’t take up encaustic without doing a lot of research first, as the materials can be dangerous to work with if you don’t know what you’re doing. Consider taking a class if possible. Since I’m just a beginner, I’m not going to go into much detail, but I’ll let you know I got all my information from the Internet—don’t forget good old Youtube. This will part of a short series. Here’s the first installment.
Why encaustic? There’s something about the texture and sheen of wax that’s irresistible. I can remember as a child playing with hot candle wax—sticking my finger in it, letting it solidify, and then peeling it off. I also well remember drawing with wax when creating pysanki. I love the translucency of encaustic paint and the shine that you can achieve with polishing. Although you can achieve a similar effect with acrylic paint, it’s just not the same.
Expense can be a problem. I was intrigued by encaustic, but couldn’t figure out how I could afford all the equipment and materials. The research definitely paid off, as I found some less expensive alternatives to the ideal or recommended set-up.
There are a couple of common methods of working with the wax. Some artists use irons, some use hot plates and others use an encaustic stylus with a variety of tips. I started with a hot plate and got a stylus later—I have no experience with the iron method.
If you go the route I did, it is recommended that you purchase a hot plate or stylus that comes with a temperature regulator so that you don’t exceed the correct temperature range. Encaustic medium and paint gives off toxic vapors when heated and will smoke if it is too hot (Ventilation is a must). Since I’m on a budget, I bought the cheapest pancake griddle I could find and got to know its temperature quirks. For some reason, it starts off really hot and then gradually cools, so I always start it off low and gradually increase. Similarly, I purchased the least expensive stylus I could find, using both “encaustic” and “hot wax” as search terms. When it gets too hot, I switch off briefly.
Every layer of wax that you add needs to be “fused” or melted together, and there are a couple of methods to accomplish this. I use the indirect (not touching) method, which requires a hot air gun. I understand that one can also use a tack iron directly on the wax (direct method), but I have no experience of this. So what hot air gun to buy? I read about people who were happily using inexpensive embossing guns; however, others stated that embossing guns don’t get hot enough to fuse properly. It was recommended that one buy the gun with variable fan speed and temperature control, and this time I followed the recommendation. However, when using the gun, I use the lowest fan speed and a lowish temperature. I understand that embossing guns are about 600 degrees, which is around the same temperature I keep my expensive fancy gun on. So I’ve concluded that I probably could have gotten by fine with an embossing gun. However, if you are planning to do big fun abstracts in which you blow the wax around, you’d need the better gun to get the results you want. As for me, I’m often annoyed when my details blow away, despite using the low fan speed and trying to be quick.
Check back soon for part two, in which I’ll go over materials.