Altered Worlds: Photo Encaustic Part II

By Jill Skupin Burkholder Back to


Beyond the Basics

A photography student showed up on the second day of an encaustic workshop with a huge smile on her face. After learning the basics on Day One, she had gone into a local art supply store that evening and roamed the aisles. “For the first time,” she said with a grin, “I felt like I belonged there.” I knew exactly what she meant. As photographers, we share a history of chemistry, foul concoctions and magical toners but rarely do we get the chance to enjoy a stroll through the paint aisle, having our imaginations tickled by the colors and smells of classic art supplies.

In the photo technique article “Photo Encaustic: Part I− The Basics & Beauty of Beeswax,” I gave step-by-step instructions on how to print a photograph, attach it to a board and apply a coating of encaustic medium (a blend of beeswax and damar resin). Next, we gave the photograph an artistic dash of texture and darkening using pigment sticks to create an atmospheric vignette, gracing the corners with distinctive shadows. We covered the critical rule of encaustic−to heat fuse each layer and to use materials that accept wax and are porous. “Photo Encaustic: Part II” takes a plunge into the altered world of mixed media and encaustic painting−a creative place where photographers can romp and play with abandon.

Adding Color with Masks and Stencils

Color is added to an encaustic piece in two ways. Pigment sticks are crayon-like mixtures of pigment, wax and oil that can be rubbed directly on a wax surface and blended with linseed oil. This strong color is added on the final layer of the encaustic piece and left to air dry (some pigments have a dry time of weeks or months).

Enhancing texture with a pigment stick

The other popular colorizing method is to slice a tiny bit of pigment stick and add it to a small amount of melted encaustic medium. This brings us to another piece of equipment for your encaustic studio−the electric pancake griddle with a temperature control. On this hot surface, you can rest a large number of small metal containers (cat food or tuna cans) each holding a different color of encaustic medium. All of your colors can be lined up in a row, every one with a separate natural bristle paintbrush. The good news is that you never have to clean your brushes if the can is cooled with the brush in the wax!

The hot pancake griddle is also called a palette, a useful surface for mixing colors of encaustic medium. For safety, purchase a flat, surface thermometer that gives a reading directly from the griddle surface (available from R & F Handmade Paints). Wooden clothespins can be clipped onto the cans to assist you in rearranging your palette. No need to get high tech here!

The pigment stick and encaustic medium together is known as encaustic paint. Pigment in powder form can also be used to make paint but the added danger of having airborne pigment particles is not worth the trouble for most photographers working in encaustic.

The palette with colors

How big a chunk of pigment stick is combined with how much encaustic medium? Here’s one of the great things about encaustic. You can create color having a range of transparency from deeply opaque to a light tint, simply by adding more clear encaustic medium.

Now that you understand how to make medium in a variety of colors and transparencies, there are delightfully easy ways to paint shapes and areas. Masking refers to covering areas, keeping them free of paint. Blue painter’s tape (from the home improvement store) adheres nicely to the waxy surface, masking off areas of your art piece. Use this “tape mask” to color half of a board or place two strips close together to make tiny stripes. It’s up to you!

Stencils are removable objects or sheets with open areas that can be painted to form patterns. They can be made of plastic, tape, cardboard or other materials such as lace or netted drywall tape. For best results, the encaustic surface should be smooth, without texture and the stencil should be pushed into the wax to form a seal. Sometimes it’s helpful to coat the back of the stencil with spray adhesive to help it cling to the wax. After the encaustic paint is applied, the new surface is fused briefly with the heat gun before the stencil form is removed. This keeps the design edges from being destroyed by the fusing process.

Layers of Images

Painting a color using a masked area

So what happened to the “photo” part of Photo Encaustic? In Part I, we attached the photo directly to a board and built the piece from the photo upward. Actually, photos can be added at any point in the creation of a piece−the bottom, the middle or the top layers. This layering effect allows for intriguing combinations of overlapping images or a glimpse of old letters, postcards or other ephemera.

The key to successful photo layering is to print photos onto porous substrates that allow wax to travel through the material. Handmade Japanese papers such as Gampi or Mulberry can be purchased in a thickness heavy enough to easily go through an inkjet printer.

Be sure you are using papers that have NOT been coated for inkjet printing. Most high tech inkjet surfaces are made to prevent ink from traveling into the paper. It’s this feature that keeps digital fine art papers from allowing wax to permeate the paper. Most of these will not work well for encaustic.

Exceptions to this rule are the cotton and silk inkjet materials by Jacquard. Both fabrics make a beautiful print and when the paper backing is removed according to the directions, images can be waxed into an encaustic piece with no problem.

Using netting as a stencil

Images can appear to be floating in an art piece without showing any evidence of paper edges by printing on extremely thin, porous paper. An inexpensive yet strong printing material is interleaving tissue, usually used to protect photographs during storage. Although being a printing paper isn’t its intended purpose, the extremely thin sheet is archival and available in many sizes. It must be taped onto another piece of paper as a carrier when going through the inkjet printer.

With any of these materials, the method is the same. The printed image on paper or cloth is laid onto the wax surface of the encaustic piece and a brush full of hot wax is stroked over the surface. Then the layer is briefly heated or “fused” using a heat gun.

(Almost) Anything Goes in Collage

Do you have copies of your Grandma’s diary or your Uncle’s enlistment (or commitment!) papers? Combine them with photography to expand a photo project. It’s advisable to photograph the precious pages and print them using an archival inkjet printer just as you would print photographs.

Incorporating collage elements with photography

Collage refers to the putting together in an assemblage a variety of objects in order to make a new form. Photos and old letters blend well and there are other possibilities including lace and textiles, decorative papers, newspaper clippings and more. Botanicals can also be layered into an encaustic piece if the flower or plant is perfectly dry.

Adding Texture and Dimension

Encaustic can build roughness on a surface using brushstrokes to make interesting textures. These effects can be created in certain areas such as along the edges and corners or specifically placed to enhance the visual impact of the piece. It’s easy to do. Simply load your natural bristle brush with hot encaustic medium, give it a second or two to cool and vigorously brush it back and forth over the area to be textured. The wax is deposited onto the piece with one stroke and then raises with the back and forth motion.

Take care when you fuse with the heat gun because the texture can melt away. Only apply heat until there is a slight sheen on the wax. That’s enough fusing to unite the wax with your new texture.

Brushing wax onto an image layer

Textured areas are not your only option. Adding wax to the photograph’s subject can augment certain images. For example, the bark of a tree can show intriguing dimensions when wax is applied with a small brush, following the contours of the tree patterns. If too much wax is applied, simply use a pottery tool scraper or needle to give your piece some finesse. Enrich the texture by adding a touch of pigment stick, rubbing the color into the creases of the wax.

Paper Works and Encaustic

Most encaustic art uses a wooden panel or board as a rigid support to keep the hardened wax from bending and cracking. Fortunately, this isn’t the only option.

Some photographers are now using paper as the primary support, dipping images in encaustic wax and carefully displaying the “waxed” paper by hanging the piece using magnets or pins. The light traveling through the encaustic paper glows with a translucency that enriches the imagery.

Artists creating dipped and waxed papers retain some flexibility by modifying the encaustic medium to contain a higher percentage of beeswax to the damar resin. The softer wax allows the paper to bend without cracking, opening up some creative encaustic possibilities for book art.

A Few Gentle Reminders

Braided Girl

It’s always best to review safety concerns. Good ventilation is extremely important when encaustic medium is heated. Carcinogenic substances can be released by the wax, therefore place the hot wax near an open window with a fan to move the fumes away from the work area.

Heat guns are hot and cool very slowly. Take care when handling your tools to prevent burning yourself or others. Many color pigments are harmful if ingested or if exposed to a break in your skin. Wear disposable gloves whenever you handle pigment.

A Shared Inspiration

It’s easy to become immune to the constant refrain from photography experts saying “anything is possible” and “you are only limited by your imagination.” Sometimes in today’s digital world, our limitations can take the form of a lack of Photoshop skill or having no time to maneuver through a steep learning curve.

Working with encaustic brings the very same thrill felt by artists throughout the ages−a row of cans holding a mix of good colors, some brushes and the desire to create—it makes art seem so delightfully simple.

Resources: Encaustic Medium (available premixed with 1 part Damar Resin to 8 parts beeswax, Pigment Sticks in several colors-; Low tack artist’s tape-; Archival Tissue-; Cotton or Silk Inkjet Fabric Sheets by Jacquard-; Gampi or Mulberry Japanese papers-

Other supplies: wooden panel or birch plywood; linseed oil; waxed paper for a clean work surface or silicon cooking mats; vinyl gloves; small metal containers (cat food or tuna cans); Ephemera for collage (postcards, letters, etc.); natural bristle paintbrushes (1 in wide one for every color used); stencils; blue painter’s tape. 

About the Author

Jill Skupin Burkholder
Jill Skupin Burkholder is an artist-photographer whose work includes handcrafted techniques, walking the line between painting and photography. Her bromoil prints and encaustic work are included in public and private collections. Jill lives at the base of the Catskill Mountains in New York with her husband, digital pioneer Dan Burkholder. You can learn more about her photo encaustic workshops and images at