Photo Encaustic Images

Backlight and Displays

By Michael Mirabito Back to

Michael Mirabito, photo encaustic A photograph with and without backlight, illustrating the visual impact of backlight and encaustic medium.

Photo encaustic is the process of combining a photograph with encaustic medium and paint. More importantly, though, is the manner in which the encaustic medium actually transforms a photograph, the paper it’s printed on and the interaction with backlight.

An Introduction
Encaustic medium is beeswax mixed with damar resin. Add pigment, and you have encaustic paint. Encaustic painting has existed for centuries. You create or build up a painting by layering melted encaustic medium and paint. An important part of the painting process is using heat, typically produced by a heat gun or torch, to fuse the layers. After you apply a new layer of blue, let’s say, for the sky in a painting, you fuse or bond the layers together with heat. You continue this process, adding layers and fusing, until the painting is completed.

Encaustic paintings have a marvelous feeling of depth and luminosity. They are also very durable and can last for centuries. A piece is also generally hung without framing it with glass. Part of a painting’s beauty lies in the exposed surface.

Photo encaustic extends this process to our field. In one application, an image is printed on non-glossy matte paper and is subsequently brushed with, or is dipped in, a pool of melted encaustic medium. Much like creating a traditional encaustic painting, you can then add color, incise or cut lines in the wax for filling with colored paint or add materials to create a collage.

There is a wealth of information about encaustic painting and the photo encaustic process. Of particular note is R&F Paints. R&F is a major manufacturer and force in the field, and the company’s web site has information about encaustic products, painting and associated safety/health issues.

Michael Mirabito, photo encaustics, photo technique, photo mags
A sandwich of two photographs. The first illustration is not backlit; the second one is, showing color through the black & white top photograph. Note that encaustic medium can also visually soften a photograph’s appearance.

Painting with Light
I became more interested in encaustic medium’s transformational properties after I dipped a photograph of a pipe organ in a wax bath. The picture consists of a bright central area surrounded by black, empty space. As the wax was drying, I held the picture up to sunlight to check the wax coating’s evenness. But what caught my attention was the photograph’s luminosity and translucence. The image visually popped off the page. This prompted me to focus on these two qualities and the interaction with backlight, instead of using a photograph for a collage or other work. After a lot more dipping and playing with the wax, this led to other observations:

1. Since the wax makes a print translucent, you can use backlight, such as natural room light hitting a photograph’s back, for different effects. In one application, you can sandwich two identical photographs. When backlit, this combination has added depth, density and luminosity.

2. In a variation, sandwich two identical photographs, but one printed in black & white and the other in color. Place the black & white photograph in front. Without backlighting, the picture looks like a conventional black & white shot. With back- lighting, the color emerges to varying degrees, depending on the light’s intensity.

3. Photographs with broad light and dark areas tend to visually pop more than other images. But you may lose some subtle grey tones if the backlight is too bright, particularly for a single, non-sandwiched print.

4. A mat with a photograph can enhance the effect of light. When printing, leave a large white border around the print. Next, cut the mat wider than normal to expose the border.

5. You can use color gels or filters, including those designed for video productions, to tint a black & white photograph. Cut the filter to the size of the photograph, tape it to a second mat, and sandwich the two mats with the photograph in front. When backlit, the photograph appears tinted. To try another effect, simply use a different filter.

Similarly, in place of a colored filter, diffusion tissue can soften the light hitting a photograph. The light’s intensity can also be reduced by placing a blank waxed piece of paper behind the print. You’re controlling and coloring light, much as you would when shooting a person or object in a studio.

6. To care for a photograph, use the precautions that you would with a standard print, such as avoiding extended exposure to direct sunlight. You can also buff the front of a photograph with a soft lint free cloth if the surface appears to dull over time.

7. This application of encaustic medium is pretty straightforward. The art comes into play by selecting the photographs and deciding how you want to use them. Visually speaking, you’ll also discover that some pictures work better than others with this process.

Finally, it’s important to note that a photograph treated with encaustic medium can also be viewed in a conventional manner, without backlighting. The image can exhibit the same qualities that make an encaustic painting beautiful. The back- lighting, though, when married to the way encaustic medium transforms a photograph and the paper, opens up new creative possibilities.

Michael Mirabito, photo encaustics
A photograph with a wider border. Also note the photograph was taken in natural room light. Since the light level was pretty low, the mat appears brown in color while it is actually off white. But because of the effect of the backlight, the image is still brightly illuminated.

Framing and Mounting
Encaustic paintings and photographs are hung in different ways, some framed and some not. But since backlighting is important for this process, I wanted a system that would allow either natural light or a gallery’s light to fully hit a photograph’s back. In addition, the system should:

• Work with filters and other media as tinting agents.
• Be easy to set up and take down.
• Handle one or multiple photographs
• Work as an installation piece in a gallery or in your living room.
• Be cost-effective.

Michael Mirabito, photo encaustics
The effect of placing a filter behind a waxed photograph. The color is selected to highlight the effect. More subtle shades can also be used.

After trying different methods, I came back full circle and use a standard black metal frame, but without the Plexiglas/glass front and back mounting board. The photograph is matted and held in the frame through standard framing clips. This combination weighs very little. Small but powerful magnets subsequently attach the frame to a stand. While the frame may be non-magnetic, the coupling pieces generally are. Check your particular framing system before you begin. Be careful when using the magnets; they can catch or pinch your skin if they snap together.

The stand is metal, approximately 78″ tall when fully extended, with a black matte finish. Actually designed to hold body forms, as in clothing stores, it is fairly heavy duty and costs only $16 per unit. It does tilt slightly forward, but two inexpensive felt pads placed under the stand’s base readily compensate for this tilt.

You can customize an operation, depending on the frame size and the magnets’ strength. My photographs tend to be of a small size, and four 12-3/4″ x10-1/4″ framed prints can be mounted. Larger frames are also accommodated.

I set up a stand in my living room to test it. It has held up well, minus the occasional bump and rattling of frames. But the part I enjoy the most is watching the photographs change in sync with the changing room light. In the case of a black and white and color combination, the top print looks black and white in the early morning, the color shows through as the light picks up, and it returns to black and white as the sun sets.

Michael Mirabito, photo encaustics
The finished product: a stand with attached photographs and frames. The stand is raised off the floor to show the base. The frames are attached to the stand using magnets.

The applications discussed here only touch the surface of future possibilities. For example, I recently started playing with a DMX lighting system to create the effect of changing light levels in a gallery or room without natural light. Analogous to MIDI, DMX is a control system or protocol that ties con- troller boards to lights and other products. A second stand, situated behind the photographs, holds a series of LED lights. The lights, which throw off a white light with little heat, are connected to the DMX controller. You can set the controller to fade the lights in and out at preset times to continuously vary the light level.

Ultimately, as a photographer, I think a great part of the enjoyment of exploring encaustic techniques has been twofold: tapping a centuries old art form for contemporary use and having access to another tool to manipulate and use light with your work.

Learning Resources:
There are numerous books, DVDs and classes/workshops that cover encaustic painting, photography and related applications. These include:
· Encaustic Workshop: Artistic Techniques for Working with Wax, by Particia Seggebruch.
· The Art of Encaustic Painting, by Joanne Mattera.
· Embracing Encaustic: Learning to Paint with Beeswax, by Linda & William Womack.
· Encaustic with a Textile Sensibility, by Daniella Wolff. (DVD)
· Thinking Outside of the Box: Photo Encaustic, by Barbara Smith. (DVD).

The International Encaustic Artists organization (www. is a non-profit group specializing in encaustic works and there are a growing number of workshops covering photo encaustic techniques, including a joint workshop sponsored by R&F Paints and The Center for Photography ( To find a workshop near where you live, search online for photo encaustic workshop. Individual artists photographers also hold classes, including Jill Skupin Burkholder (www.jill-

Resources: Encaustic Manufacturers & Vendors: R&F Paints – www., Enkaustikos –, Dick Blick Art Materials –, Jerry’s Artarama –; Other: Rare Earth Magnets –, Stands –

About the Author

Michael Mirabito
Michael Mirabito is a professor in the Communication Arts Department of Marywood University, Scranton, PA. Since 2005 his photography has been exhibited nationally. He is coauthor of The New Communications Technologies, 1st – 5th editions (2000 – 2004) for Focal Press and is author of The Exploration of Outer Space with Cameras: A History of the NASA Unmanned Spacecraft Missions, McFarland Press, Inc., 1983.