The Touch of Wax
A pivotal moment came years ago when I spotted what seemed to be a large dark silhouette of a tree shining through a window-shaped opening in a South Beach hotel lobby. Like someone in an old movie looking across the room and falling recklessly in love, I was spellbound. It was a photographic art piece by Doug and Mike Starn. Its luminescent detail was something new−and the light passing through the tree was mesmerizing. “I think it’s wax,” said my all-knowing husband at my side. I wanted to know more.
History of Encaustic
Encaustic painting, or simply “encaustic,” is a technique that uses beeswax and damar resin as a medium to create paintings or mixed media photography. The “caustic” part of the term indicates that heat is used to melt and blend the layers of wax into a unified piece. The encaustic look is sensual and inviting; the warmth of its layers calls to be touched like soft skin or a treasured object beautifully encapsulated. Photographers often mix old and new technologies, working with classic chemical methods or digitally mimicking the look of historical prints. Working with encaustic, you travel down the history’s timeline, past photography’s birth and enter the dawn of painting and the decorative arts.
In ancient Greece, ship hulls were waterproofed with beeswax and tinted with brightly colored pigments. In 800 B.C., Homer writes of painted warships sailing into Troy. Hundreds of encaustic paintings exist in the form of the Fayum funerary portraits painted on wooden masks that adorned the deceased, leav- ing their realistic portrayal in pigmented wax. These nature-based materials from B.C. times are surprisingly consistent with those found in an encaustic workroom today.
Contemporary encaustic flaunts some well-known names such as Diego Rivera in Mexico working on murals in the 1920’s and Jasper Johns, beginning in 1954, using encaustic to paint intricate textures and layering in his iconic numbers and American flags.
Painters still comprise the largest group of encaustic practitioners and their methods do not always include imagery in a way that is helpful to photographers. The recent popularity of combining photography with wax has encouraged photographers to learn encaustic techniques utilizing archival materials, ensuring the permanence of an encaustic piece.
Photographers with different creative viewpoints can experiment with photo encaustic using a range of methods:
1. Brushing a smooth coating over an image, this application of a translucent wax surface gives interest and depth.
2. Altering the photo by applying textures ranging from mild scratching and aging effects to heavy sculptural forms. Adding multiple layers of wax on sections of the image gives dimension and character (adding ridges to bark on a tree, for example). Color, too, can be applied, multiplying the possibilities for personal expression.
3. Using the transparency of wax by allowing light to pass through an image or collaging several images together. A variety of objects like old letters, textiles and other interesting ephemera can also be layered into a piece. Best of all, any encaustic layer is instantly cool to the touch and infinitely removable. Creatively changing your mind is just a quick scrape away. Hallelujah! Let’s begin with the simplest of encaustic looks−the smooth surface with just a touch of shading and aging.
• Encaustic medium (available premixed with one part Damar resin to eight parts beeswax)
• Payne’s Gray pigment stick or graphite for shading
• Linseed oil
• Waxed paper for a clean work surface. Silicon cooking mats are handy, too.
• Vinyl gloves
• Electric skillet with a temperature dial
• Natural bristle brush
• Scraping tools (pottery and ceramics tools work well)
• Heat gun (the type used for paint removal)
• Birch plywood or cradled wooden panel
• Blue painter’s tape
• Matte medium
• An inkjet image printed on uncoated paper or on a limited number of pretested inkjet papers like Red River Polar Matte. Most matte canvas materials work, too, if glued to the board and not stretched.
1. Using an appropriate paper or canvas, print an inkjet print slightly larger than your wooden panel.
2. Spread Matte Medium on the back of the inkjet print and place the wooden panel face down on the matte medium (glue) surface. Let the print extend a bit past the edge of the board for best results. Place weight on the panel and let it dry overnight (a stack of heavy photography books works great) (Figures 1, 2).
3. Trim the image overage by placing the board face down on a cutting mat and cutting with a razor blade (Figure 3). Apply blue painter’s tape around the sides of the panel to keep clean.
4. Melt encaustic medium in an electric skillet set to about 190 degrees. Make sure the natural bristle brush is heated, too. Keep all hot wax in a well–ventilated area. Keep the lid on the skillet as much as possible to reduce the amount of wax fumes in the air. Brush one layer of hot encaustic medium onto the surface of the print (Figure 4).
5. Set the heat gun on low and apply heat over the entire surface, keeping the gun perpendicular to the print and moving in a small, quick, circular motions. Think in terms of a postage stamp size area. When the surface develops a brief shine, the fusing is complete. Tiny air bubbles will come to the surface looking like small pinholes. Keep applying heat if you want them to disappear (Figure 5).
6. Repeat with a second wax layer including a second fusing step.
7. Decide on the thickness of the wax. You can add as many layers as needed if each layer is properly fused each time. The cloudy look will partially clear if the panel is placed into a freezer for 20 minutes. Rigorous polishing of the print with a soft rag between coats will help preserve some clarity and detail as well.
8. Use the scraping tools to make slight marks in the wax. Wearing gloves, rub a small amount of pigment stick into the scratches. Fuse lightly to keep the scratches from melting. A tiny bit of linseed oil on a paper towel can help you work with the pigment, moving it where you want it to be (Figures 6-7). Use the heat gun again to carefully fuse the pigment. Remove the protective blue tape from the sides and you have a true work of art!
9. After the pigment dries for a few days, buff the art piece with a soft cloth to remove any cloudiness or wax “bloom” you may notice on the surface. This can continue to form as long as six months after the piece is finished. Complex wax molecules rise from within the layers up to the top surface and cause clouding.
Tips for Creative Success
• Encaustic medium should be heated or “fused” after each layer is added.
• Materials should be wax permeable for the best results. Many inkjet materials are coated to keep the ink on the surface. This characteristic is NOT a plus in the world of wax. All layers should blend into one fused art piece to keep the wax from flaking off.
• To test a new paper, glue it to a board to dry, apply the encaustic medium, fuse and place in the freezer for 20 minutes. Then throw the board onto the ground to see if it cracks. Really! Watch your toes!
• Either fill the entire board with the image or place the image to one side or the other. A small, centered print is compositionally static and difficult to take to another creative level.
• For the technically adventurous photographer (one who loves to try new things), it’s not easy to know when the encaustic technique enhances the work and when it detracts from the image. This might take some practice and restraint.
• Think archival. Use methods that add imagery printed with current, archival-pigmented inks. Limit the use of laser toner transfers (a common method for adding images to encaustic).
This begins the tour of encaustic’s creative potential. Part Two will present ways of adding more color, using stencils and masks, adding collage elements and demonstrating wax-on-paper works not limited to a wooden panel.
Why add another photo technique to our harried photo lives? Because encaustic presents a new approach. Too often photo methods have a very linear sequence: capture, process, print or develop, fix, wash. How refreshing to add an activity with a multi dimensional feeling. Encaustic layers stack upward, sometimes are scraped down only to build again. It’s a beguiling process that stirs some rusty corners of our creative spirits.
And, of course, there’s the touch−the feel of the wax surface brushed and buffed by your own hands. Digital prints that seem to lack personal expression and craft can be transformed with encaustic. It can elevate images−whether from iPhone or hi-res DSLR− and transport them from fleeting pixels to an ethereal, translucent masterpiece. How great is that!
Be safe with good ventilation. Heated wax can release carcinogenic compounds. Good encaustic practice keeps the temperature within a safe temperature with the airflow pulling fumes away from the work surface. R&F Paints (see Resources List) has a Tech Sheet on their website about how to ventilate for encaustic work.
Remember that the heat gun tip stays hot long after it’s turned off. If you accidently drop the gun, don’t try to catch it.
Resources: Encaustic medium, pigment sticks & encaustic tools: R&F Handmade Paints-rfpaints.com; Cradled wooden panels, Matte Medium & pottery tools: Utrecht Art Supplies-utrechtart.com; Polar Matte inkjet paper: Red River Paper-redrivercatalog.com