I’ve always been fascinated by encaustic art and the eerie, soft look of it. All those layers of wax are incredibly intriguing, and up until recently, were a complete mystery to me as to how they were created.
Just to give you an example, here’s a close-in detail of an encaustic piece entitled Fire Divided by encaustic artist and teacher Shawna Moore. Amazing, isn’t it? So smoky and soft, and textured!
For those of you not already familiar with encaustic painting, you should know it’s a spontaneous medium where hot wax is applied to wood panels. It is typically layered to create more opaque, or more translucent effects, and can be combined with colored wax or collage materials (like photos or paper). Each layer of wax can also be scraped, textured or polished for a variety of finishes.
The possibilities are endless—encaustic paintings can be abstract or realistic, subtle or bold—and the wax itself is enormously sensual. It’s really all about incorporating your own style into this wonderful medium.
So, when I saw a class offered by the fabulous encaustic artist Shawna Moore from Whitefish, Montana, I signed right up. The materials list is below—you’ll need most of these items if you plan on making your own encaustic painting today!
Now here’s what I learned from Shawna on how to get started with encaustic painting:
1. Melt your wax
The wax is prepared by melting “encaustic medium” into a hot plate, until it is liquid. (R&F Paints suggests a temperature for encaustic medium between 170 and 200 degrees F). What type of wax to use is a discussion in itself, so for the sake of getting you up and running quickly, I recommend you just use “encaustic medium” which is wax and damar resin mixed together.
Here is Shawna Moore preparing her wax in a hot plate.
You can use transparent or opaque wax, depending on the effect you’re going for. And, you might even want to have one hot plate of each, so you can experiment with both. For example, if you’d like to collage papers or photos into your wax and have them show up clearly, you can use the transparent wax. For a more subtle, hazy effect, try the opaque wax. You can even go back and forth.
2. Brush on your wax
With your wax completely melted, go ahead and brush your first layer onto your encaustic board (or plain wooden panel). At this point, just familiarize yourself with the medium, and play with the wax as you put it on the board. See how it behaves. Brushing on the warm, aromatic, buttery wax is an experience to enjoy all by itself!
As you lay down your first layer of wax, keep in mind that encaustic artwork is typically comprised of several layers of thin wax. Make sure that the wax AND the brush remain hot, so you can brush on a thin layer at a time. Keeping each successive surface warm is also key in getting the layers to hold together.
3. Start collaging in elements
Begin laying down your collage materials between layers of wax, such as a dried flower, or piece of newspaper. A sheet of music, or an old family photo can also be marvelous.
Remember that whatever you put down first will be more deeply buried in the wax layers, and not show up as well as the items you layer in towards the top. You can create different effects depending on where you place your papers.
Here is my first attempt at layering photos and papers into encaustic medium:
4. Fuse each additional layer of wax
A very important part of encaustic painting is fusing the wax layers. Each time you put a layer of wax down, you will fuse the wax, gently, with a heat gun. Using a heat gun takes some practice, but essentially you’ll want to “brush” a low flame back and forth over the entire board. This creates a bond between the layers of wax, smoothing over any uneven texture.
You’ll eventually discover your own style of fusing, but just remember that when you start out, fusing takes a lot of attention! Be sure to set a metal plate below your encaustic board when fusing, so that you won’t damage or burn the table that you’re working on. Also, have a fire extinguisher at hand and be sure that any scraps of flammable paper have been moved off the table as well.
5. Scrape, scratch, and texturize
Once you get some layers down, it’s fun to play with creating designs or textures in the wax by scratching or scraping it with any sort of sharp objects. Have fun experimenting! You can make patterns, or make abstract lines. There are many ready made tools as well.
Here’s a wild looking tool for texturizing encaustic wax:
Of course, you can use anything at all that you have lying around, which might create an interesting imprint or texture.
6. And this is just the beginning. . .
There are many more techniques to play with as you learn encaustic painting. These include using colored waxes, rubbing in small amounts of oil paint, and much more. (If you’d like, you can see some of Shawna’s techniques on her website, here.)
Once you have your first board complete, scrape the wax off the edges with a flat razor blade, and VOILA, you have your first encaustic work of art—congratulations!
As you move forward into the world of encaustic painting, be sure to incorporate your own artistic voice into the process. The wax medium is only part of the expression. The real magic of encaustics is letting your style flow through those layers of wax, floating up through the surface so all can see it.
Special thanks to both Kellie Day and Shawna Moore for their contributions to this article. Please visit either of their websites to see more of their fantastic work.