Should Wax be our Driving Force?

Many artists having exhibitions use the word Encaustic in their title such as “Encaustic Show”, “Show of Encaustic Paintings,” “Wax Art”, “Encaustic Works,”  “Encaustic: Rebirth of an Ancient Medium,”  “Encaustic Juried Show, 2017”, etc   All of these titles focus on techniques, medium and processes used by the artists.    Where are the interesting  titles or themes for these  shows that focus on the content of the works?    In Facebook groups I see a painting posted by an artist and the title is “Encaustic on Panel?  Does the painting have no title?  Or I hear  Encaustic Artist or Wax Artist as descriptors.   Are  we not artists who  have something to say through our works and not just technicians using molten pigmented wax as a painting medium?

Then I hear such confusions over using Encaustic in our written and verbal conversations.  Shouldn’t I say I am a painter using Encaustic as a process because I paint with pigmented beeswax and use a heat source to burn the top layer to the one below.  As Ralph Mayer explains in his Artist’s Handbook in the section on Encaustic “The word encaustic comes from Greek and means to burn in, which refers to the process of fusing the paint.”    Is there such a thing as Encaustic Paint?   If Encaustic is a process then can it also be encaustic paint?   Aren’t we using pigmented beeswax as paint on panel in the same way as an oil painter would use oil paint?     And what about using encaustic(s) plural?  Do artists use many encaustics?  When I hear an artist say that he or she uses encaustic on panel, I assume that the painter is using a specific process such as a heat source to liquify the wax and a heat gun or torch to burn in each layer of wax.  When I hear  a photographer using beeswax over their photographs and calling their work Encaustic I question whether they are  layering coloured beeswax and fusing  with a heat source.  Can they call their works encaustic if they are adding a final layer of beeswax as a covering to alter the photograph?

Encaustic as a process has been around since the 5th century B.C. In the 1st-2nd century  A.D the Greeks and then the Egyptians used Encaustic to paint their Fayum funeral portraits.  In the 20th century  Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, Martin Kline, Linda Benglis, Michael David, and Joanne Mattera have painted or are still painting with pigmented wax.  When they talk or write about their work they did/do not focus on the medium.   They talk about the intent for their works in relation to the ways they use the elements and principles of design.  When I went to Michael David’s talk at the International Encaustic Conference I left knowing more about the artists’ ideas and why they used Encaustic as their process.  But I was not given a talk on techniques and processes or ways to use wax.  As a community of artists, painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers, etc. shouldn’t we first focus on  the intent of the work and then the techniques and materials and not be driven only by wax?

I would love to hear your views so please leave comments.


Back to the Basics: The Elements of Design

For13 years at California State University in Sacramento I taught students how to use media, techniques, tools, and the elements of design (which are line, shape, form, texture, colour, value and space) before creating “finished” artworks. Once students had confidence with the elements of art, their art making tools and a variety of art media, then he or she tackled a personal style of painting or sculpting to explore specific topics or ideas. I designed curriculum materials with a focus on sequential learning through skill building steps.   Since I am learning a new medium, I have decided to go back to the basics and use my sequential learning step-by-step packets and connect those ideas with encaustic art.  Then, after exploring each element of design and practicing the variety of encaustic technical processes, I will pick a theme and explore this theme through larger encaustic artworks.

 Elements of Design: The language used for all art works

Week 1: Line

Week 2. Shape

Week 3. Color

Week 4 Form/Value

Week 5 Texture

Week 6 Space

 So, for example, in week one I will create a picture with just lines and use different drawing, painting and sculptural surfaces when creating lines. Then, I will pick encaustic tools and wax coloured media to reproduce the drawings on small 8” X 8” birch panels. Finally, my culminating artwork will focus on line with encaustic media. This process will be repeated for shape, colour, form/value, texture and space.  

 After reading two books “Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide to Creating Fine Art with Wax” by Lissa Rankin and the “Encaustic Studio: A Wax Workshop in Mixed-Media Art” by Daniella Wolf; looking at many encaustic artworks on the internet; and visiting some great website blogs on Encaustic, I have narrowed down the following techniques that I would like to learn and eventually incorporate one-by-one into my final studies. This list is in no particular order. I hope to complete all of them by the end of the 6 weeks.

  1. Embedding images and objects into the wax such as buttons, seed beads, etc.
  2. Painting on different paper surfaces such as tissue paper, cartridge paper, napkins, tracing paper, etc and glue and wax these to the panel.
  3. Using Photo transfer techniques.
  4. Incising into the wax.
  5. Building up relief with wax.
  6. Doing smooth surfaces with brushes and pouring the wax, and creating rough textural surfaces by altering the surface.
  7. Adding just smooth paper to the surface and then wax the surface to get a smooth ground. Fuse between the layers.
  8. Drawing images onto white paper surfaces  and using watercolor to finish the painting.   Cover with wax medium.
  9. Using plaster drywall compound and add stencils into the drywall. Use trowel tools, plastic cards, and incise lines into the wet compound.
  10. Making stencils and integrate the stencils into the medium. Repeating the steps by fusing in between the layers. Doing rubbings and prints and integrating them into the background.
  11. Layering with stamps and prints. Stamps that can be done on the white paper bottom layer and then continue with the different stamps using ink, or water-colour. Creating a sense of space with the background, foreground and middle ground.
  12. Fabric collage.   Using stitched pieces, or felted surfaces, etc. Waxing the surface once the collage is imbedded into the wax.
  13. Collaging papers such as tissue paper, wax papers, paper napkins, etc. fusing between the layers. Adding inks to the tissue papers first and then adding to the wax surfaces.
  14. Textural scoring and adding coldish wax onto the surface to keep layering with the wax. This texture can be done within smaller areas to contrast between areas that are smooth and others are textured.
  15. Transfers – drawing on paper, such as parchment paper, and transferring the image onto the surface of warmish wax. Also, using wax or parchment sheets of papers for transferring onto the surface. Use photocopy or laser printer to make the copy. Add the picture face down and burnish the back. Take water and pull the paper off the back after it has been soaking for a bit. Rub with finger until all of the white paper comes off.
  16. Building up layers with metal cookie cutters. Pour into the containers. Also incising line shapes with different metal cutter type tools and filling in with oil pastels.
  17. Simple printmaking techniques such as collaging leaf prints right on the pallet and then printing onto the surface of the substrate.
  18. Blocking out part of the painting with painter’s tape and then waxing over the areas where I want more wax and other areas with less wax.  Aim is get vibrancy within the painting and more areas of depth. Within each part demonstrate the blocking techniques.
  19. Cutting shapes out of the wax and putting images within the shapes


Mastering the Medium before Tackling the Message

I almost give up the encaustic process because I could not control the medium. I packed up all of my supplies and put them in a box and placed the box in the corner of my studio. I have been away from my studio this past week just thinking about the encaustic medium, techniques, themes to use, etc.  I can not get encaustic out of my mind and have been looking at other artists’ works, blogs and YouTube videos for ideas and inspirations.  (See my Pinterest page on Encaustic Adventures at

 I guess I am a control freak and want to control all of the steps and not let the medium become the message.    I am stubborn and want a glass surface and not bubbly or cloudy surfaces. I also do not want these pin holes imbedded in the wax.  When I see the wax distorting or clouding an image I just don’t like that result.   I have been looking for answers on the internet, books that I have on Encaustic and YouTube videos and have not found any answers explaining how to control the wax for different effects.   I do not want the wax to take over at this point.  I want the images to be the message and not the wax.  I did try to take my clay scraping tools, iron and my blades to scrape off the surface to get the results that I was looking for and I almost got a smooth surface on some.  The more I scraped and reloaded the surface with wax the more I had to scrape.   It was a vicious cycle.  The irony of all this – I have decided to not give up and  when I get back to my studio on Friday will take those supplies back out and set up the area to continue making encaustic artworks.  

I have come to the conclusion  to forget about getting these “finished” pieces and, instead, have made a list of techniques that I will attempt on small 8″ X 8″ birch plywood. I will explore one technique each week and end with a final product on a larger birch panel by the end of that week.  These samples will then be used as references.  So, over the next few weeks will take myself (and my blog readers) on an encaustic technique gathering journey and share the processes.   Hopefully, this journalling will help me keep on  track.  When I have finished my first technique I will explain the ups and downs of doing that technique and post a visual of the steps and the end product.    Your comments will be greatly appreciated.