|Making Encaustic Medium
I fell in love with encaustic paintings the first time I saw one hanging. There was just something about the work... The luminosity, the transparency, the brilliance. It was unlike anything that I had ever seen before. I knew I had to try it and once I did, I was hooked.
The expense of ready-made encaustic paints and mediums can be a bit prohibitive, though. So, I decided to start making my own. It really isn't that difficult, and it costs a lot less than buying it does. Besides that, it is actually kind of fun!
First of all, Let's take a moment to look at the different kinds of waxes available to us, and what is best for different applications. There are a lot of different types of waxes out there, but for our purposes, we only need to look at two- Beeswax and Paraffin.
Beeswax is of course a natural product. It is, of course, made by bees! It is the most popular wax used in encaustic painting, and will be the basic material used in the encaustic medium that we will be making later. It can be used as is, without modification, but we will make a few changes to it that will make it easier to work with and more suited to use as an art material.
All beeswax is not the same! Natural beeswax right from the hive will have a golden brown color to it, and a lot of impurities, such as bug parts, plant parts, etc in it. It is filtered to remove the impurities, and then further filtered through smaller and smaller filters to remove the color. Pure beeswax is a translucent white color. The color can also be removed by either chemical or solar bleaching, though wax that has been bleached chemically may yellow again later.
Beeswax also comes in a variety of different forms. You can get it in huge blocks, smaller 'ingots', shaved pieces, or pellets. Though they are a bit more expensive, I really prefer the pellets, as they are a lot easier to work with. I use a cosmetic grade, white, filtered wax almost exclusively. It runs about $10-$15 a pound, depending on where you get it from and how much you order.
Paraffin wax is a petroleum product. It is much harder than beeswax, and must be treated differently, as it is prone to cracking. It can be used for artwork, but generally you will see it reserved for more sculptural pieces. One big advantage is that it is a lot less expensive- $1 - $3 or so a pound.
There are other waxes out there, but for the most part they are only used in encaustics as additives. We won't even bother with them for now.
You don't need much to make encaustic medium- The basic 'stuff' is made from Beeswax, and Damar resin. The damar resin comes in crystal form, and is actually hardened tree sap. You can get it from larger art supply stores. I want to stress that damar resin is not the same thing as damar varnish, and the two are not interchangeable- You need damar crystals.
Here is what you are going to need
We should probably touch on safety a bit here before we proceed. It is CRITICAL that you use a double boiler when you melt the wax. Beeswax has a flash point around 470 degrees or so, and at NO POINT should you allow the wax to come anywhere near this temperature. If you do, it will burst into flames, spattering hot flaming wax all over. Water boils at 212 degrees, and takes a long time to get much hotter, so the double boiler will give you a nice safety blanket to work with. Make sure you have a fire extinguisher handy- splashing water on the fire will only cause the wax to spatter, worsening the problem.
Also, the materials that we are working with are not really all that toxic, but it is still best to reserve the tools used only for encaustic- And never try to cook with them again. You won't be able to get all the wax off- ever- so do yourself a favor and stop by the thrift shop to pick up some pots and pans that you can 'dedicate' to encaustic work. Stainless steel is the prefered material, as it is non reactive.
Keep in mind that you are going to be dealing with hot wax that will burn you if you get it on your skin. It also sticks while it cools- so it will stay right one your skin while it burns away. Be close to a source of cool water, in case you need to get to it in a hurry. Wear Long pants and long sleeves.
The process is relatively easy. You melt the wax, add the damar, and pour it into individual pans to cool. The recipe that I start with is one part damar to eight parts wax- This is a starting point, but you can experiment to get the ratio that works best for your 'style' of painting. The more damar, the harder the wax will be in the end. Adding more resin also raises the working temperature of the medium a little bit. Don't add too much- as the medium will be brittle. I usually use a gram scale to weigh out the materials first, and have them ready to go.
I use a mortar and pestle to grind my damar into a fine powder so it melts better, but if you don't have access to one, you can put it in a few plastic bags and give it a few good whacks with a hammer.
Once I get the double boiler up to temperature, I add a small amount of wax to it to melt, as seen on the left. The wax will melt at about 140-150 degrees. Let it melt, then allow the temp to increase gradually. Note the thermometer probe- The digital thermometer I use has a remote readout, and an alarm on it, so I can set it to beep at me at whatever temp I choose.
The damar will need to be brought somewhere over 200 degrees before it will melt- the stuff I am using now melts around 204 degrees or so. Use your thermometer to keep an eye on things- once it gets up to around 200, I add the powdered damar, as seen to the right.
I never let mine get over 250 degrees.
Stir the wax as it melts, then slowly stir in the Damar, until it is melted into the wax.
You can see the Damar 'clumps' in the shot to the left- It is not hot enough yet (only about 190 at this point). You need to keep heating it until the clumps disappear. It will also stick to your stirring tool, as seen to the right, until it has melted completely. Keep going until there are no more clumps.
Once the Damar is evenly distributed through the wax, add the remainder of the beeswax slowly, stirring all the time, until it is all melted together.
Then, pour it into the cups or pans that you have ready to accept it. I use small muffin pan liners or paper candy cups, and try to pour a consistent amount in each one. That way, I can make up color 'recipies' later, using a pre-known amount of encaustic medium.
Set these aside and let them cool. You now have encaustic medium ready to use! You can use it straight, as is, if all you want is translucent wax, or you can add pigments if you want color.
You are probably going to have some impurities in the medium, depending on the damar and wax that you use. You can see them in the pic on the left- they are bits of plant material that were in the Damar crystals. I find that most of the impurities either float to the top of the medium, or sink to the bottom. Usually, the last cup that you pour, or the 'dregs' in the bottom of the pan, are where most of the impurities will be. My medium is usually pretty clean, but you can pour it through a filter (cheesecloth or coffee filter) if it bothers you.
There are a variety of ways to add pigments. Some people use dry powdered pigments, which work quite well, but are a hassle to work with. If you go this route, make sure you know how to handle the pigments, and use respiratory protection, as they are very fine powders and many of them are actually quite toxic.
I prefer using oil paints to pigment my medium. They do tend to soften the encaustic a bit, and it is advisable to get as much oil out of the paints as possible before you add the pigments. I put the paint on a small piece of oil absorbent material (sold at auto shops and boating supply stores to clean up spilled oil) for a while until the oil is leeched out of it. You can also do this with paper towels, although it isn't quite as effective.
I have also added the paint straight from the tubes, it results in a slightly softer final product, but it does work if you are in a hurry.
There is a lot more to be said about adding pigment, so much more that it deserves another article.