An Illicit Affair with Hot Wax

Discovering the joys of encaustic painting.

Encaustic Painting
Encaustic Painting ©2006 Judi Morales

I'm having an affair. My husband knows about it and supports my indulgent new love. That's because my affair is with encaustic painting.

Over the years I've expressed my creativity in multiple ways; henna body art, jewelry making, and costume design. A few years ago, my job with Artista Creative Safaris for Women got me into painting abstracts in acrylic. From my very first session with instructor Lauryn Taylor, I was in love with acrylic. Literally, within weeks of my first workshop, I was showing and selling paintings in a community gallery. I'd have to say that acrylic was my first love.

While the honeymoon is certainly not over, I now find myself cheating on acrylic with my new favorite medium, encaustic. Even my acrylic mentor Lauryn has been seduced by this hot medium (pun intended). When she opened the show 'Hot Wax' at her gallery in Carmel, local artists and collectors were like giddy school girls. It seems an epidemic of encaustic-fever has begun in Carmel-by-the-Sea, and I've caught the bug.

The Irresistible Appeal of Encaustic Painting
So what is this irresistible medium? Encaustic paint is made from pure pigment and a mixture of molten beeswax and damar resin. The paint is applied hot with a variety of tool, then cools and hardens within seconds. The process is quite seductive, tactile, and sultry. Painting with hot wax results in a velvety matte finish, like the frosting on a donut.

The most amazing thing about encaustic, is the endless versatility. Multiple layers of paint and clear wax create overlapping color and amazing depth. The medium can be textured, scraped, incised, etched, combed, embossed, sculpted into three dimensional bits or smoothed to a glassy finish. The molten nature of the medium just begs to be used for collaging or imbedding mixed media into the wax. Since beeswax is compatible with oil paint, oil pigment sticks can be used to glaze in rich color or to fill in incised markings. I have even incorporated henna into my paintings; the possibilities are endless.

Encaustic Painting Is Older Than Oil Painting
Although it seems new, encaustic is actually one of the world's most ancient and archival painting mediums, predating oil paint. The Fayum portraits from Grego-Roman Egypt, circa 100 B.C. to 200 A.D., have survived through the centuries. Encaustic was a lost art until pioneer Jasper Johns began contemporary encaustic painting in 1954, exposing it to a new generation of artists.

Encaustic painting requires very particular materials and equipment like heat guns, blow torches, tacking irons, crock pots and electric griddles. New tools are constantly being discovered, so shopping in hardware and kitchen supply stores is downright titillating. Setting up an encaustic studio requires a commitment and it's imperative that you learn safety standards, so I highly recommend taking a workshop before buying that blow torch.

I was fortunate enough to learn encaustic from acclaimed instructor, William Harsh and from some of today's encaustic pioneers, Cari Hernandez, Rodney Thompson, and Lissa Rankin, who have each developed their own unconventional techniques and bold styles. Many artists believe that we are at the start of another encaustic renaissance.

Although I'm still in the 'so-in-love stage' with encaustic, I expect to maintain a long-term relationship. Whether you are looking for a quick fling or a soul mate, I highly recommend playing with hot wax. I do however, suggest that you always practice safe wax... use rubber gloves.

About the Author: Artist Judi Morales Gibson is the coordinator for encaustic workshops (run by Artista Creative Safaris for Women in Carmel, USA) called En Cera, which means "in wax" in Spanish.