My Encaustic Painting Process

When I was a child, I liked to hold a flame under the stem of a lollipop stick, held sideways, until the plastic melted. Somehow, I was fascinated by the liquid flow of a once solid object. Ah, the stench of it all, and such mindless destruction. Fortunately, I graduated to beeswax and a blowtorch, and now I create works of art.

Encaustic paint is a mixture of beeswax, damar (a tree resin that hardens the wax), and colored pigment. The paint is melted at 200F in tin cans on a hot griddle and applied with a brush in 6–20 layers onto a stiff substrate like wood or tile. Each layer is fused to the layer beneath to create, in effect, a big ball of wax.

My preferred fusing method is a trigger-start Bernzomatic propane blowtorch. When I twist the blowtorch’s nozzle and press the ignitor, a steady stream of 3600F heat gushes with a rushing sound, not unlike an airplane before takeoff. I fan the flame in quick back-and-forth strokes over the painting, just enough to lick its waxy surface. As soon as the wax glistens, it’s fused to the layer beneath.

I began using a blowtorch because I got tired of tripping the fuse box repeatedly with a heat gun and craft iron. Occasionally, I light the canvas’ surface on fire when I want to create a lacy water pattern. I work from home where my husband lives in mortal fear I may succeed in burning down the house.

Encaustic painting begins by priming a wooden canvas, usually basswood, with three layers of white encaustic paint. I mix my own colors using powdered pigments. I do keep a small stash of ready-made encaustic paint cubes for those times when I need just a tiny splash of color. I also use oil pastels, but only sparingly, because it disperses less evenly than wax
when fused.

Occasionally, I embed materials in the wax-like sand, nails, stones, and tree bark. I also build texture by pushing the wax through various mesh materials such as cheesecloth, lace, and lemon bags.

I’m often asked about my trees. It’s not possible to paint fine lines with hot wax. I tried, but the wax begins to dry, or clump, on the bristles as soon as I lift the brush off the hot griddle. For smaller works, then, I use oils, which are compatible with encaustics. Sometimes, I’ll do a photo transfer. I’ve been loitering at Jerry’s Artarama lately, doing research on charcoal and graphite, which are also compatible with encaustics. I can’t wait to try them out on trees!

I like using the 97-cent 1″ chip brushes from Home Depot. It has natural bristles. Synthetic brushes don’t work because they melt in the hot wax. I tried the more popular “hake” brushes but the bristles are too limp for my brisk style of painting.

Unfortunately, chip brushes shed, so every now and then, a strand will embed itself in the painting. That’s when I reach for my sharp, pointy tool and fish out the wayward bristle. When I fail to spot one, the blowtorch – and my nose – let me know. Bristles singe in 3600F degree heat. After removal, another quick flick of the wrist with the blowtorch flattens any unwanted marks in the wax.

I build opacity through several transparent layers, allowing me to color “outside the lines” without too much consequence. The result is twofold: increased luminosity and blurred – or softer – edges, a desirable effect especially for distant objects. At times, I fuse the painting upside down to make the colors bleed into each other. Some paintings have 20 layers. That’s just a guess, though. After a while, I lose track.

Encaustic paint isn’t the easiest medium to work with: it needs a flat surface, it isn’t portable, and it ain’t cheap. But you’ve gotta love the results – the wonderful textures and luminosity – that make the paintings look like they’re glowing from within. I love this radiance, and although I’ve come a long way since the days of melted lollipop sticks, there’s a reason I continue to play with fire.