The Hows and Whys of Encaustic Painting

Why My Paintings are so HOT!

People often ask me how I heard about encaustic painting and why I do it.  They wonder why an artist would bother with a medium that is so messy, involved, difficult and expensive (not to mention the potential for serious burns and inhalation injury), when you can now create similar effects with acrylic mediums that are far cheaper and easier to use.
Encaustic is different from other media not only because of the look of the final product, but because of the paint itself: both in its historical significance and its connection to the earth. I work in encaustic because there is something about warm beeswax in the studio that makes me feel alive and connected to something ancient and authentic, in a way that manufactured acrylic paints cannot.
Encaustic painting is an ancient art form that was developed over 3000 years ago when Greek and Egyptian shipbuilders used hot wax to fill the cracks in their ships. Soon pigment was added and this led to painting designs on the surface of the waxed hulls. The process was eventually refined for the art of painting on panels. The word encaustic is Greek – meaning “to burn in”.

One reason for the popularity of the encaustic medium was the durability of its finish once it was dry. Beeswax is impervious to moisture and acts as a sealant to keep colours bright. Under the right conditions, an encaustic painting can last indefinitely. Probably the best-known encaustic works are the Fayum funeral portraits painted in the 1st through 3rd centuries. Amazingly, these portraits are still intact today.

Encaustic fell into disuse with the decline of the Roman Empire, when cheaper and easier methods of painting were developed. The process was so time consuming and painstaking and the cost of producing it so high, that Tempera painting eventually took over and encaustic became a lost art.

Encaustic had a few stops and starts in the 18th and 19thcenturies, but began to truly come back to life in the 20th century with the availability of portable electric heating devices to melt the wax. It began its resurrection in the 1950s with a few artists, including Jasper Johns and Diego Rivera, and continued to grow with the work of Tony Scherman and others in the 70s.  From then on it rose steadily.

Johns, Rivera and Scherman offer a good cross section of how encaustic can be used in any style of contemporary art, and I have been lucky enough to see works by all of them in person. One constant with encaustic work is that photos simply cannot capture their richness and intensity.  The luminosity, immediacy and depth of an encaustic painting can only be experienced in person.

It was seeing a contemporary encaustic show in Toronto that set me on my current path.  I had been painting with acrylics and epoxy resins (a highly toxic and chemically produced cocktail). After attending the encaustic show, I did some research on the method and tried it. As soon as I began, I was hooked.

I now paint almost exclusively with encaustic, often incorporating papers, inks, found objects, charcoal and other media. Oil paints and oil sticks are an important part of my practice and I use them liberally. One of the ancient practices I was most drawn to was the ability to suspend papers and objects in beeswax. They can be incorporated into the paint, or made to look like they are floating; giving the work an ethereal quality.

I make my own encaustic paints, staying close to an ancient recipe of beeswax, pigments and damar resin. I begin with a visit to an Ontario honey farm to purchase my beeswax, which I then melt down with the resin and pigments and mold into individual pucks of paint. The paints become solid at room temperature and are melted as needed on a hot palette in order to be brushed onto my panels. Each layer of encaustic paint must then be re-melted into the layer beneath it in order to fuse the painting together. I use a heat gun or iron for this process.  My studio is a crazy mess of brushes, scrapers, mark makers, collections of papers (both handmade and vintage), found objects, fabrics and natural matter.

Each of my paintings is a culmination of diverse elements coming together, and every day is an adventure in painting since I never know what I will discover next. As Jasper Johns said: “Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that”. I couldn’t agree more.

Painting with encaustic is about rich scents, warm, soft textures and smooth, glossy surfaces.  It smells like honey and the smell never dissipates, even after the painting has been finished for years.  I love working with it because of its tactile qualities. Other types of paints come alive when the painting is complete, but encaustic speaks to me because beeswax has a life of its own before the artist even begins working with it.   As I work, I give thanks to the bees for the gift they have given me, and I am ever grateful for being able to do what I love and put something new and beautiful into the world.

“I tend to like things that already exist.”  

(Jasper Johns)


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