"Sactuary" by Bridgette Guerzon Mills

What is Encaustic?

Encaustic is the art of painting with molten wax. This style of painting has been around for centuries and was first used to create portraits. In the 20th Century, encaustic painting regained popularity because of its vibrant colors, transparent qualities and durability. Today, encaustic artists use the medium to achieve an incredible range of mixed media effects. Encaustic is generally applied with a brush. It can be scored, molded with tools as it cools, dripped on, or fused with a blowtorch. Artists can also hide objects within the medium by using different melting and layering techniques. It is especially common to embed photos, drawings and writing between layers of encaustic.

In “Sanctuary,” the encaustic painting above, Bridgette Guerzon Mills, a Towson, Maryland artist, has fused several layers of encaustic on the left, creating a beautiful texture. On the right, she has embedded an image of birds within the layers of the wax paint. Another piece of hers, "Landscape Triptych," is pictured below. You may find more of her work at www.guerzonmills.com.

What is the History of Encaustic Painting?

Encaustic painting first appeared in ancient Greece and the oldest surviving encaustic works are approximately 2000 years old—a testament to the longevity of this medium. Pliny the Elder of Greece was the first person to describe encaustic in writing; from his records, we know that encaustic had been around for dozens of decades prior to his writings in 77 C.E. The ancient Greeks not only created encaustic paintings on wood panels, but also used encaustic to color and seal marble sculptures.

The best known examples of ancient encaustic work were created by Greek painters living in Fayum, Egypt during the 1st and 2nd centuries C.E. After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt many Greeks settled in the country and adopted the process of mummifying the deceased. Encaustic funeral portraits were often placed over the faces of mummified bodies as memorials. These portraits were very realistically rendered and many of them are now housed in the British Museum of Art.

Encaustic experienced a revival in the United States in the early 1900s, and in the 1940s, commercially produced encaustics became widely available in art supply stores. Jasper Johns used encaustic to create many of his mixed media works in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Other modern artists known for encaustic works include Diego Rivera, Lynda Benglis, Joanne Mattera and Pablo Picasso.

Landscape Diptych by Bridgette Guerzon MillsWhat are Modern Encaustic Paints Made of?

Today's encaustic is wax-based paint composed of beeswax, pigment and damar resin. Encaustic paintings are made by melting or fusing together layers of pigmented wax. Getting started with encaustic is easier than it sounds. You will need brushes, tins for holding and melting the paints, and the paints themselves, which come packaged in hard little blocks of color. Some sets come packaged with encausticbord and the only other thing you need to get started is a hotplate and some natural hair brushes.

You can melt the paint on a special encaustic plate, or a regular hotplate that you don't plan to cook food on. The best temperature for working with this paint is about 200°F, or anywhere between 160° - 250°. Some artists buy metal encaustic containers to keep the colors separate, or use a muffin tin on top of the hotplate. You can set the paint in these tins and melt the whole block, or smear the blocks directly onto the plate before applying your colors with a brush.

Unlike oil painting or acrylic painting, you will want to work on a solid substrate. Encausticbord is a wooden board that has been primed to be super absorbent. Encausticbord is sturdy and can hold many layers of encaustic paint. It will not crack or warp, even after many applications or layers of wax paint.

Make sure you work in a well-ventilated area. Encaustic is not dangerous, but it is always good to get plenty of ventilation when practicing painting of any kind. Because of the use of heat, using encaustic may create some fumes. In the photograph below, an artist demonstrates how to use an encaustic plate to apply layers of encaustic to encausticbord:

Encaustic paint on a plate

Tips and Techniques for Working with Encaustics

(1) Fusing Layers Together

Fusing is an important technique in encaustic work. Fusing is when a layer of encaustic is heated so it melds into another layer. A heat gun or blowtorch can be used to fuse encaustic layers. 

(2) Microcrystalline Wax

Microcrystalline wax is sometimes added to encaustic to make a more economical wax paint that pure beeswax. This wax is made with petroleum but behaves just like beeswax. It is a more economical option than 100% beeswax. If you add 50% microcrystalline wax to beeswax encaustic, it will still behave in the same manner and smell the same as traditional encaustic.

(3) Embed

You can embed photographs, prints, drawings, small objects and other mixed media within your encaustic painting. Hide media between different layers of encaustic to achieve ethereal effects.

(4) Add Oil Colors

Oil paint can be added to encaustic to alter its color. If you want to experiment with making unique colors, you can add small amounts of oil paint to your encaustic as it melts. You may also try adding oil color to clear or white encaustic. Acrylic paint is NOT compatible with encaustic wax.

(5) Ventilate

Always work in a well-ventilated area when using encaustic to minimize the risk of fumes, just like you would for traditional oil painting!