Motivation

What Is Encaustic Medium?

(posted 02/22/2024)

I’m interested in finding a detailed answer to this question myself, actually. I’ve worked with encaustic medium for over 6 years now, and thought it’d be a well-deserved homage to my favorite art supply to delve into its history and how the medium is made and used.

Brief History of Encaustic

Beeswax is a preservative and has been used as such for thousands of years. We know the Greeks used it to protect and decorate their ships’ hulls as early as 500 BC. Going forward to the 1st-2nd centuries A.D., the Romans in Egypt used pigmented wax to paint portraits of the deceased, covering the faces and bodies of their affluent mummies. The 900 or so famous Fayum mummy portraits (one pictured below) are said to be very well preserved, retaining much of their brilliant color. Eventually, the use of encaustic in portraits gave way to a less expensive and easier alternative, tempera paint.


Mummy portrait of a young woman, Antinoöpolis, Middle Egypt, 2nd century, LouvreParis.

A resurgence of the wax painting came about in the 18th century, after archeological discoveries sparked interest in encaustic techniques. What ignited the use of the medium by artists even more in the 19th century was simply the invention of portable electric heat sources. Famous artists such as Jasper Johns, Diego Rivera, and Robert Rauschenberg are just a few who incorporated the medium into their work in modern times.

Encaustic Combinations

Since the 1990s, encaustic medium in art has become more attractive and popular as artists have discovered the myriad of ways to incorporate it into mixed-media processes and even into pottery and sculpture. This is what I personally find most fascinating about encaustic. It can be used with various other media to give an artist several paths he or she can take when attempting to master it.

Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen different combinations to use encaustic in art:

1. Over a dried watercolor painting
2. Over a dried ink illustration
3. Over an inkjet print on matte paper (including photos)
4. Combined with cold wax
5. Combined with oil pastel
6. Combined with oil paint
7. As a ground for alcohol ink
8. Over fabric such as linen or silk
9. Over a collage
10. Over pottery
11. Over sculpture
12. Over a cyanotype (what I call “Suncaustic”)

The most important guideline I find when working with encaustic is the need to avoid pairing it with acrylics. But even that rule can be broken since I successfully use acrylic chalk paint as a ground at times.

Grounds for encaustic art vary widely according to artist preference. I usually use parchment or watercolor papers pasted to the wood canvas. Aside from that, I’ll occasionally paint encaustic gesso or acrylic based chalk paint over the wood surface before laying down the molten medium.


Encaustic Medium Sources

Image by CJ from Pixabay


I am pretty sure at most every art sales event, a beekeeper has kindly asked if I have need of beeswax. While I’m in awe of the beekeepers’ work and grateful for their care and service to the bees, I solely buy refined encaustic medium made by R&F Paints. It comes in tiny pellets which are easy to store and melt in small batches. The “refining” process filters out the organic matter left by the bees so the medium is quite clear.

Some artists create their own medium by mixing melted beeswax with melted damar (or dammar) crystals, then filtering out the organic matter manually. Damar resin (or gum) is a natural tree sap from lowland tropical trees in India and Southeast Asia. Adding more or less of the damar resin is known to result in a respectively harder or softer wax surface. I’ve never used a brand other than R&F, but will eventually to see if my surfaces end up more luminous with a different brand. I have seen some artists use only beeswax over a photo, and that works too, but the cooled surface won’t be as hard and resilient as when it contains damar resin.

While I use the clear encaustic medium in my art, I also use pigmented encaustic paints made by R&F and Enkaustikos. Very little of these go a long way since they can be diluted with clear medium. Combining pigmented wax with clear medium is also a great way to tone down bright colors or add translucency.

Care of Encaustic Art

Most of my art work made with encaustic comes with a label giving care instructions. Typically any fine art that has pigment will eventually fade in sunlight, so keeping all your art out of the sun’s rays will help them look their best for the longest period of time. Unfortunately, it seems encaustic has been avoided by some who fear it’s too fragile for them. I find it quite resilient once the wax cools and hardens. Sure if you take a sharp object and puncture or carve the surface, it won’t be the same. That would most likely be the case with an acrylic or oil painting too.

The worst thing in my opinion you could do with encaustic is leave it in a hot car. (Well, THE worst is to take a blow torch to it, but most people won’t accidentally do that.) Unfiltered sunlight can quickly cause the surface to glisten and perhaps even liquify, which is a good sign you should move it to the shade.

The melting temperature of beeswax is around 140F degrees, so I recommend avoiding storage in any area with such high temperatures. Encaustic medium (with the addition of the damar) melts closer to 200F degrees, so it’s a bit more resilient. Keep in mind some attics get very hot in the summer.

Avoiding storage in temperatures below freezing should be avoided too, some say. I’m not sure what will happen though. Right now I’ll stick an encaustic mini in the freezer overnight to see the results … I’ll share my findings with you at the end of this blog.

I’ve been asked if it’s ok to hang encaustic art in the bathroom – the short answer is yes since the beeswax acts as a protective barrier to whatever it covers. But that’s not the case with ALL encaustic art. For example, if you have a watercolor painting that’s only partially covered in encaustic, the humidity could do some damage to the unprotected watercolor. Rest assured, if I ever do make something that can be damaged by high humidity, I will note that on the label.

I believe wrapping encaustic art in tissue paper or wax paper and then bubble wrap is the best storage option, taking care that all the edges and corners are protected. I have seen a few encaustic artists on social media repairing chipped edges and corners for clients. Life happens, and maybe you end up accidentally damaging an encaustic piece. Chances are if you contact the artist or any experienced encaustic artist they can take a look and let you know if it can be repaired.

Cleaning encaustic art will really depend on the piece. As long as any art you bought from me was not covered with metal leaf, you can wipe it with a silky soft cloth (old nylons work great). Doing this can also bring back the shine on the surface should the piece lose its shine over time.

The results of the freeze test are in:

My encaustic mini looked the same as when it went in the freezer 8 hours before. I did a little more Google research on freezing encaustic art while I was waiting. I found that freezing them is a good test to see if the ground is compatible with the medium. If the surface easily chips or flakes off when frozen, an incompatible ground was most likely used. I think I can safely say that keeping them in a unheated area wouldn’t affect my pieces, but that can’t be said for encaustic art from all artists.

Sources:

Thanks to Wikipedia and R&F Paints web sites for many of the facts I shared above. Here are the linked sources I used, in case you want to read more. In fact, you can find many encaustic art teachers have very in-depth, interesting information about encaustic on their web sites.
Wikipedia: Fayum Mummy Portraits
Wikipedia: Dammar Gum
R&F Paints History of Encaustic

For the Birds

(posted 09/14/2023)

I have done a lot of bird art over the past few years. Why the birds? Whenever I think of my first drawings I’m always taken back to my grandparent’s house in Chardon, Ohio. They were bird watchers, and the couple always had full feeders outside the window and bird books on the shelf. In their bathroom behind the door was a huge poster entitled “Birds of North America.” It felt as if I was in a museum when I gazed up at all the colorful illustrations. 

I recall watching my brother place a piece of carbon paper under an illustration in one of the bird books, then trace it with a pen to draw an outline of the bird underneath. It was pure magic to me. I eagerly tried the trick too of course, and that seems to be where my love of drawing began. Most often, my subjects were houses, horses, butterflies, and birds. Whenever I went to their house as a young child, I would sit on the floor and pull open the bottom desk drawer which always held a stack of gleaming white paper. The top drawer held a collection of pencils and pens and a big, well worn eraser. I remember also drawing cross sections of houses too of all things while I sat on the floor – I think stemming from my love of doll houses and/or Richard Scarry books. 

So now that I think of it, that explains why I made an image of a bird the first time I ever tried encaustic medium. And I go back to them as a space of comfort and unending inspiration. The shape of birds is such a familiar, simple, curved form. It makes me think of stylistic cursive writing, in a way. Their color palettes can be simple or complex and vary as much as a bouquet of flowers. When I don’t know what else to draw, I draw birds. Here’s my first attempt at encaustic. It’s oil pastel covered with clear encaustic medium. I keep this little piece of wood on my shelf in my studio. It’s a reminder of 1) how nervous and unsure I felt when I first tried it; and 2) that trying something different can end up changing the direction of my life and revealing what’s important to me.

Of course the symbolism of birds appeals to a lot of people too. The meanings and feelings that come with images of eagles, owls, peacocks, storks, crows, swans, and doves are strongly attached. I like bluebirds and goldfinches the most, since every now and then I’ll see a bright blue or yellow one darting about our yard in the summer, my favorite time of year.

In October 2021, I embarked on an Instagram challenge called Birdtober. The directions were to follow a list made by a Texas artist, Andrea Holmes, and create art pieces of each bird for every day of the month of October. I gained a lot from the experience, and you can read about it here if you missed that post. After two years, I feel ready to take the challenge again and have started some preliminary work on the 31 birds. Next month I’ll be able to show you the complete collection of these one-of-a-kind creations. As they’re finished, they’ll be listed on my Etsy site linked here, along with some 2021 editions currently there too. I will be making the round ornaments again since they allow me to work more quickly and keep up with the daily goals.

Preservation

(posted 08/19/2023)

Encaustic medium is made from beeswax and damar resin. When working with the medium, I’m reminded of the connection to nature just by the sweet scent of it. I don’t keep bees, but looking at a photo similar to this one inspired me to pay some homage to the work of the bees.

Photo by pagala on Pixabay

I was not only struck by the beautiful pattern, but by the tones and contrast created with the empty and full cells. It got me thinking how the honeycomb itself embodies so much work and history of the bees that is so beautifully preserved by the structure and the beeswax.

In my studio, I keep boxes of antique books and periodicals which were left in our attic in our house in Windsor, Ohio. My dad’s family were descendants of the original settlers (Griswolds) that came from Connecticut to the Western Reserve in Ohio after the Revolutionary War. My late great great Aunt Sarah (Sade) Griswold was an active member of Windsor’s Historical Society and collected and donated many artifacts to the museum there. She also collected newspaper clippings which look as though they were gathered when she was quite young. She was born in 1886, became a nurse who never married, and lived to be 100! When I was a kid I used to poke around the attic and remember seeing many dusty letters, postcards, books, and photos but never really studied them. Now I take the time to really look at what Aunt Sade and my grandparents collected and think about why they thought them valuable enough to keep. Perhaps they were just hoarders? Perhaps they wanted their descendants like me to find and study them? I’ll never know.

So this piece began with some of the antique clippings from our attic. I scanned them to create digital copies which were then printed. As I cut the images from the copies, I was immediately placed in Aunt Sade’s shoes, looking closely at each clipping, literally reenacting her process. Once they were cut out, I decided to randomly paste them onto my wood canvas with no organization or reason – I suppose that represents the mystery that exists between her life and mine since I never knew her. I did not take a photo of this part – I really wish I had – but alas my composition will always remain a mystery as well since my next step was to cover the clippings in encaustic medium.

Once covered in the milky, slightly pigmented beeswax, I dusted areas of the surface with oil powdered pastels called PanPastels. I liked how they added to the mystery of what was hidden beneath the wax.

To apply the honeycomb pattern, I had first printed it onto paper then poked hundreds of holes with my needle tool into the surface, as shown in this process video.

The final step in the process was to choose some cells to carve out and reveal parts of the clippings underneath. Even though revealed, the images are still highly unrecognizable, strengthening the veil of mystery.


I called it “Preservation” since the beeswax will help to further preserve the history my Aunt Sade so fervently valued. I’m very happy this piece was awarded by the Geauga Arts Council, placing 3rd place in the Other Media category. It’s currently being shown at the West Woods Nature Center in Novelty, Ohio until October 3, 2023.

Starfish

(posted 07/15/23)

In late June we went on a trip to Emerald Isle, NC. It was my fourth time visiting North Carolina beaches, but my second visit to that particular area of the coast. I like it because there is lot of vegetation and trees there – I think that’s why they called it Emerald Isle in the first place, but I’m not sure about that. The coastline is called Crystal Coast and at times it looked like the Caribbean with white sand and jade greenish blue waters on the best sunny days. When the waves were too rough we stayed close to shore due to rip current warnings, but luckily the conditions got better as the week progressed and lots of boogie boarding ensued.

We visited the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores and I loved every minute of it! One highlight was the huge tank that had an actual old sunken marine vessel in it, surrounded by several species of fish, including sharks. I also loved to see the otters playing and various ethereal looking jelly fish in some other displays. When I was a kid, we had neighbors who had a huge aquarium in their living room – I remember being excited to see it every time we visited. I was a bit frightened of some of the creatures but mostly in awe. I still feel that way when I go to an aquarium or the sea, as I’m sure many people do. It really is like being in another world when you take time to be still and closely watch.

I was so inspired I created some encaustic pieces to commemorate the experience. They can be found in my Etsy shop linked here.

After traveling to many different beaches over my lifetime so far, it’s interesting to recall the various types of landscape, vegetation, and creatures I’ve come across with each vacation. New England beaches had a lot of rocks to explore at low tide when I was young, but the water was numbing from what I recall. During trips to the Caribbean I remember seeing the most sea life on a glass bottom boat tour and a snorkel outing, and seeing an iguana asleep in a tree is a sight I’ll never forget. On our honeymoon in Jamaica, we actually went on a night snorkel that was exhilarating, but we didn’t see much other than some bottom feeders. (When you are snorkeling at night with a flashlight, you just know a shark is following your every move!) Virginia Beach had lots of crabs scurrying across the sand and it was a lot of fun to stop them in their tracks with our flashlights. Holden Beach in North Carolina is a turtle sanctuary so there were no lights allowed after dark – that place is where we unfortunately discovered “no see ums” – if you know, you know! Florida is beautiful, but I can’t remember seeing a lot of nature on my trips there other than dolphins and the occasional gecko on a wall. Hilton Head is so full of people, I think the sea creatures have long gone – or at least left the areas where we stayed – it is interesting to see their birds and the occasional alligator there. On our trip to Jekyll Island, Georgia, last year we saw sea turtles at the local aquarium as well as several dolphins that came quite close to the boat.

Back to Emerald Isle – life on the beach there was enjoyable to me in so many ways, but mostly by combing through sea shells every day. Many shells are small and broken, but they are plentiful. Occasionally groups of pelicans flew by, but I didn’t see very many birds on shore. On a boat we took to an island near the Rachel Carson Reserve we did catch a glimpse of some wild horses. And during a sunset boat ride our last day there we saw several dolphins, and a couple of them did flips!

I didn’t go too far in the water for fear of the creatures I ironically love to watch. My favorite beach pastime was looking for what I call “sand puppies” (also called sand fleas or mole crabs). You can find them by digging under air holes left in the sand after a wave subsides – the sand puppies tickle your hand trying to get back to the wet sand. At low tide the tiniest fish get trapped in warm pools and my daughter was mesmerized watching dozens of minnows nibble at our legs. We tried catching some but they’re so small they went right through the net.

One very memorable day my daughter ran up to me carrying the net and dropped it to show me what was in her other hand – a big, beautiful live starfish. I asked her to put it back in the ocean after we took some video. You might think this a bit wacky, but whenever I see shooting stars I believe they are sent to me by my father who died when I was a toddler. When that happened I really felt like he was sending a gift to us and telling me he was glad to see me enjoying life with my husband and his granddaughter, both whom he never met.

This Artist’s Way – Know Thyself

(posted 04/08/2023)

I took some time late this winter to read and complete some tasks in the excellent book “The Artist’s Way,” by Julia Cameron.

I discovered it while watching a YouTube video on plant based eating of all places. (I’m no vegan, but dabble in it due to reported health benefits.) A guest on the video was an artist who described following her passion of creating glass jewelry. She recommended the book. She was able to wean herself from emotional eating by immersing herself in artistic pursuits.

Among many, many other topics Cameron discusses the inner child – the innocent, creative being in all of us. What has also stood out to me are these topics: Showing up in the studio. Paying attention to our emotions and reactions. Relationships that either contribute to or contaminate our creative selves. Self-care as a priority.

I’m taking notes in the book as well as in the journal she requires. I have kept up with most daily writing sessions and many tasks – there are a lot to choose from. However, the seven weeks I covered so far have taken me a couple extra weeks – it seems my earlier momentum slowed a bit.

Favorite Quotes

One aspect I love of the book are the quotes she includes on nearly every page. Here are a few of my favorites so far:

"Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent." -C.J. Jung

I found two ways to relate to that. First, my father died when I was only 2, and that left my mother a shell of herself who never really lived many days since without sadness. I took the torch from her in a way and have lived a life of safety rather than risk, which has been observed by my own child.

"To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive." -Robert Louis Stevenson

Amen to this! I remember so often in my twenties being unable to tell if I liked something or just went along with it because my friends did. This is where I learned trusting my gut and believing in myself has only gotten stronger and more reliant with age.

"I have made my world and it is a much better world than I ever saw outside." -Louise Nevelson

I interpret this as saying to myself: I am an adult and can create the environment I want, without worrying what others think it should be! Maybe one day I will build that Hobbit house in the country!

"Look and you will find it. What is unsought will go undetected." -Sophocles

So this seems to be an understatement when I consider all I have gleaned from her book so far. She talks about serendipity – making discoveries when not looking. Ironically that’s what this book is doing for me. All these years I have felt I needed a guide to follow in order to be an artist. Now I discovered this guide was always within me – to sound totally cliche!

As Socrates said: “Know thyself.” Without even finishing the course yet, I highly recommend it for any person like me who yearns to create more in a world that doesn’t always give rewards for the work. Finding acceptance in how I’m wired has been well worth my time and effort so far.