Suncaustics

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

Holly Days 2023 at The West Woods

(posted 11/15/2023)

On November 3rd & 4th, I was busy selling my art and jewelry during the Holly Days Artisan Boutique held at the West Woods in Geauga County, Ohio. I have done a couple markets per year since 2021, and this was another success!

The event ran a few hours on Friday evening and most of Saturday. This was the first time I used my new gallery wall (a white folding pegboard) which held many of my original pieces on cradled wood canvas. The table was then freed up to hold a few more larger works, some jewelry, and a white lighted tree decorated with ornaments.

All around me the other vendors had beautiful displays of some art and lots of Christmas themed decor and candy. It was great to get the holiday season rolling so soon after Halloween. My husband was kind enough to come along and help me unload, set up, and make small talk with everyone. He even picked me up a delicious burger from Manna Food Truck at the end of the night. He’s a trooper and I’m always so thankful for his help!

I debuted all thirty-one birds of the Birdtober 2023 project at the event and sold twelve of them. I even got some orders for more ornaments including a bluebird, two herons, and a monarch butterfly. Since I was asked to create these birds, I decided to list them on Etsy – currently there you can find the bluebird, the blue heron, and the hummingbird in the Ornaments section of the shop. They are made to order so if you want them for gifts, get your orders in soon!

I ran another art giveaway at this event. Two of those who signed up for my email updates got the chance to win their choice of Birdtober ornaments. One winner chose the common tailorbird, and the other chose the goldfinch. I sent those out this week. If you’re interested in getting my studio update emails (about one per month), click here to sign up. If you change your mind, it’s easy to unsubscribe.

Art that Sold

The art pieces that sold at Holly Days were quite varied in subject and process. Following is the bulk of them with a comment on each one – they are in no particular order.

“Woodland Raccoon,” 8×8 in. wood canvas. This is the 2nd or 3rd version I’ve done. People fall in love with the face of this masked creature.

“Generations,” 10×10 in. wood canvas. I like this one so much I want to do more versions of it in the future. Ever since I read about “Hibaku,” the ginkgo has been a favorite tree of mine. Click here to read more about Hibaku.

encaustic wax painting ginkgo leaves

“Hinterland No. 7,” 8×8 in. wood canvas. This is not a picture of the exact one that sold, but it is another one of which I’ve made multiple versions. I like to place the fox in different settings and keep it somewhat transparent and ghostlike.

“Lilies of the Valley III,” 8×8 in. wood canvas. This is a piece done with Midjourney AI. After covering it with wax, I embellished it with some oil pastel. I did a similar one which is quite popular on Etsy.

“Orphic Landscape I,” 10 in. round wood canvas. This was an encaustic painting I did using a Midjourney AI image as a reference. A lot of AI looks surreal and I think that aesthetic comes through clearly in this one.

“Summer’s Edge,” 8×10 framed. This one was hard to let go. It ended up selling before the show even opened! I absolutely love making suncaustic works and plan to do many more – they always seem to bring out the best of my creativity.

“Moreland Meadow No. 8,” 9×12 in. wood canvas. This landscape always made me think of Ireland since it somewhat mimics the colors of the flag. It’s got some gold and it’s just about to reveal a rainbow. Moreland Meadow was a favorite place of mine that was captured in a few photos in 2020.

These last three on 6 in. round wood canvas were part of a Female Bird Series I did last year. I painted them with watercolor, then covered them with encaustic medium.

As always, I’m very happy when people stop by and look and ask about my work. I’m so grateful to those of you who liked my work enough to take it home. If you ever see a piece you’d like me to recreate, or have a request for something new, please reach out to me via email: rachel@wolfpupstudio.com

Encaustic + Cyanotypes = Suncaustics

(posted 10/14/23)

You’ve probably learned one of my favorite combinations in the studio is cyanotype plus encaustic. I refer to them as my “suncaustics” since cyanotypes are images developed with sunlight. I dedicated one of my first blog posts (linked here) to the topic of cyanotypes. Over the last couple years I have successfully used a few different techniques I’d like to share. As with other encaustic mixed-media art, the variations of these two media put together can really be mind blowing!

This piece began as a photo I had taken looking up at some trees in the spring while on a Girl Scout hike with my daughter’s troop several years ago. I made a digital negative of it and printed it on a clear plastic sheet, then made a cyanotype. After covering it with encaustic medium, I applied some orange and yellow alcohol inks to the surface, then fused it with heat.

The next piece was created with another negative photo I had taken of some of the plastic net bags used to hold onions, of all things. After I rinsed the cyanotype I knew it had to be an aquatic image since it looked to be underwater. I added an image of a koi on top, layered with encaustic and here’s the result. The man who purchased it reacted with so much admiration for it, I’ll never forget that!

The above pieces were part of the Beachwood Arts Council Small Wonders show in 2021.

This little bluebird began as a watercolor painting I did, then scanned it to make a digital negative. I added some metallic copper PanPastels then fused with heat. I love the simplicity and contrast of the copper, white, and dark blue. It sold at the 2021 Holiday Market at Reithoffer’s Gallery in Auburn Twp., Ohio.

This next piece was sold at a former local gallery MC Studio in 2021. They put out a call for art with the theme of the moon, and I got to work drawing seed pods of a lunaria plant aka money plant. I printed a negative of my drawing to create the cyanotype. After the encaustic medium was applied, I carved some lines and added metallic pastel to give it a pretty moonglow to go with the plant’s name.

The next suncaustic had a very humble beginning. Every spring I like to take a day and create a whole batch of cyanotypes from botanicals I find walking around my yard. Here’s what the sun print looked like as I rinsed off the developing chemicals.

I really didn’t like the print, so I covered most of it with powder and oil pastel. The resulting blue undertones of the green background and vibrant flowers were a wonderful surprise to me when I was done. It sold at the last Nature & Arts Fest at West Woods in Novelty, Ohio.

And this one was pushed a bit farther. I painted over the wax with some pink, green, and gold set in carved lines, then mounted it on another cyanotype image to give it a unique backdrop in the frame. The acid wash blue effect in this piece also keeps it really interesting!

My latest suncaustic was made from one of my backyard prints. I covered the white leaves and some of the background with oil pastel – I love the blue and green combo. Then to put more life in it, I painted some yellow leaf stems on the surface. The final framed piece is listed for sale on my Etsy site linked here.

I can’t wait to see what my mixed-media experiments in the studio will bring in the future – stay tuned!