encaustic feature

Be the Artist: The Waxy World of Encaustic Painting

DIY Featured

This summer’s Be the Artist 2021 will help readers discover visual art-related words.

The Word: Encaustic

The word encaustic is modified from an ancient Greek word enkaustikos, which means “burn in.” In order for a painting to be considered encaustic, heat is needed.

According to the Encaustic Art Institute, the melted wax used in encaustic painting was very versatile. The transparent wax mixture could have an adhesive quality, and when the pigment was added, the artistic implications were vast.

Encaustic paintings have been found and described as far back as the first century, and range from realistic detailed portraits to landscapes to abstract designs over the years. Some of the most famous encaustic works are the Fayum funeral portraits created by Greek painters in Egypt. These were placed over a mummy as a memorial to the deceased.

In the twentieth century, a group of artists from the German art school Bauhaus helped to “rediscover” the method, including a painter named Fritz Faiss. Faiss held two German patents in encaustic preparation, including one where beeswax was boiled in seawater and soda to create a harder waxy medium.

The common mediums used were beeswax, pigment, and dammar resin, a crystallized tree sap. Now thanks to small portable heating instruments, modern encaustic artists can melt and keep their wax warm easily while they work.

One contemporary artist who often used this method was Jasper Johns, but he wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the method. Painters from Diego Rivera of Mexico to Wassily Kandinsky of Russia experimented with the medium. The encaustic medium is still popular today, including the way encaustic designs’ colors stand out when completed. 

encaustic samples
From 1st century portraits to current mid-century contemporary art to current day professional and hobbyist artists, encaustic painting remains popular.

The process also leads to one-of-a-kind fluid works. Canadian painter Tony Scherman is one of the modern-day painters known for his encaustics, commented on the unpredictable yet unique nature of encaustic in an interview for his site.

With encaustics, mistakes that can happen “cannot be foreseen,” and lead to solutions he said can also not be replicated.

The Project: Creepy Crayons

Final Encaustics
Make some spooky images with heated crayon wax in these encaustic-style paintings. Images: Lisa Tate

Many professional artists used specially made encaustic wax made with beeswax, pigment, and a hardening element, but they can be just a bit expensive for an afternoon project with kids.

Fortunately, many of us have crayons! Lots and lots of waxy crayons!

Also, since one of the main elements of creating “encaustics” is heat, I wanted to try something a little safer than the crayon-melting art using a hot iron (although I used to love doing that project in kindergarten with the help of a teacher).

Encaustic artists may likely not consider this following method true encaustic method, but it will combine colorful wax with heat to create unique artwork.

That being said, let’s get started. With fall coming up, this project will create an encaustic-style abstract to get ready for the spooky season.

Encaustic wax may be too expensive for an afternoon project, but most of us have some old crayons waiting to be used.

You’ll need:

  • Crayons (without the paper wrapper)
  • A paper plate
  • Scissors
  • Drawing paper or cardboard
  • A microwave oven for the quick method or sun for the longer method

Cut a piece of paper or cardboard small enough to fit on a paper plate. 

Using scissors (or a utility knife, if you’re an adult), scrape some shavings of three or four different colored crayons onto the paper, and gently shape them to be a tree, fence, moon, or other spooky or fall elements. Remember, these will be abstract pictures, so don’t expect them to be perfect.

The shavings can be a little static-y and can make a mess, so keep that picture on the paper plate.

Place the project in the microwave for lengths of 30 seconds until it gets to be a good melty consistency. Usually, just one 30-second go will do, but thicker images might need a second ground. Make sure the wax is contained on the plate, as any wax shavings left behind will result in a hot-crayon-smelling microwave until it is removed.

Take the “hot wax” out and immediately use a toothpick to shape the image further, if you need. Don’t touch the wax with your fingers until it is dry and cooled off. That will only take a few minutes.

Use a scissor tip to scrape some pieces off different colored paintings, and place them on your paper in the shapes you want.

If you don’t want to use or don’t have a microwave, place the image out in the sun (away from the wind) and leave it out for a couple of hours or until it melts. This is actually a pretty fun method to try anyway.

draw extra
Use a toothpick on the warm wax to add more detail or texture to the image.

It may not be the true encaustic method, but it will give you an idea of how the textures and colors in encaustic painting turn out.

Artist Chester Arnold said in the forward to the artist and author Lissa Rankin’s book Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide to Creating Fine Art with Wax, many encaustic artists share a passion for the medium and encourage others to discover it.

“(Embrace) the playfulness of wax, and enjoy painting,” he said. “It’s hot stuff—literally—and it’s all the buzz these days.”

with added marks
For a “mixed media” look, add a couple of details in pen or marker, like these spirit’s “arms.”
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