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Wax on: Ancient art technique undergoes renaissance

Denver artist Jamie Lang sold nearly all of his small, handmade tiles during a recent crafts show, and he can only guess the reasons why. The adobe tiles are minimally decorated -- with a red bicycle or a solitary house -- and covered with a thin, smooth layer of wax.

"It was new, something different," Lang said after the show in Boulder, Colo., while other artists packed up their wares to take home.

Lang works in encaustic, an ancient medium of pigment and hot wax that's resurging in popularity.

The wax technique dates to at least the first century, according to Lissa Rankin in her book "Encaustic Art" (Watson-Guptill, 2010). Its popularity waned during the Middle Ages and Renaissance with the rise of tempera paints, but was revived during the mid-18th century, says Rankin.

Encaustic involves heating beeswax and damar resin, often with added color, and either pouring or painting the mixture onto a surface. The tree resin helps harden and stabilize the wax. An encaustic surface can be two-dimensional, such as wood or paper, or 3-D.

Daniella Woolf, an artist in Santa Cruz, Calif., says the versatility of encaustic makes it the "glue" that holds disparate mediums together.

"I spent a lifetime working in different media. I now can use any of those media by using the wax to pull it all together," says Woolf, author of "The Encaustic Studio" (Interweave/F+W Media, 2012).

Encaustic can be unpredictable and unwieldy, but that adds an element of surprise and mystique to the results.

The technique can be combined with anything from oil and watercolor paints to chalk, ink, photo transfers and fabric -- even plaster and three-dimensional objects. Colors are mixed into or suspended in the wax, while objects are imbedded.

The encaustic process is not for the faint of heart. There are some basic safety precautions. The wax medium becomes molten hot when it's ready to use, and if its temperature rises above 200 degrees Fahrenheit, the fumes become toxic.

For this reason, Lang, Woolf and Rankin work in well-ventilated studios. Each recommends having open windows and a fan near the workspace.

"Once [the beeswax and resin] melts down and cools, it's past [having] any kind of the toxic element to it," says Lang.

Additionally, because encaustic involves fusing one layer of wax on top of one or more other layers, a heat source is needed. Woolf uses an open-flame torch; heat guns and even some irons -- specific to the task, not clothing irons -- also work. Woolf recommends experimenting to find the equipment that works best. Her book lists basic supplies, as does Rankin's.

"Used carefully, encaustic is safe, natural, luminous, versatile and a great way to either start painting or open up your creativity if you're an experienced artist," says Rankin, of Marin County, Calif. Encaustic paint starter kits -- the color is premixed with the wax and resin -- are available online.

While Lang is self-taught -- using Rankin's book -- he recommends taking a class to learn encaustic technique. Woolf agrees.

"It is really quite simple," she promises. "Once you learn the basics, it's incredibly forgiving."

Encaustic art workshop today in Huntington

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Fern Christian will lead an encaustic workshop from 2 to 4 p.m. Feb. 24 at Renaissance Art Gallery, Suite 20, 900 Eighth St., in the old Huntington High School building.

Christian is an abstract artist and director of the gallery. The workshop will explore the possibilities and limitations of the ancient painting medium using beeswax and pigments. Encaustic is both highly durable and impervious to moisture.

Participants will be asked to donate $5 for materials. For information, call 304-525-3235 or visit www.orgsites.com/wv/renaissance.


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