Encaustic painting with brushes

First time doing encaustic painting with bristle brushes.
The painting was on unprimed 12mm MDF with a sketch in medium-soft (B) graphite.

Observations

The brushes didn’t drink the paint the way I expected. I suppose that’s because encaustic has more in common with oil paint than watercolour. It’s been more than ten years since I last used oil, so I was a little worried that I’d be starting from scratch, but I soon got into the swing of it.

Perhaps because I was expecting the brushes to absorb the paint more than they did, the paint went further than I expected. I’ve barely made dent in my supply and I was using it unthinned.

The initial strokes with a loaded brush were quite pleasant. The paint went down well and covered a good amount of the board, the graphite sketch didn’t seem to interfere with the application, and even though the wax cooled rapidly on the brushes, it was easily reactivated on the hot plate.

Unfortunately, some fairly significant issues emerged during the first session.
The quality of the marks left much to be desired: the initial contract with the board often left a blob of paint which rapidly hardened, resulting in a blotchy, uneven tone and surface. Worse than that, new strokes would lift the previous layers, creating bald patches that exposed the board below.

Both problems were very probably caused by me not fusing the paint until after the session.

At the end of the session, I used the heated stylus with a palette knife attachment to fuse the wax and manipulate it. I also used it to apply some opaque colours to add tints to the image, bit that’s very much within the sphere of how I’ve been using encaustic paint up to now.

Once the paint was fused, the quality of the blending and adhesion improved noticeably.

Conclusion

This being a materials test, I didn’t think in necessary to prime the MDF and I think that hindered my ability to assess the medium properly. Due to the colour of the wood and the translucency of the paint, MDF isn’t suited to being used raw and needs to primed before use.

Ultimately, I intend to move on to ‘proper’ wood, birch ply and solid wood blocks, which will all have their own learning curve, but I’ll continue the paint tests on MDF due to its relative affordability.

One thing that this really drove home was the need to fuse paint between layers. I might look into using a blowtorch to minimise disturbing the paint, but I’ll have to be mindful of not singeing the board as MDF releases toxic vapours when burned.

Notes for next time

  • Prime the board
  •  Fuse between layers
Future exploration
  • Prime the board using clay paint
  •  Prime the board using wax
  •  Prime the board using encaustic gesso (?)
  •  Try heated palette knives (not the stylus)
  •  Use a blowtorch for fusing
  •  Mix with oil paint, oil pastel, MPO
  •  Try a tonal under-drawing in graphite and/or charcoal
  •  Include pyrography and graphic elements (not on MDF!)
  •  More encaustic techniques – etching, filling, inclusions, scraping back, burnishing, impasto, dripping, pouring…

Making encaustic paint: attempt one and two

Lessons learned and observations made in the first two attempts at making encaustic paint in six years.

Recipes

Attempt one: 8 parts white beeswax pellets to 1 part damar resin (by weight)
Attempt two: 8 parts white beeswax pellets to 1 part damar resin (by volume)

Observations

Damar resin
melting_wax
Waiting for the damar to melt into the wax

In attempt one, I tried to melt the damar resin then mix the wax into the liquid. The resin wouldn’t melt in a double boiler, so I transferred it to direct heat on the hob and promptly burned it (whoops).
On the second attempt, I added the damar crystals to the wax. This was more successful (i.e.: they melted without burning) but the damar crystals didn’t fully melt into the wax and I became concerned about leaving it on the heat too long, in case the wax started to discolour.

WaxSmashing the resin crystals to reduce their surface area would almost certainly help, but that carries the risk of airborne particles – not a good thing while I’m still using the living room as a studio and sharing the space with my asthmatic partner.
Under my current working conditions, I’m not convinced that direct heat is the wrong way to go, but it clearly requires a more cautious approach.

On the first attempt, I added the wax in one go. In hindsight, this was clearly a bad idea. On the second attempt, I added it in four lots, which was far more sensible.
Elementary stuff but, since I messed it up the first time, it bears documenting.

Product

I poured the result of the first attempt into a metal food tray and found that it stuck to the sides of the container as it dried. Getting it out will involve either destroying the container or melting the whole block and decanting it into a more suitable receptacle.
The result of the second attempt went into silicone cupcake cases. These have been far more forgiving, and the wax cakes can be removed easily. Definitely the way to go in future.

Colour

I added colour to the second batch in the form of oil paint, which had been squeezed out onto kitchen roll to draw out some of the oil. The paint was laid out in approximately 1.25 inch lines and left for a little under 48 hours.
I mixed this into the wax while it was still cooling in the silicone moulds and, after some mashing, it mixed fairly well. There are some issues with the distribution of the pigment which is particularly evident in the paints made when the wax was cooler and they’re none of them as pretty or as bright as shop-bought paints, but they’re functional and significantly cheaper.

Conclusions

Measuring the wax by volume seems to be the way to go. The stickiness of the first product was unappealing and, although it could have

The finished wax cakes
The finished wax cakes

been caused by any number of factors, weighing the wax and resin is more time-consuming and doesn’t offer noticeably better results.
Melting the wax (in batches!) before adding the damar was not an unreasonable thing to do, but I’m conscious that the wax changes consistency and colour as it gets hotter. I’ll need to do some reading on the properties of wax and damar before making a decision on whether to melt the wax or the damar first.
Silicone moulds are hands down the way to go if I’m making wax cakes. The Enkaustikos-style tins have a certain appeal, but heating that much wax is going to take a while, and the tin will be a swine to clean if it gets contaminated with another colour. The cakes can be melted individually, cut, weighed and mixed methodically.
When making coloured wax, I need to be do it one cake at a time, leaving the bulk of the mixture to stay liquid. The pigment isn’t as evenly distributed and, although aesthetics weren’t high on my list of priorities, the waxes coloured later in the session look like lumps of frosting which will certainly make stacking them harder even if it doesn’t come back to bite me in some other fashion.

Notes for next time:
  • Wear an apron
  • Make paints one at a time
  • Take more photos!
Further exploration:
  • Explore ways to completely melt damar into the wax
  • Use pigment for colour (not feasible until I have a dedicated painting space)
  • Use wax blocks for colour
  • Check material properties – melting points, flash points, discoloration temperature, hazards…
  • Carnauba wax