FAQ About Encaustic

When I first saw and then began collecting Willow Bader’s encaustic paintings I knew little about the medium of encaustic and what it contributed to my appreciation of Willow’s art. I asked the questions that may also have occurred to you. Here’s what I learned.

Robert Fulghum

 

Q. In simplest terms, what exactly is encaustic?

The medium is wax and pigment. More specifically, Willow uses a mix of archival bleached bees wax, mixed with 5% damar resin. The additive tempers the wax, making it more durable.

Q. What is the supporting surface for the painting?

Willow uses a fine-grained, natural wood surface—usually birch or poplar. For smaller work she uses cabinet-grade plywood. For larger work a thinner wooden skin is mounted on a wooden frame. Willow also works on paper and matboard, combining drawing and encaustic.

Q. How is encaustic applied?

The mixture is heated to 220 degrees on a griddle. Small amounts of pigment are arranged on one edge of the metal palette. The molten wax is mixed with the pigment using various sizes of natural bristle brushes, and applied to the work in progress. Black sable brushes are used for fine work. Though some painters keep their paintings horizontal and heated while working, Willow works on a vertical, un-heated surface.

Q. Are any other tools used?

Sometimes a propane torch is employed to soften and adjust a surface. Loop tools are used to scrape into the surface to reveal layers of color.

Q. How workable is the medium?

The artist has only about three seconds to work before the wax sets up. Often there is time for one brush stroke – no more than three – before the brush must be returned to the hot wax to be reheated and recharged.

Q. Is the content of the painting sketched out in advance?

No. Nor is the wood panel prepped in any way. The challenge of working with encaustic in this way is the direct immediacy. Hot wax does not allow time to think an image through or revise it in process.

Q. Why use encaustic? Wouldn’t oil paint work just as well?

Encaustic creates a different result. In layering the wax the artist can take advantage of the fact that its unique translucent character allows light to penetrate to the wood and then bounce back – giving the impression that the painting is lit from the inside.

Q. Willow’s paintings are about the world of dance and music—why?

Serendipity. First came her devotion to figure painting. Then she learned to tango. And tango was a door into the wider realm of the life led by those who dance and play music. Willow’s interest shifted to painting the human figure in motion—out in the world—in a social setting—with a narrative—usually romantic and sensual. Encaustic medium best suits the purpose.

Q. What is the history of encaustic painting?

“Encaustikos” is of Greek origin – a medium in use for more than 2,000 years. The famous funeral portraits from Fayum in Egypt and wall paintings from Pompeii are some of the more famous examples of the use of encaustic in the ancient world. Jasper Johns is one of the best-known modern painters working in encaustic. Encaustic does require special skills on the part of the artist. And working with molten wax adds a dimension of danger. Using oil or acrylic is easier and safer. But encaustic is just as resilient over time.

Q. So the medium has lasting qualities? Does it require special care?

Only in the sense that any work of art must be handled with a certain amount of respect.

 

Finally, answers to questions not asked — about the bees:

Honeybees are the only creatures that make beeswax. Two million flowers yield one pound of honey. Six to ten pounds of honey yields one pound of wax. Beeswax is clear white when secreted, but turns golden from pollen falling off bees moving over the wax. Beeswax is composed of esters, alcohols, hydrocarbons and acids.