Encaustic - Alchemy with Fire by Melanie Williams
Updated: Jan 19
I paint using beeswax, a variety of coloured pigments, oil paints and hot and cold tools. This process is known as encaustic and although you may not have heard of it this process is ancient dating back 2000 years in its initial form.
Encaustic is a wax based medium made by mixing beeswax and damar resin, a tree sap. You can use this medium to create many forms of art from photo encaustic, i.e., embedding photos into the wax, collage incorporating objects etc., into the wax, sculpting and painting. My preference is the latter two as I like to create paintings with both detail and texture.
I initially saw an encaustic painting many years ago and was intrigued by the sheen and translucency. When I started out, there was little information about encaustic, and I thought the process just involved a small travel type iron, shiny paper, and blocks of coloured wax. I thoroughly enjoyed the unpredictability of the medium and the way it created happy accidents but the road to creating my artwork of today has been hugely exciting and fun. Today there are numerous websites and online demonstrations to whet your appetite. It has taken me 13 years to arrive at my style as it is now, and it has developed through experimenting and creating my own techniques to develop the effects I wish to create.
Now my tools of choice are blow torches, heat guns, hot tools and anything that will make scratch marks into the wax surface. In fact, I can still discover new things every time I step into my studio and that is part of the joy for me. Some days it is wonderful just to play adding found objects or experimenting with different pigments or oil paints. I can easily lose all sense of time when painting as it is so exciting. It is alchemy with fire!
I begin by setting down layer upon layer of medium onto birch panels and from there I can build up the texture to create the painting. Each layer of medium must be fused to the one beneath so that it will not flake away in the future. To do this you have to use heat and it has many forms. So, I have soldering irons, a hot stylus, heat guns large and small and my trusty blow torch. Different tools give different effects and sometimes you need that blazing heat and with finer work you need the tool just to melt the wax slightly. You can very easily get it wrong and create something completely different to your intended idea. Equally you can be inspired by the way the wax flows and let your imagination take you away.
I have a hot tray which I use as both a palette and to keep the colours hot. Encaustic paint needs to be heated to about 160 degrees for the paint to be molten and I use small measuring saucepans to mix batches of colour. You must be careful not to overheat the paint as it can release toxic fumes and could even combust. Equally if the wax is too cool you cannot move it easily as there is no flow in the medium. The joy of this medium is that it is immediate. You can get similar effects to oil painting, but it sets rapidly.
You may wonder about the longevity of encaustic paintings but there are no worries if you have used the correct medium and lightfast pigment. The British Museum has one of the oldest encaustic paintings, the Mummy portrait of a man from Fayum. It is painted on limewood and dates to AD 80-100. Having said that it is good to consider the care of encaustic paintings. Like other artwork you would not place encaustics in direct sunlight or over an open fire. In addition to this encaustic works can be polished to create a fabulous shine or they can be left mat. Sometimes I like to polish just parts of the painting, reflections in water for example. Over time encaustic paintings may develop a slight bloom and that can be removed by polishing with a lint free cloth. Also, when transporting encaustic artwork in any form it is recommended not to leave it in a sealed vehicle as baking heat may cause the wax to soften. Equally freezing cold may cause it to crack and separate from the panel.
On my website: www.melaniewilliams.net you can see my artwork, the pieces I have for sale and videos showing my process and a little bit about my work.