Why I Love to Paint With Encaustic

Artists love their tools, their media. Every one has reasons, the way a tool fits into the hand, the way it can attack or caress the surface, a way the medium flows, or offers resistance. Many artists use encaustic, and write about all the wonderful qualities it has. Below is a piece that shows some of what I love about working with this magical medium, and why I stick with it even as my vision shifts.

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Barnacles, encaustic on wood, 16” x 16”

Encaustic is a sensual medium. Its base is beeswax, and it has the fragrance, when heated, of sweet honey. It is heated on a hot surface until it flows like melted butter, or like heavy cream. I can paint with it directly using a warm brush, use a special tool to draw with it, sometimes even pour it. I can in fact do anything I can think of, the caveat being that I need to RE heat it to be sure it attaches physically to whatever is underneath.

Encaustic has body. In art school they always talked about the “body” of the oil paint. Encaustic has this quality big time for me. I can build it up in layers, stencil shapes onto it, draw and carve into it, push things into it (see Barnacles, where I pushed a shell into the built up wax), add things like bits of sea glass or sand or powdered pigment or - all kinds of things!

Encaustic is flexible; With it I can make mistakes. When I was making huge charcoal drawings in the 1980’s, one of my favorite qualities of the charcoal was that I could easily erase it! I could wipe it off with a cloth, and adjust where I put a line or a shape. With encaustic I can scrape off a layer or more of paint, or cover over the whole painting and then reveal some of what’s going on under that. I can build. I can excavate. I can smooth the surface with heat.

Encaustic is luminous. I have a few cherished memories of places that I loved to hang out as a young child. One such spot for me was right under the tiffany lamp at my grandmother Sophie’s house. Whenever I sat there I felt warm and cared for by the feeling of the color and light shining onto me. Sometimes encaustic looks just like stained glass.

Encaustic can get out of control. That may sound odd, and why would I like that quality? In my life I love having control. I hate when things (as they often do) get “out of control.” But with hot wax? I love that part of it - that I can heat the wax to be like I want it to be, but sure enough, it has a mind of its own. It will flow somewhere unexpectedly, or do wonderful things that are a total surprise, that I could not have planned. Working with it allows me to work in a trancelike state, to be in the “zone,” where I don’t know what I am doing, but the wax knows. SOMEthing knows. SOMEone knows.

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Red Horizon, encaustic on wood, 10” x10”