Encaustic painting is an ancient technique that was used by the Greeks and Romans. It involves mixing coloured pigments with hot melted wax and painting with the molten mixture. Encaustic artworks retain their fresh appearance and lustre and are resistant to moisture, yellowing and deterioration. The most famous encaustic paintings were the Fayyum mummy funeral portraits done by Hellenistic painters in Egypt in the first and third centuries. The American pop artist Jasper Johns started a 20th century encaustic revival with his popular flag- and target-themed encaustic paintings.
Buy your encaustics ready made from an art-supply store if you don't want to make them yourself. To make your own encaustics, buy regular raw beeswax, or commercial grade wax that doesn't need filtering after melting. Melt the wax by heating it in a metal pan over a stove or hotplate at 93.3 degrees Celsius. Filter it with cheesecloth. Mix in dammar crystals in a 6 to 1 ratio for a satiny surface. Dissolve oil colours into the wax medium using 15 per cent paint and 85 per cent wax.
Prepare your canvas to receive the encaustic by evenly coating both sides with a thin coat of unpigmented wax. Canvas on a stretcher will work well for thin coats of encaustic. For thicker impasto layers, stretch the canvas over a solid wood panel. This will prevent cracking as the canvas absorbs moisture and dries out, expanding and shrinking in the process. Do not gesso the canvas, as the encaustic will not stick to it. Paint on unprimed canvas, or use the traditional rabbit skin glue and white lead mixture for a ground. Special encaustic gessos are available at art-supply stores.
Lay your canvas on a flat surface to prevent the hot wax from running. Use pastel pencils or paint to draw your composition, not graphite or charcoal, as they will stain the wax, giving it a permanent dirty look. Work quickly to use the melted wax before it hardens. Do not draw or colour under areas of your painting that will be transparent or white. Use durable, heat-resistant brushes or a painting knife to apply the encaustic to the canvas. Natural hair brushes will not last long when painting with encaustics. Specially designed brass-filament brushes are available for encaustic painting.
Apply the encaustics in thin, semi-transparent layers using a glazing technique to build up your colours. Achieve a translucent effect by lowering the amount of pigment in your wax. Fuse the layers gently to avoid melting the lower levels and mixing the colours. If you make a mistake, scrape off the wax instead of painting over it. Let the first layer harden completely before repainting.
Paint in a thick impasto style by laying on heavy layers of encaustic. Work the medium with your brush before it hardens for various surface textures. Use a heat gun to soften the layers when working if they cool before you're finished. Carve the heavy layers for more textural effects. Make your painting into a collage by adding other materials to the encaustic layers before they cool. When you're finished painting, burnish the surface with cotton cloth for a satiny sheen.
Store unused encaustic in blocks for later use.
Be careful not to burn yourself with the hot wax. Overheated wax can become flammable.