hot wax/cold wax part 2
"Painting with wax" and "encaustic" are synonymous to many people, but in fact the term encaustic applies specifically to pigment combined with melted beeswax (damar resin or other additives may also be part of the wax mixture.) While encaustic (hot wax) painting has become quite popular and well recognized of late, the process of using wax at room temperature (or cold wax) remains rather obscure. (I'm trying to do my part to explain and educate...) Cold wax medium--what I use in my work--is a pasty substance made of beeswax, resins, oils and mineral spirits, that is mixed with oil paint and applied directly to a support, without any fusing or heat applied. (For health and safety reasons, heating cold wax is not advised.)
I've become interested in learning more about hot wax though, and this past Saturday I had the opportunity to spend a day in the Minneapolis studio of Jeff Hirst
exploring the encaustic process. The small painting above is my favorite one from the day. It was a really fun and fascinating day, and I came away with much more appreciation for what is involved in this process.
Before I dive into what I see as the distinctions between hot and cold wax, please note that I have spent all of about five hours painting with hot wax--so I'm not exactly a voice of experience. That said, a few observations about the special qualities of each:
The encaustic process seems to me unique in its physicality and tactile qualities. The wax, which is built up in layers, attains a depth that is not just visual--there is a thickness to the cooled layers that can readily be carved and scratched, even molded. When looking at an encaustic painting, it is often possible to distinguish the various layers because of the transparency of the wax and its thickness separating one layer from another.
It also seems that the physical properties of the wax encourage a rather bold and graphic quality in the artist's expression, although that isn't always the case--there is as much range in the styles of encaustic painters as with any other medium. Still as a beginner I found it easiest to make bold marks, drips and swaths of color, and I notice these too in the work of many accomplished encaustic artists.
Controlling heat is a big part of the encaustic process--from the way the way the torch is applied to the surface of the painting when fusing layers of wax, to monitoring the temperature of the molten wax and pigment, to melting wax and varnish to make the wax medium. I'm sure all of this becomes second nature with experience (I had to keep reminding myself to go through the fusing routine after each layer I put down.) In terms of visual expression, I can see that with practice, there would be many subtle ways to alter the outcome of the fusing process by how the heat was applied.
A few words then about using cold wax, and how the two processes can be contrasted. The most obvious perhaps is in the set-up needed--the studio requirements for cold wax paintings are the same as for other types of oil painting-no special equipment needed, just some basic ventilation. On the other hand, while I was expecting the encaustic process to require a complicated set-up, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that you can do a lot with a few old electric frying pans and a small torch. However--proper ventilation is very important for encaustics, and research to know what was needed for a particular space is important.
Another big difference is the "feel" of the paint and the process. Because cold wax medium is added to tube paint--giving it a smooth, spreadable consistency--it feels pretty much like traditional painting. With the encaustic process, the colors harden as soon as the wax cools a bit--there is not much time at all to move the color around. but oils mixed with cold wax stay fluid long enough to allow for subtle manipulation of color and shading while wet. (The cold wax does speed up overall drying time though, as compared to other oil mediums.)
While both hot wax an cold wax painters tend to build up their work in layers, the layers of a cold wax painting tend to be much thinner. At the same time, the ratio of cold wax medium to paint can be quite high without diluting the color, so rich color fields can be achieved. Because the wax layers are thin and closer together, one has less sense of actual depth, although illusionistic depth is definitely possible.
Also because the surface of a cold wax painting is not very deep, it is harder to achieve bold or dramatic carving and etching of lines--however, more delicate scratchings and linear work are easy. (Since I'm used to cold wax, I found the relatively thick surface of the encaustic painting to be resistant to fine lines--I kept carving up more than I wanted to. But again, experience would make a difference, I'm sure.) Cold wax also lends itself to reductive processes such as making lines and shapes by dissolving through top layers with solvent. I asked Jeff if there was an equivalent process in encaustic, and he mentioned something to do with wax medium, making a shape that would come through during the fusing process (if I have that right.)
In the end hot wax and cold wax seem to have more in common than in differences...these are both highly "forgiving" approaches in which changes can be made very quickly and intuitively. In both cases the wax leads to translucent layers, rich textures, and subtle, sometimes brilliant colors. In each, the possibilities for experimentation seem wide open and the potential for addiction quite strong! It's also worth noting that there are ways to combine the two approaches...in Jeff's workshop, I played around with adding encaustic layers over a thoroughly dry cold wax base, and also with cold wax over an encaustic base--both produced interesting results.