Misadventures with Encaustic

by Liz

Brilliance is highly valued in pigments. The binder used to affix pigments to a surface, especially canvas, greatly affects the brilliance and richness of the color. Acrylic paints, while easy to use and available in a wide range of modern, chemical pigments, can quickly become muddy when mixed and usually have a matte finish that, without gel mediums or finishes, doesn’t reflect light and enhance colors. Watercolors are also matte, but the pigments are purer. Oil paint benefits from the delicious thick satin finish that makes pigments seem to glow from within, but oils take so long to dry/cure even in low-humidity that someone impatient (like me) might become frustrated. Encaustic, however, is pigment bound in wax, so as soon as it cools, it’s ready for a new layer. It has a similar brilliant glow to oil paints and is surprisingly long-lasting:

Still beautifully brilliant after 2000 years (circa 110-100 BC)

I had some old crayons rolling around and some stray canvas boards, not to mention an astounding store of boredom and curiosity, so I decided to wing it. Thus began the great Misadventure with Encaustic.

Crayons are Dangerous

First I dabbled with drawing directly on the canvas. I drew a lovely kitten asleep on a fluffy pink pillow infront of a window with a catnip mouse at his/her feet and an oblivious bird singing on a branch. The color wasn’t filling in too well, but I figured that a little heat would cause the wax to puddle out and spread. I didn’t know what to use to heat the canvas and I didn’t want to break down and use the internet beause, after all, that’s cheating. This is SPARTA and here we MacGyver our way out of ignorance. I had an iron, but no clue how to apply the heat effectively (and no desire to ruin my precious, precious iron), so I turned to ye olde standby: Broil. I popped the crayoned canvas into the oven and turned the knob all the way up. Two minutes in, I pulled it out, expecting my brilliant plan to produce brilliant color– wrong. The crayon lines had hardly budged. I stuck it back in the oven for two more minutes, but still the mocking white canvas leered through my colors. In frustrated rage, I grabbed a crayon in my fist and smashed it onto the burning hot canvas, raking a flesh-colored zigzag right accross the adorable kitty’s face. The crayon turned liquid against the warm canvas, much to my murderous delight, gliding like an anorexic wax figureskater.

Sadly, this discovery came too late to save my adorable little kitten (the PETA skater would not approve), but now I had a peaches and cream base of glowing wax. It was cooling rapidly in the air conditioning, so I switched off the fan and stuck the canvas back in the oven for two minutes, removed it with a sock (I had not yet invested in oven mitts), and began drawning/painting away. I repeated this process five or six times as the room became so warm that the canvas didn’t cool too quickly and I had to change into shorts. I was quite proud of myself, especially when I discovered that since I had so many layers of wax built up that when I put it in the oven, the wax puddled like I had originally intended and mingled the colors into a smooth, satiny surface. I added a few final flourishes of color and stuck the canvas back in the oven.

Now fully drenched in sweat or, as one of my gym teachers once said “glowing. Ladies don’t sweat. They glow,” Iwas in desperate need of a cold washcloth and a cool breeze. So I took a moment to run the ten feet to my bathroom and drench a washcloth in water and drape it on my head. I flung open the window and breathed in the not-cool-but-still-refreshing breeze. I turned to check my rediculous appearence in the mirror when I caught a wiff of something strange. The wet cloth flew off my head and spashed into the floor as I dashed to the kitchen and yanked open the oven. I hadn’t been gone more than 30 seconds, but the painting was already beginning to burn. Thin whisps of smoke rippled menacingly over the surface of the wax and curled up in claw-like whisps as though some vaporous demon was trying to steal my painting.

Bad smoke demon! Bad!

I rescued the poor painting from the hellish oven as quickly as I could without sloshing melted wax everywhere. I turned the fan back on and flung the windows open to banish every last bit of acrid smoke from my apartment. I don’t know if the sudden tempurature change affected the crystalization of the wax, but if it did, it must have been okay since the surface cooled to a brilliant, velvety sheen with lustrous deep blacks, soft organic tans, and sizzling electric blues. My psuedo-encaustic misadventure may have been a little haphazard, but it was delicious, dangerous fun.

She's only slightly disgruntled

Title: Untitled (Woman)
Medium: Wax Crayon (Encaustic) on Canvas Board
Size: 10″ x 10″
Year: 2010

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