Why I Love Encaustic

This is just a simple list of all the reasons I love working with encaustic paint:

1. The smell. OMG the smell is amazing. Encaustic paint is primarily beeswax. The warm buttery smell of beeswax is very calming. As soon as I turn on the hot plate and smell the wax it's like all my worries melt away right along with the wax.

2. Oil paint colors without the oil paint cleanup or dry time. Enough said.

3. Speaking of cleanup - no water, no dry hands. Cleaning encaustic off of tools is just a matter of warming them up and wiping them off. No running water. No solvents. No soap. No dirty sink. No husband yelling about clogging the drains. Although there is occasionally the yelling of "Are you burning something!?" ...uh...yeah..."I'm ALWAYS burning something." Hello. LOL.

4. Next, starting over is just a heat gun away. Sometimes things just can't be saved. Yes, yes, some artists will tell you that you can always work through missteps and 'make it work'...yeah, but sometimes I don't want to. Sometimes I just get mad and want to throw the whole thing away. With other mediums that might mean waiting for everything to dry, gesso-ing over the catastrophe, and then starting again to salvage the canvas or panel. It could also mean I just have to trash it. A heartbreaking waste of materials.

Encaustic...just heat it up, scrape it off, and voilà I have a clean panel to start over. I don't even waste the wax. I keep a few 'waste wax' cans in my studio where I throw all the drips, shavings, spills, and swipes. Regardless of color. Because you know what all the colors mixed together make? Brown. Who doesn't need brown? Just filter the wax to get out any shellac or weird bits and use it again.

Now with fluid acrylics we can wipe bad pours as well, but only while the paint is still wet. Encaustic is even better...there is no time frame...just heat and repeat...indefinitely. If I decide I hate a piece a month after making it I can still melt and wipe it.

5. No boring finish coats. No clear coating. No varnishing. The most tedious chore of working with acrylic is clear coating. That never ending battle of brush strokes that won't level, or dust landing right in the middle of the canvas while it dries ruining the whole finish. Encaustic? Just buff, and done. Heaven.

6. No stretching canvas. I have scars from the number of staple wounds I've had from stretching canvas. Also, canvas is such a finicky beast. It has to be perfectly ironed (no creases) and perfectly taunt. There is time spent wetting it to get it to shrink up, or adding tightening keys to fix saggy bits. Encaustic uses wood panels. No gesso (despite what they try to tell you) is needed. Nothing sags. Nothing needs stapling.

7. Wood panels are cheaper than canvas. Now granted in the small to medium sizes the cost to buy a wood panel is about the same as a commercial gallery canvas, but when it comes to the larger sizes wood inexplicably becomes much cheaper. The typical big box DIY store sells various sizes, thicknesses, and qualities of plywood that are WAY cheaper than any art store canvas. Add on the wood cradles around the edges and you can easily make a very large wood panel much cheaper than a canvas.

8. No dry time. A few minutes of cool down and done. No waiting for paint to dry. Ever.

9. Simple patina or sepia effects by just using natural beeswax. The golden hue of natural beeswax that has not been ultra filtered to bright white instantly adds an aged, sepia style affect to any work.

10. No cleaning brushes. I can't say this enough. NO CLEANING BRUSHES. There is no removing the wax from a brush, so the rule is one brush to one color. This might be considered expensive, but encaustic doesn’t require expensive brushes, only natural bristle so that the heat doesn’t melt them. When I'm finished painting I just turn off the hot plate, take the torch head off, and walk away.

Now don't get me wrong. Eventually, I do have to clean up. The metal tools, empty paint cups, and hot plate will be covered in wax drippings. But there is no water or solvents involved. To clean up just get everything hot. I use my heat gun to warm up my tools and then wipe them off. I set empty paint cups in the hot plate and turn it on until they are hot and then pick them up with a pair of pliers and wipe them off. I then turn off the hot plate and wipe off the surface with a few paper towels. Usually takes less than 5 minutes to clean it all up.

11. Reusable, recyclable, less waste. There are few single-use products needed for encaustic paintings. Encaustic needs permanent tools made of metal. Items that can withstand the heat. These are all easily cleaned by warming them up. I can raid my recycle bins for things like scrap cardboard for withdrawing oil from oil paints as pigment. I can wash and use aluminum or steel cans from the kitchen. So not only is the encaustic medium natural (organic beeswax and damar resin), but the tools are natural bristle, wood, containers are metal...not to mention the entire world of up-cycling found objects when doing embedded encaustic works. So overall, it just feels like an artistic practice with a conscience. I do use recycled paper towels for wiping off tools, but far less than I used painting with oil or acrylic paint.

12. It's archival. Encaustic has been around for a very very long time. Paints made from color pigments suspended in wax are still around from ancient times. That is just very cool.

Now a list of Pros is not complete without the Cons. So here they are:

1. Heat. Burns are a fact. But temperatures aren’t excessive, so usually no blisters...just some curling iron type oops moments. It happens.

2. There can be fumes. Not from the encaustic itself, because warmed encaustic is really no different than burning a beeswax candle. But shellac burn in, and dry pigments can be hazardous, so good ventilation is necessary, although oil painting requires the same attention so there’s that.

3. Space. Encaustic isn’t something you can just whip out on your kitchen table and have a go at it. It needs hot plates and splatter proof surfaces and room to move to avoid burning yourself. A dedicated space is a must.

4. No romantic outdoor painting excursions. Encaustic requires a hot plate tethered to an electrical outlet, so there won't be any jaunts out to the country side for a plein-air session. But, I suppose, if I was inclined, I could haul everything out to my deck and have a go on the patio table. Although trying to keeps flies and leaves (and cats) from landing in plates of hot wax sounds a bid tedious, so I think I'll stay in the studio.

5. Lastly...time. While there is no dry time, and very little clean up time, encaustic does need time to melt the wax. It requires planning to know when you want to start painting so you can start melting paint about 20 minutes ahead of time. Also, each layer of wax will need time to cool (usually 2-3 minutes), and it can be annoying doing the work-wait-work-wait scenario over and over. So it really helps to work on two or three paintings at a time. Then toggle between them while layers cool on each one.

So, that's it. If you've considered encaustic painting, but wasn't sure if it would be for you, give it a try. I guarantee you won't miss cleaning brushes.