So You Want to Do Encaustic Painting? Page 2

Getting Prepared

Here is a simple list of what you need to get started. You *can* make your own colored wax (and many artists do) but for beginners, its easiest to begin with pre-made color wax bars. Also, many of the other materials can be scrounged up at garage sales, flea markets, or friends who just have things lying around they don't need anymore. If you are a good scrounger, the real cost will just be the pre-made wax bars.

List of Materials to Get You Started:
  • Hot Plate (you can use a pancake griddle or even fashion a heated work surface over a table-top hot-burners). I recommend a table top electric pancake griddle type of appliance with a heat controller on it.

  • Cups (this are to put your different melted wax colors in, like paint cups. Many artist use old muffin tins but you can use any metal cup container as long as it has a smooth flat bottom to pull the heat up evenly into the cup [I have found cat food cans and tuna fish cans do not work because the bottoms have ridges]). Remember that muffin tin will NEVER be used for food products again! Also select one larger contain to hold your clear medium melted wax. Many artists use those small personal bread pans and they work quite nicely.

  • Brushes (it is true that the brushes should be natural bristles just because synthetic quickly melt away under the heat, but I have found buying cheapo paint brushes at a hardware store like Ace Hardware or Home Depot to work great. Again, these brushes will then never be used for anything but your encaustic painting. Cheap is better because one can even go through the natural bristle ones). I have one small sized brush for every basic color I use - other artists only use a handful of brushes and use them across colors by kind of wiping out most of the old color in molten form on a paper towel. I also have medium size brushes and a couple of large one... and ones that will only be used with the clear wax so color never gets into them. Depends upon how you organize yourself.

  • Wax (okay, basic clear wax medium is made up of two basic ingredients: beeswax and damar which is a hardening agent. There are different types of beeswax and different amounts of hardening agent you can use and each has its pluses and minuses for durability of the resulting wax, but again - for this discussion and for beginners, it makes the most sense to just begin with the pre-made wax bars and you can learn later how to make your own wax). Best sources to buy these pre-made wax bars are:

    • R&F Paints (
    • your local Dick Blick store (

    You want to buy more clear medium wax than color wax bars because you'll use a lot of the clear medium and smaller amounts of the colored wax. Your first layers of your encaustic painting will be just clear wax medium and then you use the clear wax medium much like an extender - you added small chunks or chips of the colored wax to a cup that has a bunch of clear wax medium, until you have the translucent quality of that paint color you want.

    You can mix colors on your hot palette tray but its less frustrating to just begin with a good set of basic colors. You might already be used to a particular set of colors from oil painting or acrylic painting or watercolors - its up to you. If you are just not sure, I recommend some good beginning colors to include are:

    - ivory or mars black
    - titanium white
    - alizarin crimson
    - cadmium red medium
    - ultramarne blue
    - cobalt blue
    - cadmium yellow light
    - burnt umber
    - burnt sienna

    But I have to admit, I certainly fell in love with a solid turquoise pretty fast! So choose the color bars you'd like to work with. Some bars are much more expensive than others (mainly because they contain cadium, like cadium yellow or cadium red), but that's true of oil paints as well.

  • Fusing Devices. Not only do you put hot wax down on your painting surface, but you need to "fuse" one layer of the wax to the layer below it to build a wax painting that will not fall apart or become brittle later on. We'll talk more about this later but for now, you'll need to use some fusing devices. Each has its own benefits/downsides. I've some artists just get attached to whatever fusing device they initially learned with and some artists who use all kinds of implements, depending upon what they are trying to do. There are several common ones artist use: fusing iron (a little different than one might use on clothes), a heat gun (not quite a hair dryer, but close - you can get heat guns at Home Depot or maybe you already have one in the garage for another purpose), torches (okay I don't recommend you begin with this unless you are in a class with an experienced encaustic teacher), and speciality fusing items. I recommend beginning with a heat gun and if you can add an iron, great. I do a lot of my pieces only using the heat gun, but you'll quickly come to see how some of the speciality pieces are so good at doing certain things.

  • Carving Devices. Not required but you won't be happy if you don't have some of these. You can really get creative with these and just scrounge around but some typical sources are nails, small wood or linoleum carving tools, and old dental tools.

  • Collage Material. Again, not required but if you like the idea of exploring multimedia with wax - embedding all kinds of found objects and papers and fabrics, collect up all your collage materials and have them ready to play with.

  • Safety. While beeswax itself is not toxic, the other stuff is - the pigments, the damar hardening agent. You want to avoid heating wax to a temperature that it will burn or smoke. That will release toxic fumes and that is bad. You also really don't want to be leaning over molten wax working on your piece and just having all the fumes rise right into your face. Likewise, you don't want to absorb cadium and other heavy metals through your skin (which actually is just as true with oil paints) so here are a couple of safety items to begin with:

    • latex gloves (get a whole box cheaply at a hardware store)
    • a mask (many artists do not wear this but if you are sensitive or having fumes rise right into your face, wear a protective mask)
    • protective eyewear (again, you don't often see encaustic artists wear these, but if you are the type to be splashing molten wax around and want to protect your eyes and also not have the fumes go right up into eyes, get protective eyewear)
    • ventilation (this is important - if you don't have a well ventilated space to work in, don't do it. An opened garage, or a room that has a fan that moves the air across your workspace and *away* from you, out an opened window is important. It always surprises me how many new encaustic artists are probably fuming themselves out by not preparing a safe working space that has proper ventilation)
    • cords (if you have a bunch of things plugged in, don't trip over your cords when working with molten wax. Also, a griddle and heat gun alone takes a bunch of power so be careful not to overload your circuits. Doesn't usually happen with a small setup but some artists get themselves going with three hot palettes and two heat guns and other fusing elements and then someone turns on the microwave in the kitchen and everything shuts off. Long-time encaustic artists have a lot of experience with blowing fuses)
    • Hot items (your heat gun, your fusing elements, your hot palette griddle thing - the wax itself are all hot and can burn you. How do even experienced encaustic artists burn themselves? They forget where they put that heat gun down because they were caught up in the moment and all of a sudden their elbow comes in contain with a very hot tip and burns them. Remember where you put things down and *don't* put them down on flammable paper)
    • Floor covering (oh, you are going to drip wax even if you tell yourself you'll be careful. And wax is hard to get off of floors and clothes and everything else. Cover your floor and wear a smock - you'll just be happier when that wax stuff drips off the edge or splashes off the brush. Trust me.)

  • Support. This is what you are going to paint on. Because it is wax, it will crack and break off if you put wax on a flexible surface like a stetched canvas. So that is out. Encaustics need a strong non-bendable surface. Most encaustic artists paint on wood - wood that is porous (so wood like some masonites that have already been treated with some fillers that make them less porous would not be a good choice). You can paint right on the wood (the first layer of clear wax you'll "fuse" so the wax sinks into the porous wood surface, thus securing the encaustic painting to the surface). Some artists glue canvas (non-gesso'd) on to wood to maintain that canvas feel. Some artist glue paper on to the wood. And some artists use natural gessos (ones that don't have plastic acrylics in them, like the traditional rabbit-skin gesso) to paint a wood surface and then lay down their first wax layer on that - to get a nice white surface to paint on. Pine or birch wood are some good choices. You can buy these beautifully made specifically for encaustic paintings or just scrap around and cut it yourself (just plan ahead how the piece will be hung and take care of that before working on your wax painting).

    Some artists do paint encaustics on just paper and then either mount them on wood or not. Obviously, if it is not mounted, it is more susceptible to breakage and is more fragile.

    Some artists do encaustic sculptures and put wax on clay sculptures (clay is porous and so will adhere to the wax) and some artists explore with all kinds of interesting materials. Your creativity is your limit. And some experimentations may not survive but that doesn't mean it was valuable to try and see how strong or fragile the piece is.

    What wax does not adhere well with are non-porous materials - plastics, glass, metals.

  • Paper Towels. Everyone is different, but I have been amazed at the amount of paper towels I go through, so come prepared - to wipe brushes, wipe your palette, wipe your fusing devices, wipe your drips, wipe, wipe, wipe.

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