I’ve been teaching encaustic painting since 2005 and throughout my teaching I have noticed four major recurring issues, problems and mistakes that many (beginner to advanced) encaustic painters encounter. Application, temperature, translucency and fusing issues are the infamous four problems. Even more of a problem is that these issues are difficult to pinpoint as some beginning painters may think it’s just the medium itself and give up before they really get started. Intermediate and advanced painters may have learned to adapt, but still end up getting frustrated. Encaustic is an amazing painting medium and its so sad when I hear that artists have given it up because of a problem that could have easily been fixed with knowing only one useful tip.
So if you’re having some painting bothers (both encaustic medium and pigmented encaustic paint), don’t throw down your brushes in disgust just yet…read on for the rescue. I’d like to preface by saying, if you’re heavy handed, a texture fiend, a fuse monster or anything else on this list and it doesn’t bother you….by all means, do you! Just make sure you have the control you want when it’s applicable and you’re obtaining desired results.
- PROBLEM Application– This is the number one issue on my list because this is where it all begins–if your application goes wrong, it’s pretty much a melty mess from there. Encaustic application is affected by many factors: the amount of paint on the brush, the size of the brush, the type of the brush and the angle of the brush as well as the temperature of the paint, which I address below in #2. Improper paint application can cause issues with too much texture, blurring or obscuring collage elements, wasting paint/medium, not to mention endless frustration.
FIX Try using a smaller brush. Seriously, I know those 4-inch brushes are luscious, but you don’t need one that large when you’re painting on anything smaller than a 36×36 inch panel and even then I would question it’s use. The brush size should reflect the panel size and/or the function of the stroke. For example, I never go above a 1.5 inch brush when applying medium over collage and I have several sizes below 1.5 in my medium skillet. When painting, you can get a bit larger, but stay proportionate to the size of your panel and/or the effect you’re trying to achieve.
FIX Try a different type of brush/tool. Most encaustic painters prefer hake brushes to chip brushes as they hold a nice amount of paint and make a nice smooth stroke when needed. However, if you’re not getting the results you like with a brush, try an alternative application tool, such as a palette knife or squeegee. See this blog post for how to make an alternative brush from flashing.
FIX Scrape off excess paint. If your brushes are sitting in cups or skillets of paint/medium and you’re not scraping them, you’re likely applying too much. Any brush, especially a hake is just sitting in there soaking up the wax. Try scraping the brush on the side of the cup once or twice. This works wonders, trust me.
FIX Adjust the angle. Because of the way a hake brush is made, it holds most of the paint at the base. So if you’re looking for a lot of paint to flow smoothly, try holding the brush at a 45 degree angle to the substrate with a gentle pressure instead of just the tip of the brush touching the substrate.
- PROBLEM Too much Texture This problem is very much related to application, but it’s a solo number on this list because it’s possibly the most annoying and prevalent issue in encaustic painting. This is also one of those problems that can cause someone to either begrudgingly accept it or quit encaustic altogether.
FIX Adjust the Temperature. So simple, yet it’s ignored or not sufficiently attended to. The proper working temperature for encaustic painting is 200 degrees Fahrenheit….nothing less and sometimes more! More people than I can count do not keep their paint hot enough for proper encaustic painting. I use a pancake griddle in my unheated studio and in the winter I usually have it at 225F. Most pancake griddles are not meant to be working for hours at a time, so the heating elements are not accurate. If your wax is cooling on your brushes and too much texture is on your substrate, your wax is simply not hot enough.
FIX Load Your Brush. While having too much paint on your brush may cause problems, having too little can be problematic as well. If you’re mixing your paint directly on the griddle and not in cups, chances are you’re not loading your brush. Make sure you have a nice puddle of paint, your brush is laid flat as you soak it up (not just the tip) and you load both sides of the brush.
FIX Keep your brushes warm. During painting, your brushes should always be kept in the cups or on your griddle to keep them warm. When they begin to cool as you paint, lay them flat for few seconds on the griddle to warm up.
- PROBLEM Too much Opacity, No Translucency. One of the most amazing things about encaustic is its wonderful translucency and yet, I see very few artists taking advantage of this gift. Most are adding way too much pigment and not enough medium and/or not understanding that translucency is even an option to take their work to the next level. The ability to look through the layers to embedded information creates interest and encourages the viewer to remain engaged with your work. The key to translucency lies in the paint mixing.
FIX Add color to Medium. In my teaching, I see way too many artists adding medium to their melted paint in order to create a translucent glaze and then end up using ten pounds of medium for a single color. Instead, add color to the medium to create a glaze. Melt a small amount of medium in your color cup or on the palette and then add a very small amount of color to create a tint. Keep adding color in very small increments until the desired color/translucency is achieved. Color test as you add. You will be amazed at how this changes your color mixing knowledge as well as the look of your paintings.
- PROBLEM Over fusing I can’t tell you how many (mostly beginners) tell me that they love what they painted, but when they fuse it, it gets all smushed together and ruined. While fusing is definitely necessary, there are various levels and various fusing tools that can be implemented according to the technique you’re employing. For the purposes of this article, I am focusing only on painting and not collage or other mixed media.
FIX Try another tool. I use three tools for fusing; an iron, a heat gun and a torch. Many beginners start encaustic painting with the torch and only use it for the duration of their careers. This is fine if it’s working for you, but in many situations, it isn’t working. I always say, begin with a heat gun and gradually add in the torch. Also, most expensive heat guns are way too hot and heavy for what you need. I love my embossing tool and have used it since the beginning. It’s exactly what I need and if I need anything stronger, I use my torch.
FIX Don’t Fuse Every Layer. What??? Yes, that’s what I said. If you’re fusing every single application of paint, you likely have a very hot surface you’re working on and this is creating a hot waxy mess instead of a painting. Okay, if you’re a heavy handed painter, you should probably fuse every 1-2 layers. But if you’re applying thin to medium strokes and those strokes are only in one part of the painting, I recommend only fusing every 2-4 layers. Your substrate is already warm enough from your last fusing and therefore doesn’t need another right after you just applied new hot paint. Many people are perplexed when I tell them this liberating fact after they have been over-fusing for so many years. I have paintings out in the world that are now over 20 years old and they are still in excellent shape. Try it! Trust me, you’ll thank me later.
FIX Employ the The Glazed Donut Standard. Many encaustic painters seem to be mistaken in thinking that in order to properly fuse, the wax needs to be brought back to a molten state or close to it and this is just not the case. It’s for this reason that many painters sadly obliterate their paintings. But for the foundation layers, it’s only in very few cases that you would ever need to fuse back to a molten state. For the most part, most fusing should render the surface no more shinier than a glazed donut and this is where the standard on your fusing scale begins. Sometimes you will need to fuse more than a glazed donut, sometimes less, but this is the fusing surface you are attempting to achieve.