Let’s start with the basics: wax.
There are many different kinds of wax, both natural and petroleum-based. I got started in the wax trade as a kid playing with my parents’ dinner candles. The stuff was addictive. Almost too hot to touch, a dripping liquid one moment and frozen solid the next. Before it hardened, I tried to mold the candle wax and press it into shapes but I always ended up returning it to the flame. I liked to watch the wax heat up, grow shiny and dissolve into itself again.
As I recall, these were plain white unscented paraffin candles. The melting point for paraffin is around 120 F, though there are formulas that extend the melting point to 147F. In its solid state it is brittle and friable, prone to chipping, cracking and falling apart. Paraffin isn’t sticky but it possesses a certain oily touch that always feels like a candle. Though it can be incredibly clear when spread in thin layers, the softness of this material makes it difficult to use in encaustic art. The advantage of paraffin is that it takes acrylic paint very well, so it is both cheap and easy to use.
But once I tried beeswax, that it was it.
When I got home Saturday night, there was a big priority mail box from Swan’s Candles waiting for me in the studio. Inside was bag of cosmetic grade white beeswax in tiny pellets called prill. It is pure white, yet it started life as part of comb, either the golden cells that protect bees’ honey, or the dark, pitchy stuff that protect bee larvae. In its natural, just-made state, wax is much closer to white than golden. The color is the result of many things including the kinds of flowers bees gather their nectar from, to bee wings and other detritus from the lives of bees. Swan’s filters and filters and filters again. They don’t bleach their product or otherwise interfere with the chemistry of the wax.
I found Swan’s Candles online after searching for local unbleached white beeswax at a reasonable price. I live in Oregon City, right? Choose one of the above: cheap, unbleached or local. There is no multiple choice. Once I resigned myself to the fact that I would always have to shop online, I found Swan’s, which actually does give me all three qualities I wanted. They are located in Lakewood, Washington (Washington is sort of local); their products are completely clean and green; and the price, even with shipping, is better than okay.
At Swan’s you can buy fifty pounds of paraffin if you are so inclined, as well as carnauba wax, tacky wax, soy wax, yellow beeswax, candle molds, or any other candle making thing or tool you can imagine. I want to go on a pilgrimage someday.
The advantage of Swan’s white, cosmetic grade wax in encaustic work is that thin layers of it are perfectly clear.
Ruhl Bee Supply
The other beeswax I buy comes in 1 pound bars and it is not clear. Though it has been melted and filtered once, this wax retains a golden umber color and is still unmistakably the gift of bees. I get it from Ruhl Bee Supply in Milwaukie, Oregon where they specialize in the gentle art of apiology.
Ruhl’s has a candle making area but it is the smaller part of the operation. They are a beekeeping supply, offering everything from hives and hive supplies to those amazing beekeeper suits. You can order from them online, but visiting the shop is such a treat that The Theory and I would probably go there for the honey even if I didn’t have a little encaustic habit.
When melted, this wax is amazing. It is a light medium yellow. It smells of honey a lot. When cool it still smells of honey and even has a slight stickiness that can linger for a few days. I like to prime with Ruhl wax because it maintains a certain flexibility, maybe forever, which is good for base layers that form the first contact with whatever support I use.
Yellow wax blends well with red and yellow pigments. When I use this wax as a fusing layer, it glows like amber, trapping light and warmth. As it cools, this wax will cloud slightly where filtered wax will not. Sometimes this clouding is beautiful, as if a veil has been drawn over the colors beneath.
I like to have yellow wax bars around, and not just for encaustic. This was the stuff ancient shipbuilders used to seal cracks in their boats. It is dense and durable. I use it as glue and substrate, fixing planting pots, even coating pages of text with it.
Next: Beyond wax and into the medium