Why make your own medium?
I confess. In my zeal to be cheap, I will launch myself into an arcane process that takes time, money and an insane amount of mental energy. But maybe some of you are outcome-oriented. Maybe you see wasting an afternoon cooking wax as just that—time away from the studio when you could be making art. For you, there is the Internet.
I recommend buying some pre-mixed encaustic medium. R&F Handmade Paints has both cakes and bags of pellets in the gold standard for which this paint maker is justly famous. Encaustic Supplies has a nice variety to choose from, including R&F, though I haven’t compared prices between these two sites.
But if you are like me and the idea of buying something that is five or six times more expensive than the sum of its parts is abhorrent, let’s waste this beautiful afternoon.
The basic ingredients are one pound of wax to two or three ounces of damar crystals. Damar is pitch or sap harvested from lowland rain forest trees in Malaysia. Wikipedia says the trees are from the Hopea family, which doesn’t tell me much. But the harvesting process is like tapping for maple sugar and is, I guess, more or less sustainable. Before we go down that road, remember that painters also rely on glue made from rabbits. It’s not always pretty, this art thing.
Why use damar resin?
By itself, beeswax is nearly perfect and many artists use it as it comes. Damar doesn’t add anything to the look of wax, nor does it help much with flexibility—one of the big drawbacks of this medium. But damar does help extend the melting pointing, always a good thing. The other thing damar does is create a stable, shiny surface and inhibits some of the nasty effects of cold weather on wax.
Proportions of wax to resin is highly subjective and every encaustic artist finds her or his own balance. I tend to use slightly under two ounces of resin to a pound of wax.
What you need:
- Beeswax, one pound.
- Damar crystals, two and a half ounces, available from Utrecht, Art Media, Encaustic Supplies. ***Don’t use damar varnish. Ever. It is flammable and you will be killed.
- A heavy Teflon saucepan
- Clean, dry tins. I use cat food tins, but people use muffin tins. You will use about 5-6 four ounce cat food tins per pound of wax, depending on how full you fill them.
- Strainer of some kind, lined with cheesecloth.
- Wooden spoon.
And please cover your counter or table. Wax paper is great for this.
If you have little children underfoot or husbands or even a chatty best friend on the
phone, get a sitter or consider not cooking until everyone is taking a nap. You will be working with volatile substances at significant heat. You don’t want to be distracted.
All that said, melting wax over the burner in a heavy saucepan is pretty safe.
Put your wax brick or wax pellets in a saucepan over medium high heat. As soon as the wax begins to melt lower the heat to medium. You will play the heat between medium and medium low during this process.
As soon as the wax is melted and steamy, with temperatures above 160F (and climbing) CAREFULLY add your damar crystals. They will spit and crackle and melt in slow, thick ribbons. Stir the contents with great care.
If you are monitoring the temperature, allow the mixture to get almost to 200F. By then the last few bits of crystal will be fully incorporated.
You may notice bits of wood that look like splinters in your medium. This comes from the damar which, like amber, has captured many little extras in its sticky self. This is why you want to strain it. Note: I used to scoff at straining my medium but the last batch I cooked looked like a toothpick factory.
Place a nice wide funnel into a tin and carefully pour the medium. It is helpful to mark your funnel before you pour so that you don’t over fill.
Watch the wax shrink and crack as it cools. Soon you can pick up these cans, marvel at your obsessiveness, and tuck them away for future use.
I cooked four pounds of wax medium this weekend and ordered another five pounds of filtered white from Swan’s. If I were better at math I would have realized that one pound of wax cooks into five 9-Lives cat food tins. And that’s not a lot. I run through the stuff so quickly.
I sort of hate to add a lot of damar to Ruhl’s glorious unfiltered wax, but I do it anyway, watching the crystals pop and sizzle, noting how the smell changes from honey to a pitchy scent of damar, and with it all feeling of sensual good cheer. Filtered white wax has so little scent of its own that adding the crystals brings it back to the realm of the senses.