Welcome to 2013—but gently, please! Some of us have to go back to work.
So, cold wax. If you read my first post on the subject, you know that beeswax can be turned into a cold, spreadable, mayonnaise-like substance. But now that you’ve got a jar of the stuff, what do you do with it?
Let me tell you: Board prep.
It all started when I stumbled over word enkaustikos—what does it mean? Everyone says it means “to burn in,” and it originated with the Ancient Greeks, who developed the art of painting with melted wax. That part seemed obvious. But then there was the troubling Pliny the Elder recipe which appeared to yield a cold wax paste. So which was it? Hot or cold?
As it turns out, both. The Greeks loved encaustic. They loved it so much they did large murals on stone surfaces, which had to be tricky because stone is cold and hot wax would congeal as soon as it hit the surface. W.B.S. Taylor in A Manual of Fresco and Encaustic Painting claims the Greeks prepared the walls in advance by heating the stone and applying cold wax paste. Using a heat source like a brazier suspended from a scaffolding, they heated the wall in sections until it reached about 100 degrees F (much hotter might cause the stone to crack). Once the wall was heated, they brushed on the cold wax, which was absorbed into the warm stone. They repeated the procedure several times until the walls had absorbed as much cold wax as possible. W.B.S. Taylor says that the stone would absorb as much as several inches of wax.
After the wall cooled, which could take several days, the artist brought out the hot wax and painted as usual. When the painting was finished, the artist covered the whole surface with another layer of clear wax and burned in—fused—again, using the same suspended brazier method as before.
Preparing stone and board with cold wax
I thought, why not try it? I bought a pack of 6″ slate tile from Home Depot and cut a few 6″ squares of plywood board as a control.
I used my heat gun to super-heat the stone tiles and board, brushing on glops of cold wax paste. It melted into the surface and the mineral spirits gassed off, leaving a waxy residue behind. I have to admit that super heating a piece of board is a lot easier than stone, and I was able to add five or six layers before the wax stopped melting into the board. It was interesting to watch air fizzle out of the board with each application—as if all the gas in the board was being replaced with wax. The stone tiles never exactly fizzled and I only managed about three coats before the wax pooled on the surface with nowhere to go.
The boards cooled right away, and surfaces were dense and waxy, yet I could still feel the grain of the wood. When I added layers of hot wax to the prepared substrate, I fused as usual. Once the cold wax and solvent had gone their separate ways, the paste was just wax again and responded to heat like regular wax medium.
So what does all this mean?
- Deep penetration of wax into a substrate creates a very stable, fusable surface for encaustic;
- Using wax paste drives air out of boards, which can reduce pinholes and bubbles;
- Using a cold wax surface prep allows artists to work at a larger scale, if they wish.
Notes: I miss the luminosity that chalk-based gesso gives encaustic, but the reduction in pinholes and bubbles is a great advantage. I haven’t added any pigment to the cold wax yet, but I have no reason to think it won’t work to restore some luminosity.
Cold wax surface prep takes time, but doesn’t everything? There is nothing faster than going to Blick’s and buying a stack of prepared boards. But if you choose not to spend that kind of money, what you do spend is time. Once you try this preparation, you might decide it’s worth it.