In order to best serve our customers, Cheap Joe’s takes every opportunity to educate its employees. From the customer service representatives to the shipping department, we are all encouraged to learn as much as we can about the products we sell. This helps us to develop a working knowledge of all of the great art stuff, as well as, giving us the ability to make accurate recommendations to our customers. A large number of the employees have some background or interest in art. Whether it is a hobby or a career, art plays a big part in our daily lives.
On occasion, we have the opportunity to further our education on art supplies by taking a class from a professional artist. In the best cases, we will have working artists on staff that are willing to teach us about the art or medium that they are currently using. Several Cheap Joe’s employees produce art on a regular basis. From traditional materials such as oils, acrylics, watercolors, and pastels, to even more mysterious mediums like encaustics.
Recently, we had a chance to find out more about encaustics from Chris Craft, who works in our Charlotte NC retail store as a professional framer. Even though Chris has a full time job, he still manages to spend ample time in his studio working and producing art on a regular basis.
Despite the inclement weather last Wednesday night, a small, but curious and eager, group of Cheap Joe’s employees and friends met in our workshop space to take the encaustic class. Each of us ready to take in all of the new and interesting information about this ancient art medium. We all had a seat at the demo area where Chris had everything he needed ready to show us the complete process. He brought many of his tools and supplies from home, many of which looked like common household products. From a pancake griddle and a hot plate to stainless steel pots and pans. It looked as if we might be in for a cooking class instead of one relating to art! I wonder if Chris’ wife was aware he had raided her kitchen before leaving home?
Chris has been a graphic artist most of his life, however, he has been concentrating exclusively on encaustics for about seven years, now. He began the lesson by telling us some of the history of the encaustic art. It seems it has been around for thousands of years since the days of the Egyptians and was also found to be used by the Vikings to seal the hulls of their ships as well as to provide decoration. They used the same process of heating bee’s wax and the resin from a tree to make a material that would be water proof and durable enough to last and last. Then, by adding natural pigments to it, they discovered it could be used as a painting medium for decorating pottery and other art forms.
Chris explained about all of the supplies needed to produce an encaustic work of art. The list was quite extensive. However, most of the products are available at Cheap Joe’s. R&F carries a whole line of encaustic products including hot palettes, heat guns, encaustic mediums, paints, and tools. They also have a studio set that includes everything you need to get started. For his support, Chris chose the Joe’s Prime Cradled Wood Painting Panel, allowing him to producing works from small 4×4 sized pieces up to over 20×20″. The panels are an excellent and sturdy choice to support the several layers of wax that are applied to the surface and any other materials that may be imbedded in the encaustic wax.
First, the wax medium, which is made from pure beeswax mixed with damar resin, is heated to about 190 degrees to liquefy it. Then, it is used to coat the unfinished wood panel. This can be quite a challenge as the mixture cools immediately as the wax is transferred from the hot plate to the panel with the help of an inexpensive chip brush. The wax is then heated by waving the heat gun slowly over the surface until it is shiney. A heat gun should not be mistaken for a hair dryer as it can reach temperatures of over 1000 degrees and should not be used on anything other than the wax. You will need to be careful not to overheat the wax while melting on the hot plate or while fusing with the heat gun, as this can cause it to release toxic fumes into the air. The hot palette temperature should be kept around 190 degrees as the wax will start to smoke at about 200 degrees. A palette thermometer is a great way to keep the temperature in check. If this happens while fusing, turn off the heat gun and allow the air to clear. The wax will cool quickly, so it might take a few passes to fully fuse the wax. Once, the surface has been melted or fused it will create a permanent bond with the unfinished panel. After the first layer is completely cooled, which will only take minutes, you can proceed by applying layers of colored encaustic paints. These are placed in a tin, such as a muffin pan that is placed on the pancake griddle and heated until the paints are melted. Keep the design patterns simple and interesting while using colors that work well together. There are many tools available to manipulate the wax by cutting in and scraping with cold tools, or melting areas with a heat tool with multiple attachments. You can also add texture by impressing patterned objects, applying fabric, fibers, and other natural materials directly into the warm pliable wax. There are also tools and brushes by Catalyst that are made from silicone and will not melt when heated. These are great for use with encaustics to add texture and applying the wax to your surface. After, you have completed your artwork you can choose to treat it with the Enkaustikos XD Wax medium as a varnish. This product contains a higher content of damar resin that will cure to a hard and durable finish. When this layer has completely cured you can use a piece of wax paper or a sponge buffer to shine it up to a beautiful finish! Wow! That was a lot to take in all at once. I was really eager to try out all of the stuff I had learned!
After getting all of the information about the procedure, we all went back to our tables to actually put what we learned to immediate use. This is a great practice when learning a new process. It allows you to experience immediately the medium and helps you to retain the information. I had used encaustics in the past, but it seemed this time was a bit of a challenge. I found I was rather impatient while waiting for the mediums and pigments to melt, as I was really ready to dive into the project! Applying the wax medium with the chip brush seemed difficult because it cooled so quickly. It might have been more convenient to pour on larger amounts of melted wax and then heated the areas and move the paint around. Although it took some effort, I did manage to completely cover the 5×7 extra deep cradled panel with the wax medium. I then fused the layer and allowed it to cool. Then I proceeded to apply deep wine colors and dark rich greens for the background. I found quickly that you have to be careful not to leave the heat gun on one area too long. This will cause the wax to slide and run and mingle all of the colors together, losing any intended detail. After completing my base colors by heating again, I decided to paint a “dry fly” lure used by fly fisherman. This was a theme that I know Cheap Joe, himself, would appreciate. I did this freehand from memory so the design was unique. To get the detail I needed, I started applying the melted encaustic paints from the tins with a tiny brush. Then I used melted Sennelier oil pastels to add the fine feathers and details. I found this to work quite well, as the oil pastels really held their shape and form due to the higher oil content and were not strongly affected by the heating process. They do however take longer to dry and cure.
Chris explained to us that it could be an expensive art because of all of the materials and tools, however, there were some ways you could save money in the long run. He showed us how to mix our own wax medium with damar resin and beeswax, just like the did in the Viking days. This can save you money by buying in bulk and mixing your own. He pours the mixture in a muffin pan and cool it completely. Then, breaks the pieces with a hammer into smaller, usable chunks. These will be easier to melt in smaller quantities. He also explained that you never throw away any material that might be removed by cutting and sculpting the wax. This is collected in a old pot, melted down, and used to build the under painting layers, saving your expensive pigments for the top layer! He also mentioned you can mix traditional oil paints with the wax medium and make your own custom encaustic paints. Chris says it takes just a small amount of oil paint to tint the medium, however, the oil paint should not be more than 20% of the mixture as it should be predominately wax medium to securely bond with the previous layer.
Others around the room were producing wonderful works of art as well! There were bright colors and textures, and patterns, and portraits, galore! Everyone was having a wonderful time with this new encaustic medium! Chris made his rounds to make sure everyone was doing a good job and not burning down the house! We all found no matter your experience with art or the medium, or whether you were an artist or not, with ample instruction, anyone could learn the process.
The evening was very fun and informative! I was rather impressed with the vast possibilities of this new medium. Your mind just goes crazy with ideas as you immerse yourself in the project. Everyone had a wonderful piece of artwork to take home and enjoy, as well as, some valuable information to share with our customers.
So you see, learning about a new medium or technique has some wonderful benefits. It opens up the possibilities for you to expand your knowledge of the production of art. It makes you appreciate those who make art even if you do not choose to continue it. You learn how the product works, its challenges and pros and cons, and are able to pass the found information on to others. You also learn to appreciate the value of materials and understand why they may be more of an investment than other mediums. You learn to be more conscious of safety issues while making art.
The interest in Encaustic Art is growing everyday. It is exciting to see what the future brings next in the way of art materials. Who knows what type of class we will have next! Don’t miss the opportunity to check out some of the new things offered in your area!
Have a Happy, Hot, Waxy of a Day!