I’ve been pretty busy in the studio lately – I have three projects on-the-go at the moment.
One of these is a book I’m planning to submit to Books…Beyond Words at East Gippsland Art Gallery later this year. I was making the cover using paperbark and encaustic medium, so I thought I’d show you how I do that.
In this post I would like to share my set-up for working with encaustic/wax. My emphasis for any art activity is always health and safety, closely followed by not spending too much money until I’m sure I want to commit to the medium.
You’ll see that the set-up I have at the moment is both safe and functional but cost me less than AU $80.
The first thing that I want to say is that when it comes to wax, I am completely self-taught. I do have a few excellent references which I will share with you later. If you’ve been following this blog for a (really) long time, you may remember that I did some work with wax as part of my masters. So I’ve been a “serious dabbler” with the medium for some years, and it has captivated me from the start. I am always on the look-out for ways that it might add to the work I am doing.
The Basic Set-Up
- Wax: There are a lot of different types of wax but beeswax is the primary one for art. The wax in my photo is from a beekeeper just outside Brisbane. I order online here. This wax is water-cleaned but not bleached, so if you are looking for very pure colour, you may want to buy your wax from an art store instead.
- Next you need to melt your wax. It’s important to never use your wax containers for food again. You can use a baking tray, or saucepan, or an old tin as your container, and any sort of electric heating mechanism you can lay your hands on cheaply. I bought this old grill plate at a garage sale for $15-$20. I also have a second hand crock pot from Cash Converters, which is slow, but useful for keeping large amounts liquid for a number of hours. Personally, I would not use a gas camping stove for wax, because it is flammable, and I just prefer to keep away from an open flame in that situation. However, I know that others do – including the famous Jasper Johns who has been working with encaustic as long as anybody.
- Brushes: Its best to start with cheap natural bristle brushes. You can clean brushes with paraffin wax (from normal candles) but its easier to have dedicated brushes for wax. You’ll see I use some foam brushes in the photo above. I read they were useful to achieve a smoother application than the coarse boar hair. That is true, but they don’t last long at all and next time I’ll be spending the money on more expensive soft brushes, like hake brushes. Synthetic brushes aren’t advisable due to the flammability factor.
- Fusing: When working with wax its important to gently fuse the layers frequently. For this you need another heat source, so the layers can combine into a single entity, rather than remaining as thin shards that can chip off easily. A heat gun on a low setting, a sun lamp (in Australia!!!?) or a creme brulee torch are some of the tools recommended. A hair dryer isn’t supposed to be hot enough, but that’s exactly what I used the first few times I tried out encaustic painting, and those pieces are still hanging together. I wouldn’t recommend it for too long though.
There are three main aspects to safely with beeswax. They are:
- burns – first aid
- inhalation of fumes
Even a small splash of wax can cause a painful burn, particularly given the wax will stick to your skin. It pays to take care and always have an oven mitt and or tongs close by so you can handle containers that may have become hot.
This is what I do:
Run cool water over the burn for 10 minutes
Apply a good layer of my favourite burn cream
Cover with a sterile bandage
This is a good article by the Mayo Clinic about evaluating the seriousness of a burn so you can decide what you need to do.
Beeswax melts between 62-65 deg C (143.6-149 F) and it will ignite at 242 deg C (468 F). You can see that is a huge difference and there is really no need to heat your beeswax to anything close to the flash point. In her book on encaustic painting (reference coming) Joanne Mattera recommends an optimum working range of 165-220 deg F (74-104 deg C).
Nevertheless, its always best to be prepared, and to be aware that water will cause a wax fire to spread. Instead, an all purpose extinguisher is recommended. We have one just outside the door of our unit, but because that feels a bit far away I have bought a fire blanket which hangs beside my work table.
The risks associated with inhaling toxic fumes from encaustic work has definitely held me back from diving straight in with the medium. Anything you read about the subject always mentions ventilation. A couple of times, in the early days, I worked with the window open but still had a bit of a headache afterwards, and this really worried me.
If you are going to work in an intensive way with wax/encaustic, I really recommend seeking advice from a suitably qualified expert in the area of safe ventilation/extraction systems. R&F Handmade Paints have a very helpful article on the subject posted here.
There are however, some simple principles which can make your work environment much safer. At this point, I don’t work extensively with the medium and I am satisfied with my work room set up for now. I will share my set-up with you, but please know that I am not an expert and cannot guarantee that this set-up is 100% safe.
There are two ways that I avoid fumes in my studio.
1. Palette Thermometer
So far, this is the only specialized piece of equipment that I have bought. It is from R&F Handmade Paints in the US, and I have to say that for the peace of mind it provides, it is worth more than double the money! I never let the grill plate go over 220 deg F and there has been a noticeable reduction in both visible and smell-able(!) fumes.
2. Physical Lay-out + Box Fan
The aim of this layout is to draw any fumes away from the grill plate and out of the studio window. To get this to happen, I -
- place the hot plate in front of the open window
- place the box fan facing out on the window sill directly in front of the wax (the fan was $20 from Cash Converters)
- close the window up to the box fan (this discourages blow-back)
- open the studio door and open the windows in the next room where the afternoon breeze comes in.
All of this works together to firstly minimize fumes by keeping the wax temperature at an optimum without being unnecessarily high, and by creating a through-draft carrying any fumes out the studio window.
There is one other thing I could do to improve this system, which is to have a board installed around the box fan to fill the open window space. This would increase the draw-out and completely stop any blow-back. I may do this in the future, if I start working more extensively with the medium.
Fumes can be an issue with lots of mediums, not just encaustic. I really hope this post helps you to be safe in the studio. If you’ve got a studio set-up aimed at dealing with fumes or other toxic materials, I’d love to hear about what you’ve done.
Next post I’m planning to show you some photos of the book I’m making for East Gippsland, as well as those references on encaustic.