Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Working with Wax: An Altered Book


After last weeks post about a safe studio set-up for working with wax/encaustic, I thought I would show you some of the ways I’ve used wax in my work over the past few years. I also have my favourite encaustic references for you and a step-by-step look at my most recent use of wax in a book art project.

Early Work

As I mentioned last week, I am completely self-taught when it comes to wax and I haven’t really scratched the surface of what I’d like to try! Here’s a few things from around 2007 when I spent some time trying out the possibilities.

self portrait in wax

Above: Testing the effect of embedding myself in wax.

a heart in wax2

Above: This was to be part of an artists book – still a work-in-progress!

wax box

Above: testing out ways of working with wax in 3-D

If you’re interested there’s a little more of my work with wax to be seen here.


New Work

For “Books…Beyond Words” this year, the theme is books evolving and this has given me the chance to work on an idea I’ve had since I was doing my Masters.

“Cocoon” as a place of transformation was one of the concepts that I hoped to explore as part of my masters thesis on change and process. Time ran out on me before I got to make any “cocoon” works, despite have a number of ideas developing. “Cocoon” seems to me to work into the theme of books evolving quite nicely, and so I am working on my first altered book work, assisting it in its “evolution”.

The first part of the book to change will be the cover, which will be made from paperbark. This will be a type of return to the tree from which the paper came, in order to “evolve” via the process within the cocoon.

In my local area the Council has planted hundreds of paperbark trees (Melaleucas). There is one out the front of my place and at the end of the street is Riding Road, with its beautiful avenue of paperbarks.


I love trees with weeping foliage and the paperbark is a favourite of mine. For a few years now I’ve picked up the bark when it falls off and stored it away, thinking I would somehow incorporate it into something. This new book is my first attempt working with it.


1. I gently peeled away layers of the bark using my fingers until I have the desired thickness, selecting pieces of bark with attractive patterns and colours.

2. I laid out my pieces of bark as you would any collage. You can see my final arrangement below.

paperbark on japanese tissue

3. Once I was satisfied with the arrangement, I made a 50:50 mixture of wheat paste and acid-free PVA. I painted this onto a sheet of Japanese bookbinding tissue and then onto the back of each piece of bark, gently pressing the tissue to the bark to ensure good adhesion.

4. After a few minutes, I placed the whole thing between some sheets of cushioning paper, then boards of marine ply and left it overnight to dry completely. I didn’t add any further weights, although if you were after a very flat effect I think you could place weights very gently on the board.

5. The next day the paperbark was ready to be coated with wax. My aim with this was to stabilize the surface of the bark so it could be handled without small pieces coming away.

wax melting

You can see the beeswax melting into the baking tray which is on the hot plate you saw here.  At this point, I should explain that for this project I am using beeswax only, which is different from encaustic medium. Encaustic medium is beeswax with one or more additives, most usually damar resin, but other waxes such as microcrystalline or carnuba wax may be used. The purpose of the additives is to alter the characteristics of the wax, such as melting point, brittleness vs pliability, hardness of the finished surface. I am just beginning to explore how these work, so I have stayed with the straight beeswax, with which I am most familiar.

6. Once there was enough wax in the tray, the process was very simple and as you can see, not even particularly gentle! I simply placed the sheet of paperbark into the wax. To ensure good wax coverage I used a traditional Japanese printmaking baren which was coated with alfoil.


 7. The final step is fusing the wax. Fusing is done by lightly re-melting the wax, just to the point where a sheen appears using a heat gun. This allows the different layers of wax to bond and improves the structural integrity of the surface.

This final series of photos shows how the wax looks before fusing, immediately after turning off the heat gun and 5 minutes later.





My Favourite Encaustic Resources

Bear in mind, these are just my own favourites. There are numerous others out there. Just take a look on Amazon or on the R&F Handmade Paints website.

1. Joanne Mattera: The Art of Encaustic Painting (Contemporary Expression in the Ancient Medium of Pigmented Wax) 2001

The original contemporary guide to encaustic painting. Includes history, a survey of artists working with encaustic, and a thorough introduction to materials. Focuses on painting primarily.

2. Lissa Rankin: Encaustic Art - The Complete guide to Creating Fine Art with Wax, 2010.

New on the market last year, this is the book I was waiting for! Its focus is fine art plus a great “how to” guide to many different techniques. There have been other “how to” books out there, but they were more project-based.

Both books 1 & 2 can be checked out via the “Search Inside” feature of Amazon. The links above will take you there. 

3. Paula Roland: Encaustic Monotypes – Painterly Prints With Heat and Wax (DVD)

For something different, this is great if you’re a visual learner, but it does only cover monotypes i.e. using your hot plate as a printing plate with encaustic paints. This was something I was interested in and before Lissa Rankin’s book came out, it was impossible to find any information on it online. The DVD definitely contains more detail on this technique specifically than Rankin’s book.

4. R&F Handmade Paints – Forum 

A great online resource which you can search, and pose all your questions to staff from R&F and others, who in my experience are both extremely knowledgeable and helpful.


  1. This is fantastic. I'm extra happy because I discovered today that I have FOUR paperbark trees in my new back yard. And now I have a project to try with them!

  2. Anonymous4:53 PM

    I must say, Amanda, you're super-generous with your info!
    I fiddled a bit with wax (we had several hives at the time)and even smeared some melting wax over leaves and bark. With mixed success!
    And now you've peaked my curiosity further...

  3. I have a stash of paperbark somewhere in my sea of stashes and this looks like a splendid way to deal with it. I looked at the range of coloured encaustic waxes in an art shop last week but felt I knew too little to dip into them. Your working with beeswax gives a really lovely look to your work, nicer I think than if you were using coloured wax. As Di says, you really are very generous with your information - thank you.

  4. I really appreciate you all taking the time to comment.
    Duck - a new backyard? that sounds very exciting! esp with some lovely paperbark trees. I'm popping over to yours to see whether you've put up any photos that I've missed.
    Thanks Jo!
    Di - I think it would be lovely to use wax from your own hives. Do you have any now?
    Carol- I was really pleased to read that you have stashes of things that you have no idea how you'll use. I really try to be pretty restrained about collecting, b/c I live in a unit and I really don't like mess, but sometimes I'm so happy that I have held onto things.

  5. Wow--freaking amazing. I love the idea of using parts of the trees outside your door, and the wax is just fascinating. Thanks for posting all this.

  6. Hello. I have awarded you a Stylish Blogger Award. Check it out here :-)

    I love the heart by the way. I wouldn't know where to begin with this kind of work. Looks very fiddly.