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What is Encaustic Art?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Encaustic art is art which is made by melting wax and using it as a pigment medium. The result is a rich, vibrant, textural work of art which can be endlessly manipulated with an assortment of tools. While many people associate encaustic art with melting crayons as a young child, the art form is actually thousands of years old. Several museums and art galleries have examples of encaustic art from places like Ancient Egypt and medieval Europe, for people who would like to see historical examples of the art form.

The waxes used in encaustic art vary. Beeswax is the classic medium, although other types of wax can be used as well. Most encaustic artists use blocks of wax which have already been dyed, but it is also possible to purchase pure pigments for the purpose of coloring your own wax. Some companies also offer wax paints which are in a semi-liquid form, for artists who do not want to use melting irons.

The melted wax is daubed onto a sturdy backing and then spread as desired. It can be manipulated just like ordinary paint with the assistance of brushes and other tools, or it can be allowed to cool so that the wax can be carved. In either case, the texture of the finished work can be altered with the assistance of heat lamps and similar tools which will soften the wax, allowing artists to work and rework it until they are satisfied with the end product.

Wax painting can get quite messy, so most artists like to wear protective clothing and use barriers on their workbenches. In addition, molten wax art requires heated tools such as specialty irons, so artists need to work carefully to avoid burning themselves. A piece of molten wax can create a nasty burn, and some artists like to wear gloves and long sleeves for this very reason.

If you want to start exploring encaustic art, you can set yourself up with some very basic tools and acquire more as needed. To start, you will need blocks of wax designed for encaustic art, along with a sturdy heat proof canvas. Some companies manufacture special paper just for encaustic art, and your art store should have some available. You will also want to pick up an encaustic iron, and you may want to think about textural tools such as brushes and a stylus so that you can manipulate the wax as you lay it down.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By pastanaga — On May 21, 2011

Encaustic paints can be very fiddly to use. I like the effect they have, but I found that in some ways it was easier to just work with the patterns that formed as I manipulated the paints, rather than try to get every single object in the painting perfectly arranged.

It's definitely possible to be intricate with the right tools and a lot of patience, but I didn't have either, so I worked with what I had.

By browncoat — On May 19, 2011

I have a couple of friends who create encaustic paintings and they are always so vibrant and unique, I just love them. Using the wax to paint gives a sort of otherworldly look to a piece. One of my friends creates mixed media works with the encaustic paints in addition to other kinds of paints so she can take advantage of this effect in contrast to more realistic looking scenes. I love almost everything she creates, although it makes me jealous of people who are talented enough to produce such beautiful things.

By anon94611 — On Jul 09, 2010

I'd just like to point out that encaustic paints aren't dyed - the wax, usually beeswax, is the carrier for pigments. Dyes dissolve, pigments don't.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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