Denver artist Jamie Lang sold nearly all of his small, handmade tiles during a recent crafts show, and he can only guess the reasons why. The adobe tiles are minimally decorated — with a red bicycle or a solitary house — and covered with a thin, smooth layer of wax.
"It was new, something different," Lang said after the show in Boulder, Colo., while other artists packed up their wares to take home.
Lang works in encaustic, an ancient medium of pigment and hot wax that's resurging in popularity.
The wax technique dates to at least the first century AD, according to Lissa Rankin in her book "Encaustic Art" (Watson-Guptill, 2010). Its popularity waned during the Middle Ages and Renaissance with the rise of tempera paints, but was revived during the mid-18th century, says Rankin. Painters Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat were among those experimenting with it. In the 20th century, encaustic was featured in painter Jasper Johns' work, including his iconic "Flag" (1954-55).
Encaustic involves heating beeswax and damar resin, often with added color, and either pouring or painting the mixture onto a surface. The tree resin helps harden and stabilize the wax. An encaustic surface can be two-dimensional, such as wood or paper, or 3-D.
Daniella Woolf, 65, an artist in Santa Cruz, Calif., says she discovered encaustic a decade ago and "completely fell in love with it." Its versatility makes it the "glue" that holds disparate mediums together, says Woolf, author of "The Encaustic Studio" (Interweave/F+W Media, 2012).
"I spent a lifetime working in different media. I now can use any of those media by using the wax to pull it all together," Woolf says.
Encaustic can be unpredictable and unwieldy, but that adds an element of surprise and mystique to the results.
The technique can be combined with anything from oil and watercolor paints to chalk, ink, photo transfers and fabric — even plaster and three-dimensional objects. Colors are mixed into or suspended in the wax, while objects are imbedded.
The encaustic process is not for the faint of heart. There are some basic safety precautions. The wax medium becomes molten hot when it's ready to use, and if its temperature rises above 200 degrees Fahrenheit, the fumes become toxic.
For this reason, Lang, Woolf and Rankin work in well-ventilated studios. Each recommends having open windows and a fan near the workspace.
"Once (the beeswax and resin) melts down . and cools, it's past (having) any kind of the toxic element to it," says Lang.
Additionally, because encaustic involves fusing one layer of wax on top of one or more other layers, a heat source is needed. Woolf uses an open-flame torch; heat guns and even some irons — specific to the task, not clothes irons— also work. Woolf recommends experimenting to find the equipment that works best. Her book lists basic supplies, as does Rankin's.
"Used carefully, encaustic is safe, natural, luminous, versatile, and a great way to either start painting or open up your creativity if you're an experienced artist," says Rankin, of Marin County, Calif.
Encaustic paint starter kits — the color is pre-mixed with the wax and resin — are available online. Woolf and Lang buy their paint supplies from R&F Handmade Paints' online store. Woolf also teaches workshops for the Kingston, N.Y., paint manufacturer.
While Lang is self-taught — using Rankin's book — he recommends taking a class to learn encaustic technique. Woolf agrees.
"It seems very complicated, but it is really quite simple," she promises. "Once you learn the basics, it's incredibly forgiving."
Other artists' testimonials:
"The medium does things you're not totally expecting," says Nadine Swahnberg, a Denver artist and minister. "You do have some say in the matter, but there's a 'miraculousness' to it."
"Encaustic is fun to do and the product is mysterious and beautiful," says Susan Garwood, a Lincoln, Neb., artist. "I love the great depth you can achieve ... when stuff is about three layers down, it takes on a whole new meaning."