Friday, June 30, 2017

A Conversation About Cold Wax

While most of us work in encaustic, which is to say pigmented wax that is applied when molten and then fused to the layers beneath it, there are some artists who have committed in whole or in part to cold wax, a medium that needs no heat to be workable. In the conversation that follows we talk about the two kinds of cold wax available to painters.

Rebecca Crowell, Porturlin, 2016; oil, cold wax, and pigments on panel, 36 x 60 inches

Most of us are familiar with the solvent-based cold wax medium, such as Dorland’s, which is typically used with oil paint to impart texture or mixed on its own with dry pigments to create a wax-based paint. What’s new here is tubed cold wax paint from Evans Encaustics, which combines medium and pigment in a range of colors.

The second type of cold-wax, known to the ancient Fayum painters as punic wax, is an emulsion in which water and beeswax have become a paste by the introduction of an alkaline catalyzing agent. In ancient times the alkali consisted of ash; in the present day it’s ammonia or other similar pH ingredient. Like any emulsion, once the ingredients have been chemically combined they do not uncombine, so the wax-and-water paste is water based. Wax emulsion paints have been produced for the past few years by the Spanish company, Cuní, available through Miles Conrad Encaustics.

I asked  five ProWax members—Miles Conrad, Rebecca Crowell, Hylla Evans, Lora Murphy, and Carol Pelletier—all of whom are deeply involved with cold wax products, to talk about the what and why of cold wax, both what’s commercially available and what they make on their own.                                       
– J.M.

Painting with Solvent-based Cold Wax

The roundtable format here was achieved via conversations on a private Facebook page set up specifically to discuss the topic for this article. Additional questions and answers were carried out via email.

Rebecca Crowell I started using cold wax about 15 years ago (I have never used the encaustic process except to try it a few times). I didn't know much about cold wax medium when I started using it but was attracted to its body as a painting medium. It seemed to work well with my aesthetic goals at the time: building up rich color and texture. In my earliest abstract work I was rendering texture in a deliberate and somewhat forced manner, but with cold wax techniques the surface arises from the process, so there was a satisfying alignment of form and content. 

I also appreciate the freedom that cold wax medium affords when painting with oils. The wax has an equalizing effect on the various oil ratios in paints, so there is no need to be concerned about “fat over lean” rules. And there’s no need to varnish the work. Cold wax dries to a hard, almost brittle surface and requires no special handling in terms of temperature.

I usually label my work oil or oil and mixed media, rather than even mentioning the wax content, since for many people there is a confusion with encaustic. And cold wax really is just a medium; mediums are not typically mentioned in descriptive labels. I do label it as cold wax in certain contexts that are instructional, or aimed at other artists who may be curious about it.

Rebecca Crowell, Java's Wall, 2016; oil, cold wax, and pigment on panel, 36 x 60 inches

JM: Rebecca, would you talk about your use of the materials?

Crowell I’ve used both Dorland’s and Gamblin cold wax mediums; both are excellent products with slightly different properties and ingredients. I’ve been using Gamblin wax exclusively now for a number of years because I find it to be a purer product, made with just beeswax, odorless mineral spirits, and some alkyd resin. I also like its somewhat stiffer body. Dorland’s is a bit softer and has a more complex formula, involving microcrystalline wax and damar resin. It’s very possible to make your own cold wax medium and lots of people do. I choose to buy it because it’s convenient and I’d rather be painting than messing with that process, but also it means the wax will be consistent.

I usually use a combination of about half wax and half oil paint. Because the mixture has quite a bit of body, I apply it with palette knives, squeegees and brayers, only occasionally using a brush. Powdered pigments, powdered marble, and other substances such as sand and dirt can also be mixed in. Pigment sticks, charcoal and other drawing media work well on a semi-dry or dry surface, and even water based substances like inks can be used if you allow them to  dry before proceeding.

I don’t use a huge range of materials myself--mostly just oil paint, dry pigments, marble dust, and soft pastel. Those limits are true of the techniques I use also. I am a pretty straightforward painter. I’d say most people who have a developed practice with the medium are similar in that way--they find what works for what they want to do.  On the other hand, the range of possibilities with the medium is enormous.

Carol Pelletier, April, 2015, oil and cold wax on panel, 12 x 12 inches

Carol Pelletier I started working with cold wax by accident. Pulling some monotypes in the print studio while working at Marshall University in 2000, I ran out of Setswell (a medium that controls tack in etching and monoprinting), which I mixed with oil-based ink. I thought to grab the Dorland’s wax in the cabinet since it had a similar feel. The results were remarkable. The surface held more luminosity and allowed light to travel through it. It was perfect for capturing movement while developing a relationship between time and space within each layer; it was fluid and didn’t require heat. I now use my own blend in my monotypes.

I started using cold wax medium regularly with oil paint and have been working with my own recipe(s) as well as the cold wax mediums created by Gamblin, Michael Harding, and Dorland’s. I look forward to trying Hylla’s version.

JMCarol, how do you use cold wax in your painting?

Pelletier Over the past few years, my work has been about movement and the transitory nature of light and color found near water. Printmaking used to be a jumping off point into my painting, and it was a way of reacting to a surface. Today, I use cold wax medium with oil paint or pigment to build transparent layers on panel.  These multiple layers are held together on the surface and allow for perceptual depth. I use an old 15th century technique called sgraffito, where I add and subtract layers (using fiberglass spreaders and razor blades) revealing the subtle undulations of each application of color. I mostly use transparent colors when using cold wax. The marriage between the two supports is what I am trying to capture. The translucency of cold wax is lost when opaque colors are used, unless minuscule amounts of opaque color are added. Each painting has 10 to 20 extremely thin layers. I often make color studies to see how one color will react to another. These studies help me decide the order of things. I only mix on the palette but will blend color(s) directly on the surface of the painting.  

Above and below: Carol Pelletier, color studies, 2016 

Lora Murphy, Dancing with Henri; encaustic, cold wax, pigments; 100 x 150 cms (app. 40 x 60 inches)

Lora Murphy I have had a wonderful time experimenting with cold wax. I really like the subtle effects I can get and the misty qualities I can achieve. I like it over encaustic, to add another dimension, plus it plays well with Cuní paints. I have used cold wax mostly in mixed-media applications, always as a top layer or layers.

I have made several different cold wax formulations [see one at end of article] and ended up using them all as I couldn’t decide which was best. The only one formula that absolutely didn’t work for me was my attempt to make it with a citrus-based solvent. I don’t know if Citrasolve would work but I cannot get it in Europe. I have also been trying it over some acrylic paintings and it adheres really well.

JM: Lora, when you apply solvent-based cold wax as a final layer, do you use heat to fuse?

I don't fuse the cold wax, but if I apply encaustic to adjacent areas of the painting I use an iron to fuse them, being careful to avoid the cold wax areas.

JM: How do you integrate the water-soluble paints?

I use both Cuní tube paint and a paint I make by combining punic wax (made by Kremer in Germany) with pigments. I really like combining the different paints on one painting, but I use them side by side rather than mixing them and I always use hot encaustic, too. 

Lora Murphy, Beethoven, 2016; encaustic, cold wax, and walnut ink on panel, 40 x 40 cms (app 16 x 16 inches)

JM: Hylla, you have created a solvent-based cold wax medium and line of paints. Tell us about them.

Hylla Evans  My medium has three ingredients: USP [pharmaceutical grade] white beeswax, USP carnauba wax, and odorless mineral spirits. My cold wax is the same as encaustic medium but with the addition of odorless mineral spirits to soften it. So when the mineral spirits evaporate, what's left is identical to encaustic, and it’s archival in the exact same way as encaustic. When you’re working on top of an encaustic print or painting, the solvent in the cold wax paste bonds it to the encaustic surface. No fusing is needed. It's best to save this cold wax paint for the final layer. But experiment! Clear solvent may be used to thin paint to inky consistency for detail work.  Let the odorless solvent evaporate overnight after application. No heat is used.

Evans Encaustics Cold Wax Medium and tubed paint, which can be applied with palette knife or brush

Below: color chart showing a selection of the company's clear colors and the opaque tints that can be achieved

JM: Would you talk a bit about who uses your cold wax paint, and how it is used?

Evans Artists who work with a brush or knife in a painterly fashion, or in painterly printmaking, will find Evans Cold Wax Paints a rapidly drying, comfortable fit. The tubed paint is portable and no flame or heat gun is used. My paint works as do other tube paints, though far faster drying than oils. Some artists use Evans Cold Wax Medium with their oil paints, though this increases drying time because that oil has to oxidize. When working with this paint, there is no oil so a thin layer dries overnight.

No gesso or surface priming is needed when working on absorbent substrate such as paper or wood. It also is excellent as a printing paint—cold-wax monotype, which transfers simply with a baren or brayer.

JM: You say that no gesso or surface priming is necessary, but artists could certainly apply it to a ground of white paper affixed to a panel or to an absorbent ground like encaustic gesso, correct?

Absorbent ground covers it. Acrylic gesso isn't absorbent. While oil painters often work on acrylic gesso, if wax medium is in use, it won't adhere well over time to the acrylic ground.

JMLet’s go back to the issue of solvents. It seems to me that with turpentine you know what you’re working with because you can smell it. With odorless mineral spirits, you really don’t know if it’s evaporated because you can’t smell it.

Odorless mineral spirits smell slightly like chlorine bleach, a fresh-laundry smell. When that's aired out, it's dry with no smell.

JM: So let’s say very clearly that cold wax medium or paints made with a solvent-- whether turp or odorless mineral spirits, and whether artisanal, as yours are or mass produced like Dorland’s—should be ventilated as we do with encaustic and should not be melted or fused.

Painting with Emulsified Wax

Let’s talk a bit now about non-solvent cold wax paint. Miles, you are the exclusive seller of Cuní paints in the United States. Would you talk about what this paint is, how it is used, and how it interacts with other wax paints?  

Miles Conrad  Cuní Water-Soluble Encaustic™ is created through the process of saponification (exposing fatty acids to an alkaline substance) rendering the wax into an emulsion that is water-soluble. This paint adheres to all other paint mediums including oil, acrylic, latex, alkyd, encaustic, watercolor, gouache, and egg tempera. It can be mixed to create thick impastos or thin washes and glazes. It dries faster than oil, slower than acrylic; similar to alkyd. What I like about Cuní Water-Soluble Encaustic is that it requires no toxic solvents, and it’s an easy soap and water cleanup.

JM: Miles, can you give us some general information about paint application and drying time?

For a paste-like impasto texture, the paint can be applied directly from the tube or palette with a stiff brush or palette knife. Full-strength surface patinas can be made by rubbing with a rag or gloved finger. To thin the paint, add Cuní Water Soluble Medium and/or water. Higher mixing ratios of medium result in a full-bodied translucent glaze. Higher mixing ratios of water result in thinner washes.

The dry time depends on various factors: the thickness of the paint film that's applied, atmospheric heat and humidity, plus the use of water, medium, or Cuní Retarder (an additive used to keep the window of workability open longer for wet-on-wet or blending applications). A span of several hours to overnight is generally adequate dry time for typical paint films. For thicker films, dry time can be expedited with additional heat from a hair dryer, or the gentle use of a low-watt heat gun. Torches and high watt heat guns are not recommended for hastening dry time.

Pedro Cuní painting at the International Encaustic Conference with the water-soluble paint made by his family's company

Below: a closeup of the wax emulsion

JM: What about the technical aspects of working with this paint? 

Conrad When dry the paint can be reactivated with water for reworking or blending. You can also heat-set the paint. Heat-setting expedites and completes the curing process so that the paint film does not reactivate with water or hot wax. I would advise heat-setting whenever a permanent layer is desired. Heat setting is achieved at lower temperatures than traditional fusing for hot encaustic techniques, so I recommend a low-voltage heat gun.

In terms of application, you can apply Cuní Water-Soluble Encaustic paint below, between, and on top of layers created with conventional encaustic. I feel it allows for a more fluid, painterly brush stroke than regular hot encaustic painting alone. It also makes an outstanding glaze or patina over wax. When fused during hot encaustic techniques, some thinner Cuní paint films will disperse slightly (similar to oil stick) depending on the intensity and duration of heat. Be gentle with the heat.

Lora Murphy, Last of the Summer Roses, undated; encaustic, cold wax, and Cuní wax emulsion, 80 x 100 cms (app. 32 x 40 inches)

JM: In conversation with me at Conference 10 you talked about the use of water-soluble wax paint outside the context of encaustic. For instance, when you suggested that I consider using it in the same way I use gouache, I became very interested.  

Conrad When mixed with water, the paint behaves similar to a gouache. The use of larger proportions of water produces a paint behaving similar to watercolor. When mixed with small amounts of medium and water, the outcome is a saturated, low-sheen paint typical of egg tempera. Until heat-set, all of these paint films remain re-workable with the reintroduction of water. 

JM: How about cleanup?  

Conrad What I like about Cuní Water-Soluble Encaustic is that it requires no toxic solvents, and it’s an easy soap and water cleanup. Even paint-hardened brushes can be restored by soaking them in soapy water.

JM This seems a good time to say that Kay WalkingStick has painted with what she calls “saponified wax”—that is, emulsified wax of the type made by Cuní—for decades. She has modified a recipe provided by Ralph Mayer in his book, Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques and uses acrylic paint as her colorant (since the emulsion is water based). WalkingStick likes the “organic quality” that the beeswax paste imparts to acrylic paint. I have a WalkingStick painting in my collection and I can tell you that the texture is very much that of conventional encaustic, though it is devoid of the honeyed beeswax aroma.

Kay WalkingStick, Eccentric Lines, 1982, acrylic and wax over double-layered canvas, 36 x 36 inches. Photographed in the June Kelly Gallery booth at The Art Show at the Park Avenue Armory in March 2017, New York City

Below: Detail showing the texture and dimension of WalkingStick's wax emulsion


Recipes for Cold Wax Medium

As with any recipe each maker has a slightly different version. Here are a few recipes used by artists.

Kay WalkingStick’s Wax Emulsion Recipe
The recipe you see below, which I pulled from Page 96 of my book, The Art of Encaustic Painting, is WalkingStick’s recipe after Ralph Mayer. The consistency should be “like cold cream or mayonnaise,” says the artist. (You can see more of WalkingStick’s work in wax emulsion here.)

Lora Murphy’s Cold Wax Recipe
I tried many different variations on the basic recipe, mainly because I was curious to see how they would differ. The combination I liked the most is made as follows: 

2 parts stand oil 
8  parts beeswax
2 parts damar crystals 
1 part turpentine

Stirring is minimal, done outside, as my wax is melted before the solvent goes in. I keep the medium in glass jars. The wax stays beautifully buttery and pure white. The container must be capped. I have found that the medium gets hard and unusable if stored in plastic Tupperware-style containers.

Carol Pelletier’s Cold Wax Recipe
I have multiple recipes for various uses, but I would say my simplest recipe is the following:

2 parts wax
1 part alkali refined linseed oil
1 part safflower oil
1 part odorless mineral spirits

There are various ways to make this recipe but I melt the wax in a glass jar that is held in a double boiler. Once it has melted, I remove the jar from the heat and away from all heated elements.  I then slowly add my three other ingredients and mix with a wooden spoon until it cools and becomes more or less like a paste wax.  I cap it and it lasts forever. 

Further Reading

Left, just published: Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts & Conversations, by Rebecca Crowell and Jerry McLaughlin
Right: The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, fifth edition revised and updated, which contains some info on encaustic and the wax emulsion recipe used by WalkingStick 

JMRebecca, in closing, I’d like to ask you to talk about your book.

Crowell  In the years since I’d started teaching workshops (my first in 2009) interest in cold wax medium had been growing rapidly, so there was a growing demand for a reference book, and I had not had the time or focus to consider very seriously the idea or writing one. However my co-author, Jerry McLaughlin, was willing to do a lot of the groundwork and research and had an exciting vision for what the book could be. He managed to overcome my resistance to taking on this enormous project.

We agreed from the beginning that we wanted much more than a how-to book, although there is plenty in it in terms of techniques and instruction. The idea that developed was for a book that would include a wide range of artists and applications for the material, including not just numerous approaches to painting, but also 3-D work, printmaking, and other experimental approaches. We also wanted to emphasize the “why” as well as the “how-to” throughout the book. So we have avoided simply presenting techniques—we ask the artist to consider its effects and how that works with their intentions. In our interviews with other artists we tried to bring out why they have made the choices they have for materials and techniques. We also include chapters about personal direction and visual language. The book closes with profiles of a range of professional artists using cold wax medium.

A spread from Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts & Conversations, by Rebecca Crowell and Jerry McLaughlin

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