Many pigments are toxic to some degree - either in low doses over a long time or in higher
doses in a single instance (cronic and acute poisoning respectively) - so, it is important for
your own safety and that of those around you to adopt certain practices that will preclude such
To contaminate yourself with pigments (or other painting-related compounds), there are a
number of routes into your body. The most obvious of these is your mouth. Others include your
lungs, skin, nose, eyes and so on. Avoiding activities that allow things to come into contact
with these routes is the most effective way of avoiding contamination. So, when painting or
preparing pigments, paint, solvent:
- Do not smoke. Apart from the obvious fire hazard with organic solvents, you will be putting
things in your mouth that you have handled with your fingers;
- Do not eat or drink for the same reasons;
- Keep your painting related activities in an area that is away from your normal living area
(you will be less vigilant when not painting so more likely to become contaminated);
- Keep away from pets, partners and children, whether the materials are in current use or not;
- Pigments are powders that you can breathe in so keep the dust level down by prevention -
when mixing pigments, do things slowly and using as little force as possible thereby reducing
the energy that can throw powder into the air.
- Do not paint when intoxicated - you will not be as aware of the potential dangers;
- Wear protective clothing so that your everyday clothes do not become contaminated - an apron
will do, just something that is going to stop whatever it is that you are working with coming
into contact with you or your clothes;
- If you become aware that you might be breathing in more solvent than is healthy, increase
the level of ventilation (if you are gilding, don't do it where there are solvents anyway as
you cannot have drafts with such an activity.
- Finally, clean up after you have finished. You don't want pigments mixing together but more
importantly, you don't want to pick up any contamination from stuff that has not been cleaned away
which you can then ingest by accident.
The above is not an exhaistive list. Feel free to be even safer in areas that are not mentioned
above as well as those that are.
Encaustic paints have been around for millennia. There are extant examples from Greco-Egyptian times in the form of of mummy portraits
where an encaustic portrait of the deceased individual has been produced on wood and then that incorporated into the dressing of a mummified
corpse - the portrait being held in place by the bandages.
The pigments used in these are pretty much the same as those used in Renaissance paintings where again, the paintings were produced on wood
although they had linseed oil as the medium.
In encaustic paints, the medium is around seven parts beeswax to one part damar resin (sometimes called damar gum). The resin makes the medium
more resistant to physical damage but is in a low enough concentration to allow it to melt at beeswax's normal melting point of around
62C - 64C.
Whilst the flash point of beeswax is a nice safe 204C, it can still start to discolour at around 85C. So, whilst it can be heated in a porringer
on water so that it doesn't experience anything like 204C, it shouldn't be left there for any length of time as it will start to go off.
Damar starts to melt at 90C and completely melts at 180C with an average temperature of 120C. However, we are not melting it, we are dissolving
it and this happens at a far lower temperature. (Remember that you don't have to melt salt to dissolve it in water - water is a gas at that
temperature, it is so hot that water cannot exist as a liquid at the melting point of salt regardless of mow much you compress it.)
So, into the porringer, weigh out 140g of beeswax (this is white, filtered beeswax, not bleached) and into a sturdy container, weigh out 20g
of damar resin - note that this usually ranges from powder to large transparent chunks. The damar I use is a food grade resin although it
still comes with bits of foreign material in it. Place the container with the damar in it on a sturdy surface or the floor and then carefully
grind it to a fine, off-white powder. Add this to the beeswax - I don't bother to melt all of it before I do this but there is nothing to stop
you from waiting until it has all melted before you add it if you want to. Stir it and it will start to dissolve
You might find that you have a stubborn bit of resin left in the bottom that is reluctant to dissolve. You can speed up this process by
putting the container directly over the gas flame to make it dissolve, stirring constantly. You are only doing this for a few minutes so it
won't cause that much damage to the beeswax.
Once it has all melted, put a rubberised ice cube tray on the balance and into each mould, weigh in 16g of molten wax. Although there is only
16g of medium there, once you add the pigment this will bulk up so don't be tempted to fill up the mould because you will run out of space if
you do so.
Let this set solid.
Next, turn out the wax cubes. Each one is enough to make a reasonable amount of encaustic medium unless you are going to go in for making
extremely large pieces of artwork.
Normally, when you make paint, you grind your pigment in a solvent that will be in your paint or in the medium itself - the idea being that you
don't grind the pigment dry because you will end up with it everywhere, including in your lungs. Unfortunately, encaustic painting doesn't use
solvents and the medium is solid (unless you decide to grind it on a heated slab).
Whilst many modern pigments don't need grinding, they only need dispersing, you might find that there are some that you do need to grind.
In this case, you can use something that doesn't dissolve the pigment and is sufficiently volatile to evaporate reasonably quickly.
Ideally, you want all of the solvent to have evaporated off before you add it to you medium otherwise, when you heat it up, it will
bubble and maybe even become a fire hazard.
I found that isopropyl alcohol (IPA) is a good solvent as you can get it cheaply, very pure and water-free (less than 0.1 per cent
water). Just put some of your pigment on the slab, add some IPA and grind away. Once it is fine enough for you, let the IPA evaporate
and the your pigment is ready.
So, heat up one of the medium blocks in a suitable container - here, I'm using a metal measuring spoon - until it has all melted.
Then, add roughly the same volume of pigment as there was wax - note, volume and not weight.
Make sure it has all mixed in well to make a homogeneous paint and then pour it into the ice cube tray to set.
If you are using a pigment that is quite a bit denser than the medium, if you left it on its own, the pigment would have a tendency to
sink to the bottom of the mould before it set. In that case, you can do two things to help keep the mixture homogeneous:
- let the molten medium cool down until it starts to thicken up. The disadvantage of this is that it is more likely to set in the pot
but if it does this, just warm it up again and add that to the paint in the mould; or,
- stir the medium in the mould until it starts to go solid. The disadvantage of this is that you can end up either with your stirrer
entombed in the block of paint or you can end up with a friable mush rather than a block. If that happens, just warm it up a bit.
Clearly, eating these waxes will allow any toxic pigments to do what they would normally do as though you had eaten the pigment itself,
as a pigment in wax and resin, they are reasonably safe.
Here is a basic palette using materials that were available a thousand years ago - although there are two modern analogues: Alizarine instead
of Carmine; and, Ultramarine instead of Lapis Lazuli. However, whilst chemically identical to the natural pigments, the reason here is entirely
down to availability and cost.
So, we have:
- a couple of whites (chalk and lead white);
- a magenta (alizarin which substitutes carmine on cost);
- a red (vermilion which as been manufactured since Egyptian times and is the artificial analogue of cinnabar);
- an orange (red lead or minium);
- a golden yellow (yellow ochre);
- a green (malachite);
- a cyan (Egyptian blue);
- a blue (ultramarine which substitutes lapis lazuli on cost);
- a black (lamp black).
These can be added to with lead tin yellow (I and II), earth pigments such as siennas, ochres and so on and anything else that is appropriate.
Here is an example of abstract art using black, ultramarine, Egyptian blue and lead white with gold leaf (although you cannot see any in this closeup).
You can see how fine the detail can be with encaustic painting with swirls and mixing.
Here is another mixed media abstract in encaustic with gold leaf.
Here, you can see similar detail but using alizarin, vermilion, red lead and lead white in encaustic with 24 carat gold leaf.
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All images and original artwork Copyright ©2020 Paul Alan Grosse.