One of the things that I miss in photography is the darkroom. It’s not that I can’t shoot film, to the contrary, I hope to have a darkroom again someday. There was an element of alchemy to it, a mystery. Bringing things together and measuring, weighing, assessing the qualities they bring to the process. And then to make something completely different from them. To expose a negative onto a piece of paper and process it through these elements, to have an image emerge under the enchanted red light, for fear of ruining it. It’s truly magical.
Well, I’ve found another element that comes close to this experience in my encaustic purists. Several times I’ve made my own wax medium. It’s really not a difficult process, but one that has creative choices in the proportions and types of ingredients that you use. The base ingredients are beeswax and damar resin.
The resin is a product made from a family of trees native to India and East Asia. They are tapped like you would a maple tree to collect the sap. Then, in this case, the sap is allowed to dry, creating the crystals that we use in our preparation. For encaustic purposes, the resin is used to harden the beeswax, adding longevity and protection to it. It also raises the melting point to 200 degrees. This allows a better working time.
The wax that is used needs to be beeswax. There are artists that add a little carnauba wax to their medium, this adds a little hardness. Traditionally it’s just bees wax and damar resin. Beeswax is an excretion from a gland that bees have and use to make the comb that holds the honey. It is white when first excreted but the color changes as it’s used due to the pollen and environment. Again, there are artists that op to use raw wax with its varying natural colors. But for our purposes we want the wax to be as white as possible. This means it needs to be purified. While this can be done chemically that really isn’t conducive to artists. This process can only mask the color which might return after some time and can create free fatty acids. This can make the wax more reactive to the pigments that are used to help create color. The important thing for us is that the wax is pure and clean. This leads us to using the pharmaceutical grade wax, which by law must meet a legal standard and thus ensures that we get a grade that works for our needs.
Encaustic medium is a recipe. And as in all recipes, the chef has the ability, to decide what the final product will evolve into. Some people like a sweet tomato sauce, using carrots to cut down on the acidity or adding sugar to make it even sweeter. Me I like onion and garlic slow cooked into it to make the sweetness and other flavors that this brings. The question this brings is what kind of wax do you want to work with? Harder finish? Add more Damar resin, softer more pliable less resin. Add pigment and create a colorized version. Add a little wax and pigment to some oil, just enough to solidify, you get an oil stick. That’s my next experiment. We’ll see how it goes.
By now you have probably asked yourself “what about the title”? It struck me as I was packing up all my equipment and supplies from a day of making encaustic wax medium that the little bars that I made look like little bars of gold bullion. And after all that was the true endeavor of an alchemist, to make gold. This is probably as close as I’ll get.