Waxing Poetic

By Chanel Dror

Given the amount of time I spend on Pinterest, I take pride in knowing the latest in handmade weddings, sought-after ingredients and genius DIY projects… and tend to think that there isn’t a craft or creative trend out there I haven’t seen. So when Elizabeth Messina came to us with these gorgeous photos she shot of an encaustic painting workshop taught by Leah MacDonald, I was nearly knocked out of my chair — how is it that I’d never heard of such a beautiful and historic art form? I’m so grateful that both these talented ladies sent their work our way, and Leah was patient enough to answer all our questions about everything encaustic. After this peek into one of her classes, I’m dying to give it a try. Keep reading to learn more, and if you’ve ever dabbled in encaustic painting, I’d love to hear all about it!

First things first: What is encaustics?

Encaustic paint was first used over 5,000 years ago in Greece. The oldest surviving encaustic works are 2000 years old. These are the beautiful and realistic portraits from Egypt, painted in colored waxes on wood — the wax has preserved them in near perfect condition. Encaustic eventually fell out of favor because it was so cumbersome to use, and was replaced by tempera paint, fresco and eventually oil painting. Still, it was kept alive over the centuries by small groups of dedicated artists (Gauguin, Seurrat, even Diego Rivera used encaustic for some of his murals)…

…Part of encaustic’s mystery is that it remains uncommon, yet is quickly changing. Equipment is now electric and commercially made encaustic paint is readily available. New books are being written and an ever growing community of wax artists are furthering the process in most challenging and unexpected ways, sharing their developments with each other and students. Materials and processes carry their own meaning and like any other medium, it is what artists have to say in their work that is most important.


When did you start doing encaustic painting?

When I was in graduate school at the California College for Arts in Oakland, I was extremely intersted in experimenting with the surface of photographs and tried various different collage elements to understand how they would effect photos. One day, I bought a bar of beeswax at the art supply store, melted it and poured it over a black and white photo. I loved the way it transformed the surface of the photo, and the rest is history!

What’s the inspiration behind teaching others how to do your art? 

I come from a family of teachers, and teaching is a passion for me. I love figuring out what my students are interested in and how my work can benefit their creative vision. I’ve taught a semester long encaustics course at the college level, but I was most inspired when I taught for seven minutes on the Martha Stewart Television show. I had to consolidate making a wax photograph to seven minutes with each step carefully planned.

Tell us about some of your collaborations…

Right now Elizabeth and I are working on a project called Mariposa. She carefully selected 12 photos that I’ll be mounting onto wood panels, and painting with beeswax and oils. 

For someone who wants to get into encaustics, what supplies would they need to get started?

To start in Encaustics you need a pancake griddle, a heat gun, pottery tools, photographs, beeswax and pigment sticks. I buy all my supplies from R&F paints and — they are both amazing and have tons of resources and fabulous products. I use USPS organic grade beeswax in white or yellow and I shy away from traditional encaustic bars because they are not transclucent enough for my taste.

“I love the workshop forum for a class. Artists come with photographs and leave with 3-5 finished pieces. Students take home and understanding of encaustic painting, an idea of how to set up the equipment and a hands on experience with painting on photographs.”

Do you ever get artist’s block? How do you get re-inspired?

When I’m short on ideas, I turn to magazines, the internet, books and artwork. The people who inspire me most are Deborah Turberville, Sarah Moon, Elizabeth Messina and Mark Sink, and painters like Gerhard Richter, Ansel Keifer and Squeak Carnwarth. These people remind me why I love what I do.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently working on a collaboration with Elizabeth Messina and a new body of work on women and flowers. I just found a roll of old mural paper and I printed a bunch of new silver photos that I am very excited to paint.

What do you love about your craft?

Everything. I love the organic nature of painitng with beeswax and embrace the imperfections and challenges of working with the natural medium. It’s almost magical how it goes onto the surface hot and liquid, then transforms into something else when it cools. I love the smell and feel of the beeswax and the colors, and the tools and materials too. Last but not least, I love the paints that I use to paint on the beeswax, with an oily and smooth texture and delicious, candy-like colors.

Describe your art in 5 words:

Evocative, fragile, ethereal, feminine, organic.


*all photos by Elizabeth Messina taken at the beautiful Sea Island resort.