Encaustic in Mexico
By Raé Miller
I packed a huge amount of art supplies before heading south in 2007, the year I moved to San Miguel de Allende. I was uncertain what would be available to me here. It was a good thing I did.
As I got to know the galleries and studios in San Miguel, I asked about the paintings I saw that were described as encaustic. There were three or four Americans painting with encaustic in a familiar way, with translucence and vibrant color. I encountered work by several Mexican artists using wax, and their work looked nothing like the medium I was used to seeing. I met with one of them to talk about materials and learned that much of what was listed on the gallery labels as encaustic was created from his family’s fifty-year-old, hand-written recipe book, with ingredients such as beeswax, paraffin, carnauba, copal resin, tar, and white spirits or turpentine. Artists I met from other parts of Mexico talked of similar recipes, many being taught in Universities.
The finishes on encaustic paintings produced by local artists are often matte and opaque. The paint is laid on quite thickly, and deep cracks are not uncommon. Some of the prepared material they are using is similar to cold wax, and it’s being fused with heat. When copal resin is used, it gives the encaustic a darker color, and it is sticky and has a strong smell. It takes more heat to melt copal, and it is usually softened with spirits, which is potentially dangerous when heated. The finished product is quite hard.
Another point I’ve noticed here is that paintings made with encaustic are not promoted as such. Encaustic is rarely a theme…it’s simply a medium. People who come into a gallery or studio may ask if the artist is working with wax, but they tend to comment more about the work, with an appreciable depth of curiosity about message and intent.
Although encaustic has been used in some form for many years in Mexico, it hasn’t come to the point where encaustic is a buzz-word, like it is in the U.S. Because of the questionable safety of ancient encaustic recipes, many artists have avoided its use. With expanded access to information on the internet and in workshops, interest in the medium is increasing. Unfortunately, except on the internet, the materials can be difficult to find. Our tiny, neighborhood art supply store has started to carry dammar resin crystals and refined beeswax, but the ready-made paints and mediums are still unavailable.
I have been teaching bi-lingual workshops in my studio, where I do my best to instill better safety techniques and introduce the simple formula of beeswax, dammar resin and pigments.