What is Encaustic?
R&F Encaustic is a paint composed of beeswax, damar resin and pigments. The term “encaustic” is often used to describe both the paint itself, and the method for using it. Encaustic paint is applied molten to an absorbent surface, and then fused, (or re-melted), to create a variety of effects. Unlike other paints, encaustic goes from a liquid to solid state and back again in seconds, which means layers can be built up immediately, without any drying time. Once the surface has cooled, the paint has reached a permanent finish, but the painting can be revised and reworked with heat at any time – minutes or years later.
Is encaustic toxic?
When encaustic is melted, it releases a mixture of chemical decomposition products in the form of fumes. Some of these components are toxic, as are many things that we put into our environment, but what is important is the concentration of the toxins. This concentration correlates directly with temperature, so it’s always advisable to work at the lowest temperature you can. At a low concentration, say at melting point, the effect of wax fumes is negligible beyond their pleasant sweet odor. At a higher temperature, around 200-220°F, which is the working temperature of encaustic, it is important to have ventilation, because the fumes can be irritants, causing headaches, nausea, and respiratory problems. It is important to keep the temperature of the encaustic well below 140°F and do not let it get to the point where it smokes because then toxins become much more concentrated. Pigments used in encaustic should be stable at the working temperatures for encaustic and not volatilize. As with all paints, however, make sure to clean your hands before eating to avoid ingesting pigments that are toxic internally.
With adequate ventilation and proper working temperatures (between 180 and 200°F) encaustic is not dangerous. In many studios, working next to a window exhaust fan and having a source of fresh air coming in from another part of the studio, gets rid of fumes adequately. It is important to create cross-ventilation in your workspace, because even at recommended working temperatures, wax fumes can be irritants, causing headaches and coughing. Warning signs that your wax is too hot include an acrid odor and smoking.