If you’re experiencing a creative block, consider giving this medium a try. Here, Randall Graham shares some basic techniques for beginners. Bonus: Watch a video on how to use cold wax!
By Randall Graham
Cold wax medium has been infusing my style with richness and energy. It has incorporated mark making and happy accidents into my work. Now I have a process-driven approach. One of the great things about working with cold wax medium is that it is easy to try and very forgiving. I urge you to give it a try, especially if you are in the middle of a creative block.
I love my studio, which is above the second floor of Gallery 222 in the charming and art-loving town of Malvern, Pennsylvania. Monthly exhibits at the gallery from realist painters, abstract encaustic artists, and even ceramicists have started to inﬂuence my style. I am classically trained and still love to nerd out on ﬁnely rendered painting, but I must admit that interesting textures from ceramics and encaustic works have been seducing me. This feeling has led me on a journey of experimenting with cold wax medium.
What is cold wax medium?
Cold wax medium is a mixture of wax in a solvent; some brands have added resins in it. It is a semi-solid paste and requires no heat to apply or fuse layers. As a comparison, encaustic works use heat to melt and fuse wax. Many artists combine it with oil paint. It can also be combined with pigments or used on its own. One could mix it with fun stuff like charcoal, wood ashes, collage, fabric, and more. I have even shoved grass and dirt into my work when painting with it outdoors. Wax is really just a binder that holds pigment together and fuses it to a substrate. There are lots of artworks that incorporate wax, dating all the way back to the ancient Egyptians.
There are many different brands. I use Gamblin, but there are also lots of recipes online to make your own. Note that cold wax medium tends to dry to a matte ﬁnish. You can add other mediums to the cold wax if you intend to have more of a gloss ﬁnish.
Related Article > Painting Dreams: Artist Randall Graham on Cold Wax Medium
Many artists love using cold wax medium to create abstract paintings. I tend to use it a lot in landscape painting. Because living in “Andrew Wyeth country” has greatly inﬂuenced my work, I use cold wax medium in landscape paintings; I love how Wyeth thought about landscapes in an abstract way, and I tend to use cold wax in conjunction with that thought.
The medium lends itself quite well to a process-driven approach to painting. The wax has a great translucent quality that allows light to pass through to previous layers. A nice beneﬁt to adding wax to paint is that it allows you to spread paint very quickly. This leads to a very rich feeling in the artwork. Directly applying layers, combined with digging into previous layers, lets one evoke a sense of history and mystery.
Are you ready to give it a try? (Keep scrolling to see a video on how to use cold wax in a painting!)
Cold Wax Medium Techniques for Beginners:
1. Stock up on some tools and supplies.
• A hard substrate works best to paint on. A panel, gesso board, or a piece of wood is great.
• Get some cold wax medium. You can go to your local art store or order online.
• Go to a hardware store and kitchen store. Yes . . . cold wax medium is more fun with spatulas, brayers, cake bowl scrapers, pottery ribs, screwdrivers, forks, and squeegees. If you use brushes . . . use old ones with character.
• Pick some paint for your palette, grab some dry pigment or crushed up charcoal.
• Have some odorless mineral spirits handy.
2. Start with a sketch or underpainting.
• Come up with a fun composition to play with.
• Don’t use too much cold wax medium for your ﬁrst layer. Think of the fat over lean principle. This underpainting will be something you can dig back into when you get more layers on top. Try putting some bold washes of color with high chroma down.
• Old paintings that you think are awful are great to play with as an underpainting. Turn those lemons into lemonade.
• Let it dry for a day or two.
3. Directly apply the next layer.
• Scoop some cold wax medium onto your palette.
• Mix 80% paint with 20% wax to make a color of your choice.
• Directly apply the new mix. Try different tools. Use a spatula . . . then a brayer . . . then a pottery rib. See what kinds of marks you can make.
• Remember you can add dry pigment or other fun things besides paint.
• Have fun and trust your intuition; ﬁll in the entire canvas.
• Next try scraping to the underpainting with a knife, screwdriver, or a spatula. See if any surprising colors or marks show through.
• Let this layer dry for a day.
4. Solvent reduction: use odorless mineral spirit.
• Add some odorless mineral spirit onto the top layer. Don’t put it everywhere. Pick a section where you would want to let the underpainting show through.
• Let the mineral spirit sit for a few minutes or longer. Notice that it is dissolving the top layer. You can then scrape away the mineral spirits with a tool or a rag and see what happens.
5. Directly apply a thinner layer.
• Mix more wax into your pigment this time. Try 40% wax with 60% paint. This will seem more transparent.
• Put down this layer where you want. Try using a brayer to spread it out so it is a thin veil of color.
• Continue to add and subtract as much paint and wax as you like.
These steps are just a guideline to get you moving. Try experimenting with as many layers as you like. Don’t be afraid to destroy parts of the painting, because you can always build it back up. Be bold and see how it leads you.
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