How Beeswax Paintings Stay Forever Young

Originally published on January 28, 2013

We’re accustomed to seeing beeswax sold at farmer’s markets, its name emblazoned on golden rectangular or hexagonal bars as if to authenticate its purity. Why?

There are many types of wax (like paraffin and microcrystalline) that are derived from petroleum and other sources, but none of them can hold a candle to beeswax. Indeed, beeswax is a 100% natural product and is non-toxic. You can find it in furniture and floor wax, wax paper, cosmetics and ointments, candles, and of course, encaustic paints where it is the main ingredient.

But first, what’s the buzz about beeswax? Bees secrete wax in small
flakes from glands on the underside of their abdomen, thereby creating
honeycombs. After the honey is extracted, the comb is melted to
produce beeswax.

It is an organic product whose yellowish color is the result of pollen picked up by bees as they go about their business. Like honey, the deepness of the yellow color varies according to flowers in the area. The wax can be bleached in two ways, by adding chemicals or through mechanical filtration. The first method will result in the wax yellowing over time.

The second method, which I prefer, uses filters to mechanically remove the pollen, and is further bleached by the sun. It will not discolor over time. Because this is a tedious process that requires special skills and materials, I purchase beeswax that’s already mechanically filtered.

Painting with beeswax, or encaustic painting, began centuries ago but
its popularity waned with the introduction of oils, acrylics and other media
due to the latter’s portability and ease of use. We have observed the
discoloration of oil paintings from restored examples in art galleries and
museums. By comparison, encaustics show comparatively little signs
of fading or discoloration.

This is because beeswax is impervious to water, and its waxy surface protects it from the deteriorating effects of smoke and other pollution.
When the waxy surface dulls, a quick buff with a soft cloth restores its
beautiful luster.

Even Egyptian funerary portraits from 100 A.D. appear remarkably supple with a depth and luminosity unparalleled in other media. In spite of the extra material demands and higher expense of working with encaustics, beeswax paintings have an unmistakable allure and freshness that’s contributing to their comeback. If only everything could stay forever young!