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But Does It Last?:The Case for Beeswax

Without a doubt, the number one thing I am asked by viewers is, “Will this thing fall apart?”  The Western art tradition has largely grounded itself in the vehicle of oil painting, and most viewers are simply used to the thought that while oil lasts, other things might not.  

For this reason, I’m not upset when someone wonders about whether my medium is substantial.  But, I’d like to challenge the notion that oil paintings are inherently more lasting than paintings made of waxes, specifically paintings made of beeswax.  Mainly, I’d like to show that beeswax is a substantial, lasting material, that can last for extra-ordinarily long amounts of time if kept in the proper conditions.

Beeswax has proven, historically, to be a long-lasting material if kept in proper conditions.  It has been used for a number of things: as a general adhesive, a substance for painting, for furniture repair and varnishes, for coating fine wooden instruments (like a Stradivarius), for fletching (attaching feathers to arrows), and as a coating to protect walls.  You can always check the “reputable” site Wikipedia for a number of beeswax’s other uses.

Though beeswax has been used in various regions of the world, our oldest dated waxes have come from early Egypt (and in use potentially as early as 1500 BC).  In this essay, the author examines the use of copper as a pigment in ancient beeswax work.  He looks at four different works, one dated from 1186-1069 BC, another after 664 BC, a third undated, and the last one also dated after 664 BC.  His conclusion is that a green pigment is formed when copper is stored in beeswax at 110 degrees C (230 F) overnight.  

Eventually, the early Egyptian use of wax developed into what is known as Punic wax around the Ptolemaic period (305-30 BC), and was employed throughout Late Antiquity (200-600/800 AD).  See this essay if you want to read about the identification and history of Punic waxes.  As this article points out, Punic wax is quite different than the modern, processed encaustic wax.  In fact, the modern usage of beeswax–filtering it, bleaching it, and adding resins–may cause long term discoloration.  While adding resins to beeswax may increase the melting point, making it harder to melt, the resin may lead to long-term discoloration.  For that reason, I personally don’t use any resins in my beeswax.

In the end, purchasing a beeswax based painting is just as risky as purchasing any other type of painting.  Beeswax today is shown to melt at about 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  While acrylic based paints don’t “melt”, they do become elastic from 100-200 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on the type of acrylic).  Meanwhile, both acrylic and oil based paints are susceptible to the water in general humidity, and white spots may appear between layers of paint in humid climates.  If condensation gets on the surface of acrylic work, it may develop into an irremovable mold.  Acrylic paint is fragile in conditions under 45 degrees Fahrenheit.  Oil paint is even less resistant to the cold.  While beeswax work itself suffers very similar problems, the point is that it suffers similar problems.  No piece of art is immune from time, or from the potentially destructive forces of water, fire, air, and earth.  

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