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  • Saponified Wax?ApproveRejectUn-ApproveSubscribeUn-Unsubscribe
    Question asked 2018-09-27 15:20:04 ... Most recent comment 2018-10-17 13:47:58

    I am working on reconstructing a Fayum mummy portrait, and a few sources I've read have mentioned methods that might have been used to make the wax easier to paint with. There's a small section in "Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology" about "punic wax" that suggests beeswax was possibly saponified to make it water soluble. Do you know if that theory is plausible or have you tried painting with punic wax?

Answers and Comments

  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    This comes up every time Greek encaustic is mentioned. There is some debate as to just what Punic wax is. Some do think that it is a water soluble wax soap (the wax is heated in water containing either ammonium carbonate or sodium carbonate until it is saponified) Others believe that the Punic wax was simply a purified and bleached wax. It is theoretically possible that the wax was dissolved as above as these materials were certainly available at the time. They would result in a far less textured paint than regular encaustic (pigments in molten beeswax) Many of the highly textured portraits could probably only be made using heated wax given their surface. This is not to say that saponified wax was not used during the period and I have rerad where others feel that some of the effects seen in these early paintings would have tyo have been made with a saponified wax.

    As to the use of saponified wax, it is no real pleasure to work with, at least in my opinion. That dissolved in ammonium carbonate is very granular. It would only be pleasant to work with if mixed with other ingredients like oils etc. The positive thing about Ammonium carbonate formulated soap is that its alkalinity and solubility in water diminishes after drying. Natural Pigments makes a formulated paint containing saponified wax and other ingredients. I believe that Ralph Mayer mentions a few recipes in his The Artists' Handbook

    Wax saponified using sodium carbonate makes a soother vehicle but it retains its alkalinity (and probably its water sensitivity, although I have not tested this) even after drying and therefore there are a number of pigments that probably should not used (eg red lakes). 

    I will forward this to a few others to see if they have a different take on the subject.

    Brian Baade

    2018-09-27 19:19:29
  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    Although Punic wax is claimed by some to be one form of wax that was used in ancient encaustic paintings, there is little proof to substantiate these claims. It may be that some form of saponified wax was used by Greek and Greco-Roman painters in Antiquity, but Punic wax may not be the form used, as its description by Pliny in his book Natural History was in a section about ship building and not art. In addition, the description of how to make Punic wax is not clearly understood as some of the terms used can apply to different substances used in its manufacture. Attempts over the past centuries to make Punic wax into a painting medium have largely been unsuccessful based on various alkalies put forth to saponify beeswax.

    Saponified beeswax is prepared by boiling beeswax with an alkali, which is the method some claim is described by Pliny in his chapter on Punic wax. In this process, long-chain fatty acids in beeswax form soaps. The water-soluble soaps form an emulsion with the water-inmiscible components of beeswax—wax esters and n-alkanes.

    In my experiments, saponifying beeswax did not result in a stable emulsion, unless other ingredients are added, such as vegetable oils and resins. Producing stable dispersions of beeswax is difficult whereas those formed with other natural waxes, such as carnauba is much easier to achieve. There are several methods of achieving a dispersion of beeswax in water that avoid using other ingredients, such as vegetable oils, that compromise the utility of beeswax as a paint binder.

    George O'Hanlon
    2018-10-10 14:32:47
  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    ​Thanks so much George.

    Brian Baade
    2018-10-10 15:09:11
  • ApproveRejectUn-ApproveUser Comment

    There is a type of water-soluble encaustic paint that is a simple heated emulsion of wax and soap. A Spanish company, Cuni encaustics, has published quite a bit about this paint, including their general formula and lab tests comparing it to Fayum paintings (and they sell a line of paints and medium). It doesn't seem to have many of the problems associated with saponified wax.  The medium can be made in a double boiler quite easily (with awareness that wax is flammable, so use caution). It's a mix of shaved beeswax, potassium-hydroxide liquid soap, and water, heated while stirring until the wax melts and emulsifies with the soap into a creamy medium.  The soap is basically castile soap; you can try out the recipe with Dr. Bronner's unscented soap with good results, though I'd recommend looking for 100% castile soap if you like the medium. Try a 1:1:1 recipe (by weight) as a starting point. It makes a wonderful painting medium that is fully water soluble, but of course it is relatively new so somewhat experimental. It can be colored with dry pigments, pigment dispersions, or even watercolor paint. 

    2018-10-17 13:47:58

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