Review of Cuni water-soluble encaustics after 10 plus paintings

My initial review is here. I’ll go down the list of review items in the same order.  I would really be happy to hear from anyone about this paint, but I’ve had to shut off comments on the blog for the time being. You can reach me at gmail  using  jaymacazbd.

1. Tubes vs. mixing with pigments – I still use Cuni’s medium plus water-media paints or pigment dispersions to make many of my paints. This works quite well. I have used casein and watercolor paints; both work fine, as do the dispersions, and all combine well with Cuni tube paints. More below, but some of the tube paints are less than lightfast, and some are extremely expensive.  Based on my experience, I might recommend a basic set of earths ( raw umber, red earth, yellow ochre are ones I like), white, black, phthalo or ultramarine blue, and phthalo green or the easier-tamed cinnabar (py36, phthalo green yellow shade). I think you could get this for about $80 plus shipping from Custom Encaustics in Tucson. They also carry a 6-tube set, which is a good start for $60. If $80 or $60 seems too high to test the paint out, buy a tin of medium for $18 and mix it with whatever paint you have on hand for the colors. You’ll be able to get a feeling for how it handles with almost anything, but I’d suggest a water medium.

All Cuni’s yellows and reds are either questionably lightfast or expensive, so for these I use medium and watercolor. I bought some cheap Lukas watercolors, which come in big tubes and have a very good pigment selection. I think they have fillers, but that doesn’t matter much for this purpose, since the medium seems to keep fillers pretty well in suspension.

A note on the tubes – If you let paint dry a long time on the threads, it can get very hard to close them.

2. Handling – I still think this is a fantastic paint with great depth and possibility. Certain techniques have proven harder than I anticipated in my first review, though. I did a lot of layered glazing in my first picture, Mouth Study, which went beautifully, but I’ve had a lot of trouble layering  on subsequent paintings.  It seems very dependent on the absorbency of the surface. I create those gouache-like holes if I’m not careful to let paint touch-dry before stroking. This is the fault of my technique and impatience, I guess, but it’s brought me close to tears a few times. It’s also made me long for a formula that handles like egg tempera, drying hard. This turns out to be possible if you make your own medium, but that’s another story.

Mouth Study, Water-soluble encaustics

Mouth Study, Water-soluble encaustics

Blowing was the painting I almost abandoned because of the frustration of managing large even areas.  Crush, Squeeze, Fancy has big open areas, which I pretty much layered with small strokes, a la egg tempera, but I had a lot of problems with lifting of previous layers. I learned that it is better to be very careful about how much water you add, and to wait until the paint is touch dry before going over the same area.

Blowing

Blowing

Crush, Squeeze, Fancy

Crush, Squeeze, Fancy

In Rembrandt Fantasy,  I put some paint down loosely, then used a large wet brush to go over the whole area at once, re-wetting everything and keeping it wet until I had what I wanted. This is a more painterly approach, and less frustrating, but may not easily give you extremely clean gradations. Still, much less frustrating!  You need a very good surface that can take wet working, like a heavy Arches watercolor paper.

Rembrandt Fantasy

Rembrandt Fantasy

Another approach I tried in a few paintings is to underpaint in oil, then glaze large shadow areas in oil, and use the encaustics to paint the detailed highlight areas. This kind of uses the best of both, and worked well for me. I used that approach in The Way Through, Sonny and Christy, and Sonny’s Glove.

The Way Through

The Way Through

Sonny and Christy

Sonny and Christy

Sonny's Glove

Sonny’s Glove

I have made many impasto tests, but it doesn’t work its way into my paintings. So far, I’m just a flat painter. The tests show incredible impasto capabilities, but very short working time unless you want to sculpt thick paint that has already set up. It’s not much like oil impasto, but is pretty phenomenal in its own right. Bailey (below) shows the use of low impasto around the eye socket to focus attention; I used a home-made medium and dragged it across the paper with my finger.

3. Palette –  The current tube paint formula dries quickly on the palette, but is re-wettable for a good period of time. I originally covered blobs of paint with plastic wrap, but I rarely do that anymore. It’s worth it, though, if you need the paint to remain fresh and dense without being watery; this is important in some handling issues. If you want to dry-brush, for instance, it’s worth keeping the paint covered somehow. If the paint is too watery, it can make an oddly water-resistant layer, and can also dig holes in previous layers as mentioned above.

4. Curing and framing and varnishing.  My few tests with heat curing did not impress me. It didn’t accelerate drying to a noticeable degree as, say, the Genesis heat set oils genuinely do. I don’t like working with heaters and blowers, so I just stopped doing it after Jorge Cuni assured me the paint will cure on its own over time. So I can’t give much info on curing. I did set out to frame several paintings for a show, though, so have some experience with varnishing issues. That’s not as simple as their website indicates. Even after several (6 or more) months, the encaustic can be dented with a fingernail. So, should it be varnished? Probably not, but I went ahead and did it on a few. What I found out is that if you use a varnish that dissolves with mineral spirits, it cannot be removed for cleaning without damaging the picture, since beeswax remains soluble in mineral spirits for a long time.  Also, the varnish may lift paint layers during application.  Ideally, any varnish should be removable, so this is a problem. I contacted Jorge Cuni, and ended up using a three-step process (designed for varnishing watercolors, see Golden Paints website): Use a spray varnish like Golden Archival or Kamar varnish to seal the paint. It takes two to four coats to do this. I tested with a damp paper towel on the edge to make sure color wouldn’t lift. Then a coat of acrylic gloss gel mixed 2:1 with water is brushed on, allowed to dry, and a second coat applied in the opposite direction. At this point, your beautiful matte painting looks like Elvis. Finally, a removable varnish like Gamvar or Gamblin cold wax medium/varnish is used. Gamblin cold wax will mostly return the painting to its matte look.  This process was very, very hard, and spraying varnish is very scary, since occasionally a can sputters and can ruin a painting. Is this worth it?  I ended up framing my best work behind glass, because I got wary of the whole thing.

My research into varnish indicates you might be able to skip the gloss acrylic gel stage. Then you have a hard varnish layer (Golden Archival or Kamar) that requires industrial strength mineral spirits to remove, and an over-layer of Gamblin Gamvar or wax that can be removed easily with odorless mineral spirits. The painting should be protected by the harder varnish when you remove the Gamblin. I might go this route, except it still involves spraying, and I had a very scary can malfunction.  Honestly glass is sounding better and better.

5. Retarder – I bought it, but I don’t use it. I don’t want the paint to dry more slowly.

5. Surfaces – I’ve done a number of paintings on Arches watercolor board, one on Arches oil paper, a few on canvas, one on gessoed panel.  The Arches board is a lovely surface, but I’ve had some serious trouble with warping that gave me problems framing. I tried painting the back with paint to even the tension, but it didn’t fix it enough, so I’ve gotten wary of that. If I use it in the future, I will pre-glue it to plywood or dibond.  I like the surface of Arches oil paper, but it doesn’t take kindly to much water. It buckles and swells a bit, though I was able to glue it to plywood successfully after painting. I am still playing around with it, but am trying to seal the surface with an undercoat of thick medium or paint at the beginning.  Canvas varies in absorbency quite a bit so it’s hard to give definite opinions about how well it will work. My canvas painting was underpainted in oils, allowed to touch-dry, then overpainted with Cuni encaustics, and that worked beautifully for me.

6. Compatibility – Cuni’s claims to wide compatability with other paints are still holding true for me. I have mixed it with casein, watercolor, egg tempera, oils and acrylic, and have used it over dried oils and casein. All worked well. I assume that adding water media to the medium must change its handling, but it has handled fine for me.  Bailey is a painting where I used several media, predominately casein and encaustic.

Bailey

Bailey

7. Price and lightfastness – The Cuni color line is kind of odd. There are now a large number of earths, some of which appear to be only slight variations on one another. There are too many questionable pigments in the modern color line-up, including Lemon Yellow (PY3, questionable in tints), Azo Yellow (PY1, a hansa, ditto), Naphthol red (faded in tints in my tests), Pyrazolone orange (the dicey PO13), Naphthol carmine. The ones that are lightfast are insanely expensive in the US, unfortunately.  Overall, the paint line is a bit pricey due to import issues. As mentioned above, it’s possible to buy only the medium, which makes it much more reasonable.

9. Shelf life – I’ve had them more than a year; so far so good. I have seen some yellowing of the medium in the can. This seems to be a linseed (or other) oil issue, and goes away on exposure to light, so I’m not too worried about it.

10. Non-toxicity – I’ve made my own medium and know exactly what’s in it, and it is truly non-toxic (beeswax and soap). I don’t know exactly what’s in Cuni paint (a preservative or stabilizer?), but am willing to guess the only toxicity issue is from the pigments, so pick colors based on that if it is a concern. So far, it gets high marks for non-toxicity, right up there with watercolor.