Art focus: Waxing lyrical

Taraxacum Glow

Taraxacum Glow - Credit: Archant

Bourne End-based artist Julie Wrathall is enthralled by a method of painting used by ancient Egyptians. Janice Walker expores her beautiful works

Using a hot air gun on a painting

Using a hot air gun on a painting - Credit: Archant

Julie Wrathall took a less traditional path than most to become a professional artist. Although she demonstrated a natural flair for the arts while growing up, she didn’t study the subject and worked in fields including project management, logistics and IT, juggling raising her children with managing her husband’s office. Feeling she needed a new challenge, she joined an art group of fellow untutored creatives.

Encouraged by her peers, she became more confident with her art and in 2011 was one of 80 artists invited to join the Czech installation artist Katerina Šedá to work on her Morning Til Night project at the Tate Modern.

Wrathall was introduced to encaustic wax painting at a workshop two years ago. It was love at first sight. The earliest examples of encaustic work, the Fayum mummy portraits, were created by Egyptians around 50BC to 250AD as realistic head-and-shoulder likenesses of the dead, bound into the burial cloth used to wrap the bodies after mummification and covering the face. These paintings are remarkably preserved and give a clear indication of the durability of this media.

‘The creative opportunities it provides, the smell and feel of the wax, alongside the depth and texture of finished works are just some of the positive attributes,’ Wrathall explains.

Julia Wrathall

Julia Wrathall - Credit: Archant

She says painting with wax is popular in the USA, but not so much here, something she is trying to change. To this end she holds regular workshops at her studio in Bourne End. ‘I have found the concept intrigues people,’ she says.

To further her own knowledge of the medium, this year she aims to research its historical use and the methods of applications in the Fayum portraits and other ancient icons. She also plans to investigate the possibilities of working with Hertfordshire beekeepers, with a view to using local beeswax in her work.

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The encaustic wax method involves applying melted beeswax, which is often mixed with damar gum, an Asian tree resin which helps to set the wax, to a chosen surface, traditionally wood, but canvas, board and paper are also used. The wax is either applied in a thin single layer and manipulated with hot tools, such as a craft iron, stylus or heat gun, or applied directly with a paint brush. Several layers can be fused together, coloured with oil paints or coloured paper, and often a variety of mixed media is added between layers. Leaves, grasses, sand or feathers can all produce stunning effects.

Because of the works’ composition, art buyers are sometimes wary, Walker says. But she adds that, as with all original paintings, as long as they are kept in a sensible location out of direct sunlight and extreme conditions (although the wax has a melting point of at least 160 degrees), they will bring pleasure for many years.

Applying paper to the surface of a painting

Applying paper to the surface of a painting - Credit: Archant

Spending as much time as possible in her studio, Wrathall continues to explore and expand her talent and is excited about the future. ‘My focus is as an encaustic wax artist. However, I paint in a great many styles and mediums, depending on what mood takes me on a particular day. One week I feel the need to be drawing in pencil, the minute detail of ivy leaves on a tree and precise angles of a building; the next, I am slapping wax on to a canvas with wild abandon in a loose abstract style. I find it therapeutic to experience the contrast between the different styles and it keeps my art fresh,’ she says.

The possibilities of drizzling or splattering wax to create a 3D effect or scratching designs to reveal layers underneath are without limit, and make this art form exciting and vivid – just some of the reasons this boundless artist finds herself enthralled by it.


For more on Julie Wrathall’s work and upcoming events, see

Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade - Credit: Archant