cold wax painting

Cold Wax Painting: A Guide

Cold wax painting involves artists combining cold wax with oil paint to create thick, layered, textured artworks. 

The addition of cold wax completely transforms the oil painting experience. Add cold wax to oil paint to thicken the consistency and give a matte, velvety finish. Retain brush strokes on the canvas and speed up drying time for a more expressive feel to the oil painting process.

Experiment with texture, use brushes, a palette knife, or a range of different applicator tools to add another dimension to the artwork and build thick paint on the surface. It’s an incredibly fun oil painting medium to experiment with and one that yields unique results. 

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Best cold wax: top product pick

There are a few brands that make excellent, artist quality cold wax mediums. Our top pick is Gamblin’s Cold Wax. It is made from pure, naturally white beeswax that is formulated to a thick knife consistency. When mixed with oil paint, it thickens colours and gives them a matte finish. 

What is the cold wax medium?

The ingredients of cold wax mediums can differ slightly from brand to brand, but the basic ingredients will include beeswax, resin and solvent. When a small amount of solvent is added to the wax, it softens enough to become spreadable like a paste. Resin is also added to strengthen the paint film and make it more flexible. The solvent in the mix dries by evaporation, leaving a hardened film. 

When mixed with oil paint, it gives colours a translucent, thick quality. The matte characteristic gives the painting a distinct look, which makes it easier to photograph and display, as the finish of the painting won’t be obscured by unwanted surface glare or reflections. Due to the translucency of the wax, light is able to penetrate the paint film, giving colours a luminous quality.

Cold wax is different to hot wax painting, otherwise known as encaustic, as no heat is required to make wax soft and workable. The cold wax spreads and hardens on its own, without need for heat.

Cold wax is a medium that is bought separately from oil paints. This medium is then mixed on a palette with each oil paint colour and applied to the canvas with a brush, knife or applicator. 

Cold wax painting supplies

There are a number of different supplies artists can use for cold wax painting that differ slightly to regular oil painting supplies. Read on to find out the best brands of cold wax, the best surfaces and applicators for using with the medium.

Cold wax brand review

Each brand of cold wax available to artists has a slightly different ingredients list, which makes the cold wax behave differently in practice. If you’re looking for a thick wax, Gamblin might be the best fit. However, if you’re looking for a more spreadable wax, Michael Harding may be more suitable.

Gamblin Cold Wax Medium

Gamblin Cold Wax Medium - 16 oz can

The Gamblin Cold Wax Medium is one of the most popular cold wax mediums available to artists. It’s made from beeswax, Gamsol which is their formulation of odourles mineral spirits and a small amount of alkyd. This can be used alongside Gamsol and Galkyd mediums.

Michael Harding Beeswax Paste

Michael Harding Beeswax Paste - 100 ml jar

The Michael Harding Beeswax paste is a mix of bleached beeswax, linseed stand oil, dammar resin and turpentine. It dries slower than Gamblin, due to the addition of oil to the medium.

This medium makes wonderful blends, because of the slower drying time, it’s also slightly softer in consistency than Gamblin, so you would be able to use a brush without thinning with solvent first. Due to the potency of turpentine, the smell is stronger compared to other cold wax mediums. When working with a medium containing solvent, ventilate your space properly by opening windows.

Dorland’s Cold Wax Medium

Dorland's Wax Medium - 16 oz jar

Dorland’s wax is made from pure beeswax and non-yellowing resin. It also contains a couple of additives, such as paraffin and microcrystalline which give the wax a smooth, spreadable texture. This medium gives colours incredible clarity, while adding body to the paint. Use it for cold wax painting, in mixed media, as a final sealing coat on a painting, or even metal sculpture, wood and carvings.

Wallace Seymour Beeswax Impasto Medium

Wallace Seymour Beeswax paste is a blend of bleached beeswax and linseed stand oil. It’s a semi-transparent soft wax paste that is slightly softer than Gamblin and Zest-It and has more of a satin-matte finish. This brand is available in the UK, but the larger art suppliers in the US do not stock it at the time of writing.

Zest-It Cold Wax Medium

Zest-It cold wax has the same properties as other wax brands, however they use a citrus based solvent to thin the wax. The medium also has a small amount of linseed oil in the mix. The citrus based solvent isn’t harmful to the environment and it is biodegradable. Linseed oil makes this medium dry ever so slightly more slowly than some other brands of cold wax. This brand at present is available in the UK and may be liable to shipping restrictions if delivering outside the UK. Check with your local art supplier for availability.

Surfaces for cold wax painting

Ampersand Value Series Artist Panel - Smooth, 16

Cold wax is a brittle medium; when using a high ratio of wax to oil, the paint film can be prone to cracking when dry if painted on flexible supports. It’s best to paint on a rigid surface like a wooden panel if using more cold wax, that won’t shift when pressure is applied. Increase the flexibility of the paint film by adding some alkyd medium, like galkyd. Added oil will also act to protect the paint film from cracking. Surfaces like canvases are more flexible, but they won’t really warp or budge unless damaged, so canvas makes for a decent support if using a lower proportion of wax.

If you’re just getting started with the cold wax medium and you don’t want to splash out on paying for large wooden panels whilst familiarising yourself with how to apply paint, get some oil paper. Oil paper sheets are relatively cheap and you can go to town, trying all manner of different experimental techniques, adjusting oil to wax medium ratios and having fun with the process. Of course, if one of your abstract or experimental pieces turns out well, you can frame it! 

Brushes and applicator tools

Brushes for cold wax painting

Most cold wax mediums are made to knife consistency, so wax will need to be thinned with a small amount of odourless mineral spirits to be soft enough to apply with a brush. Michael Harding Beeswax paste is on the softer side, if you’re looking for a medium that is more brushable. 

Princeton Catalyst Polytip Brush - Bright, Size 2, Short Handle

Use a stiff, springy brush to move the thick cold wax. A synthetic brush like the Princeton Catalyst is stiff and springy enough to move thicker paint; a black hog brush will give similar results. Chungking hog brushes are the stiffest variety of paint brushes and will leave brush marks in the paint.

Catalyst wedge

Princeton Wedge - Shape 1

Catalyst wedges are flexible tools made from silicone that come in a range of shapes and sizes. The tools are flexible, some have serrated edges, some have regular square shaped patterns and some are flat. Drag the tool over the cold wax paint and scrape away sections of the paint to reveal colours underneath.

Princeton Catalyst Wedges and Blades - Shape 4, Blade, 50 mm

Princeton also makes their Catalyst blade tools with a wooden handle attachment, which makes them feel easier to hold. Paste cold wax paint straight onto the surface with the tool, or use the edges of the wedge to sculpt the peaks of wax to edit paint placement. They are fun tools to use, get expressive and experimental with paint application using them.

Soft rollers

Inovart Soft Rubber Brayer - 6

Soft rollers, also called brayers in the USA, are used for spreading wax on the surface in thin layers, blending colours and covering uneven texture. Brayers provide even rolling and smooth coverage of the surface; the softness of the rubber allows artists to achieve more subtle effects on paintings. 

Palette knives

Blick Painting Knife - Spatula, Set of 6

Apply cold wax in short sharp strokes with palette knives, or spread the wax across the canvas for even coverage. Use the edge of the knife to etch and scrape into the wax to remove layers. 

Get creative with applicators

You don’t have to get dedicated materials to apply paint to the surface. You can use a variety of tools that you may already have in the house, for example squeegees, clay tools, dough cutters, old stiff paint brushes. 

Which types of paints and mediums can you use with cold wax?

Cold wax is primarily used with oil paints, but it’s pretty versatile as an oil painting medium. Combine it with other mediums, or solvents to change the working properties. 

Alkyd resin

Alkyd or resins like damar can be added to wax to increase the flexibility of the dry paint film. It also increases fluidity. Make a mix of half Galkyd, half cold wax to reduce the viscosity so that the paint mix is fluid. 

Neo Megilp

Neo Megilp is silky in texture and has self levelling properties. It will give cold wax a smoother feel; the consistency is like jelly, but it holds its shape. Because the alkyd resin has a silky texture, it will give the matte cold wax a satin finish.

Solvent

Solvent dissolves the wax, so add a little to the paint mixture to make the wax more fluid. Turpentine and other solvents such as odourless mineral spirits (Gamsol) can be used to remove wax from the painting surface itself too. Turpentine and oil of spike lavender are the most effective solvents, whereas odourless mineral spirits and Zest-It citrus solvent are slightly less strong. When using any kind of solvent, it’s essential to ventilate your room. Read our studio safety guide for more tips on how to oil paint safely.

Cold wax and pigment sticks

Sennelier Artists' Oil Sticks - Mini Sticks Set of 24

Another fun combination to try is cold wax and oil sticks. Oil sticks are like large pastels of oil paint encased in wax, that cure in the same way that oil paint dries. Use them for targeted details, or getting colour into the textured surface. Drawing with the stick feels more controlled compared to painting with a brush or palette knife, some artists who are used to pencil or pastel drawing prefer using oil in stick version for this reason. If you’re interested in learning more about how to paint with oil sticks, check out our guide.

Dry mediums

Fredrix Powdered Marble Dust - 4 lb

Dry mediums such as marble dust are additives that give impasto marks greater texture and volume. The dry additives add tooth to the paint film, bulking it out. Adding any kind of dry powder like fine sand, slate dust or limestone dust can add substance to the cold wax. If you like creating abstract textures, this could be a great addition to your medium repertoire. 

Ordering cold wax online

In some countries there may be shipping restrictions on cold wax mediums. Because they contain solvent, some products will ship by road only. For this reason, check that the supplier will ship to your address. 

What effects can you achieve with cold wax?

When mixed with oil paint, wax will retain its shape on the canvas. Wax does not have self levelling properties, so expect brush marks to remain in the position they are applied to the surface. All kinds of brush marks and knife marks will be retained. Experiment by pasting the cold wax and oil paint mix onto the surface with a knife, creating peaks and sculptural effects.

Add a large proportion of wax to the paint (pertaining to the manufacturers’ recommendations) to achieve optimum thickness, then build structure on the surface. 

Use a silicone wedge or squeegee tool to scrape layers of wax across the surface. Because wax adds transparency to the paint, the layers beneath will be visible. For example, you could apply the wax and oil mixture first, then carve marks from the layer to reveal the colours beneath.

Wax is a matting agent, but is also too thick to use with a brush in most cases. To retain the matte finish of the paint, instead of making paint more fluid by adding linseed oil, add some solvent like Gamsol instead. This will thin the wax, making it softer and brushable but won’t increase the gloss of the paint film like linseed oil will. 

What is the drying time of cold wax?

Cold wax drying time is dependent on the amount of wax added to the paint film, whether other mediums were used in the mix and the thickness of the paint film. Another factor that can affect drying rate is the absorbency of your ground. If you paint with Gamblin Cold Wax, use the recommended quantities with no added mediums, with layers that are not too thick, give around 5 days for the paint layer to dry. If you’re painting in thicker layers, paint will dry much slower. To speed drying time, add an alkyd like Galkyd to the mix. 

What proportion of wax to paint should you use?

Different brands advise that artists use different proportions of wax to paint. Michael Harding specifies that adding 5-10% wax to paint will give the best results.

When using Gamblin medium, mix in up to 30% cold wax to 60% oil paint. If you paint with a higher proportion than this, you will need to paint on a rigid support like a wooden panel to minimise the risk of the surface warping and the paint film cracking. Increase the flexibility of the paint film by adding Galkyd gel. For example, a mix of 25% Galkyd, 25% wax and 50% oil would make a flexible film.

Add 10-20% of Wallace Seymour cold wax to paint to add body and retain brush marks. Bear in mind that thick layers will take longer to dry and will be subject to darkening, so Wallace and Seymour recommend applying paint with a thickness of 3mm maximum.

Dorland’s wax can be added at more flexible ratios, if you want to achieve thick impasto marks, apply wax with a 30-50% ratio to oil paint. 

How to layer cold wax paintings

When cold wax painting, the fat over lean rule doesn’t really apply. Thin cold wax with solvent in the first layers of the painting, if you plan to use solvent at all. This is because the solvent thinned layers will dry much more quickly and have a runnier texture. Thinning wax layers can be helpful for creating an underpainting or blocking in areas before applying thicker paint. To create separate layers of paint, wait for each layer to dry first. This could take up to six days for thicker layers. 

Cold wax painting techniques

There are many techniques associated with cold wax painting. However, artists are not limited to the use of these techniques. Cold wax painting is not a style, or a genre, it’s a versatile medium. Use any oil painting technique you like with cold wax. The only exception would be glazing, which requires paint to be ultra runny. However, it is possible to use a version of glazing with cold wax painting.

Impasto

Use a stiff brush or knife to apply paint in thick impasto strokes to the surface. The paint will hold its shape, leaving visible brushstrokes.

Loose brushstrokes

The approach to creating a loose painterly appearance in an artwork involves putting less emphasis on realism and instead being expressive with brush strokes. Create the appearance of dynamism by painting with thick impasto strokes. Instead of focussing on realism and detail, turn your focus on creating appealing composition and colour combinations.

Glazing

With regular oil paint, to create a glaze layer, extra oil is added to reduce the viscosity and increase the transparency of the paint. Use this technique with cold wax by mixing a transparent pigment with the translucent cold wax and applying thinly over a dry layer to alter the colours and tones. For example, you may want to make a section appear warmer by glazing with a transparent yellow. You could create a thin layer with a scraper tool.

Scraping

This is a technique whereby colour is removed from the surface to reveal colour layers beneath. Get a tool like a Catalyst wedge to scrape off large areas, or use the edge of a palette knife for finer details. 

Sgraffito

Score into the wet paint surface with the end of a paintbrush or the edge of a palette knife. This will scrape the paint off and reveal the surface or previous paint layers below. 

Painting detail with cold wax

Although most artists will opt to paint with thick texture pasted on the surface and loose, painterly brush marks, cold wax painting does not describe the omission of detail. Controlling the thick paint to make fine lines and details is more of a challenge. Artists can get small silicone tools to manipulate small areas of paint on the surface to create the illusion of small details. Or use a palette knife or the end of a brush with the sgraffito technique to etch into the cold wax and reveal previous layers. 

How to varnish cold wax

Cold wax can be used as a protective coating for paintings and even wood and metal work. The dry film seals out moisture, dirt and air. Wax can be buffed to a satin or gloss finish. Wait for the cold wax painting to dry, then thinly spread a layer of pure cold wax medium over the surface. Wait for it to dry and leave it for a matte finish, or buff after around 6 hours for a satin finish.

Cold wax painting best practices

How to store cold wax paintings

Beeswax melts at 60°C, whereas mediums such as Gamblin’s Cold Wax has been formulated to have a melting point of 68°C. For this reason, if you live in a hot climate, paintings should optimally be kept out of direct sunlight and in temperate rooms that don’t have extreme fluctuations in humidity.

Safety tips

Cold wax mediums contain solvent, so they should be used in a properly ventilated space. This is especially true if you’re using additional solvents such as Gamsol or turpentine. To ventilate a space, you need to make sure air is circulating. Ideally this means working in a room with two windows that can be opened.

Further reading

Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts & Conversations

In this book by Rebecca Crowell and Jerry McLaughlin, get a full introduction to the cold wax medium, or some additional technical knowledge if you are already familiar with cold wax painting. It is fully illustrated and provides comprehensive advice from experienced artists about different approaches and experimental techniques. The book also shows artists how to evaluate their own work, to strengthen their portfolio.


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