Wax as a Material – What’s the fuss about?

Wax as a material is one of the most respected, and oldest materials from around globe. In fact, in her book Wax as art form, Thelma Newman (1966) describes the ‘story of wax’ to be so ‘colorful and at times so weird that it takes on the aspect of a fairytale.’ (p.12).

While in the UK we may recognise it from the candles on our shelves, and perhaps the Madame Tussaud’s museum, wax actually has a widely rich history. For instance, did you know that in the fifteenth century, wax was used by West Indians on their bodies to keep mosquitoes away (Newman, 1966, p. 13). Or have you ever heard of the ‘Batik’ tradition – a Malayan word for ‘wax writing’ that was practised by noblewoman in Indonesia around the thirteenth century after originating in Egypt. It is a way of ‘drawing a design on fabric with hot wax and then coloring the fabric with water-based dyes’ (Newman, 1966, p. 224) resulting in some beautiful pieces.

Batik in the making.

Want to find out a little bit more about wax? Check out some of the links below!

National Candle Organisation – If you are curious about the history of the everyday candle.

Encaustic Wax Painting – Tired of acrylic paints? Why not try painting with some tinted beeswax.

History of Batik – A deeper dive into the story of Batik.

Ukrainian Pysanka – Traditional Easter eggs from Eastern Europe decorated using wax

In terms of painting and sculpture specifically, wax was used in a multitude of ways. Beeswax for instance, the oldest known wax (Newman, 1966, p. 19) was used by Titian to soak the back of his canvases to protect them from damp. It was also quite widely used as a key component of the church candle.

The uses of wax through the centuries can be categorised into a few broad categories.

So why was wax so popular and used for so many purposes? This could be partly due to its qualities which rival that of the versatility of clay. This meant that the material was a tool for creativity, inspiring people to adjust it to their needs.

GOOD TIP! Dirt kills the consistency of wax (Newman, 1966, p. 106) which means it is important to consider the storage of the material between uses.

In addition to these properties, wax also has a notable relationship with the way it interacts with light. Newman describes wax as being ‘very good at transmitting light’ (1966, p. 108). Through this, the viewer is invited to see the sculpture in a more realistic manner. In fact, Newman claims that some artists ‘believed that it was possible for a sculptor to collect light from a given position and… render an equivalence to light yielding emotions akin to the feelings we have when we view a living figure’ (1966, p. 108). It is no surprise then, that wax has been used by some notable artists through history to create models for anatomical study and for aesthetically realistic purposes – through wax they could bring further life to their work.

The funeral effigy of Elizabeth of York, mother of King Henry VIII, 1503, Westminster Abbey

Therefore, I think I want to finish this post by highlighting that wax has a narrative to it. Rich history that embodies creativity of the individual is at the core of how wax has been used by cultures all around the world, and I think this relates quite well to the subject that I would like to recreate in wax form – Edith Kramer. As described in my previous post, Kramer emphasised the benefits of creativity on mental wellbeing, so I quite like the idea that I would be reflecting her practise in the actual material that I will use to make her. I also like how it relates a little to the reason why I chose this project as my closure to my University degree – my own experience of creativity and the way I have slowly explored its benefits in my personal practise.