Ask the Art Nurse: Ball of Wax.

DEAR ART NURSE:
I made a sculpture about 4 months ago, mostly comprised of candle wax. I had no idea how to preserve the wax from breaking and melting away if it was put in high temperatures, so i decided to coat it with shellac, primarily out of fear of using resins, due to their toxicity. A few weeks ago i was moving the piece to a different location, left it temporarily outside and realized that the wax was getting soft. Now that i know that the shellac is not working the way I intended it to, I have no idea what i should use to preserve the piece. Whatever material I use, it must be clear, and must protect the piece from melting… Any suggestions?

– Daphne

DEAR DAPHNE:
Good question! This raises one of the most common misconceptions in the art world: whether something made of an inherently soft, degradable, or otherwise delicate/unstable material can be protected by coating it with something. The answer: No. You can’t keep a soft surface from melting in the heat by protecting it with a coating — whether it’s shellac or a synthetic resin. We love the suppleness and depth of wax sculpture just as much as the next art medical professional (think: Medardo Rosso, or the heaving animatronic breasts of Britney Spears at Madame Tussauds). But all waxes, whether paraffin, beeswax or microcrystalline are sensitive to heat.

The only thing you can do to keep it from melting is to keep it cool, that is, indoors and away from heat sources. In the future, if you want to use wax for sculpting, look for wax with a higher melting temperature. If you’re getting your wax at the 99-cent store, try using the ones that don’t have a scent (they tend to be harder). If you don’t mind materials that melt, however, I’d like to recommend lard. If the piece doesn’t work out, you can always cook with it.

– Rx, San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.

3 comments

  1. J.V.

    Cast the wax sculpture in plaster (or bronze) and then coat the new sculpture in a thin layer of wax. People should never know the difference. If you require the final product to be translucent then you might consider casting it in resin before coating it, but resin would be much harder to coat than plaster, so you might need to rough up the surface quite a bit first.

  2. Mark Gottsegen

    For unbiased answers to questions like these, see http://www.amien.org, the Art Materials Information and Education Network. We have no advertisements at the site, do not endorse or promote any brand products, and do not discuss aesthetics. Pure, timely, information based on research and contemporary sources of information.