is a beeswax based paint that is kept molten on a heated palette. It
is applied to a surface and reheated to fuse the paint into a uniform
enamel-like finish. The word encaustic comes from Greek and means to
burn in, which refers to the process of fusing the paint.
has a long history, but it is as versatile as any 20th century medium.
It can be polished to a high gloss, it can be modeled, sculpted, textured,
and combined with collage materials. It cools immediately, so that there
is no drying time, yet it can always be reworked.
durability of encaustic is due to the fact that beeswax is impervious
to moisture. Because of this it will not deteriorate, it will not yellow,
and it will not darken. Encaustic paintings do not have to be varnished
or protected by glass.
paint has no toxic fumes, nor does it require the use of solvents. As
a result, a number of health hazards are reduced or eliminated.
History of Encaustic
painting was practiced by Greek artists as far back as the 5th century
B. C. Most of our knowledge of this early use comes from the Roman historian
Pliny, who wrote in the 1st century A. D.. Pliny seems to have had very
little direct knowledge about studio methods, so his account of techniques
and materials is sketchy. According to Pliny, encaustic was used in
a variety of applications: the painting of portraits and scenes of mythology
on panels, the coloring of marble and terra cotta, and work on ivory
(probably the tinting of incised lines).
is an excellent preservative of materials. It was from this use that
the art of encaustic painting developed. The Greeks applied coatings
of wax and resin to weatherproof their ships. Pigmenting the wax gave
rise to the decorating of warships. Mention is even made by Homer of
the painted ships of the Greek warriors who fought at Troy. The use
of a rudimentary encaustic was therefore an ancient practice by the
5th century B. C.. It is possible that at about that time the crude
paint applied with tar brushes to the ships was refined for the art
of painting on panels. Pliny mentions two artists who had in fact started
out as ship painters.
use of encaustic on panels rivaled the use of tempera, in what are the
earliest known portable easel paintings. Tempera was a faster, cheaper
process. Encaustic was a slow, difficult technique, but the paint could
be built up in relief, and the wax gave a rich optical effect to the
pigment. These characteristics made the finished work startlingly life-like.
Moreover, encaustic had far greater durability than tempera, which was
vulnerable to moisture. Pliny refers to encaustic paintings several
hundred years old in the possession of Roman aristocrats of his own
nature of encaustic to both preserve and color gave it wide use on the
stone work of both architecture and statuary. The white marble we see
today in the monuments of Greek antiquity was once colored, probably
delicately tinted like the figures on the Alexander sarcophagus in Istanbul.
Pliny says that when the sculptor Praxiteles was asked which of his
pieces he favored, he answered those "to which [the painter] Nicias
had set his hand." Decorative terra cotta work on interiors was also
painted with encaustic, a practice that was a forerunner to mosaic trim.
the best known of all encaustic work are the Fayum funeral portraits
painted in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. by Greek painters in Egypt.
A significant Greek population had settled in Egypt following its conquest
by Alexander, eventually adopting the customs of the Egyptians. This
included mummifying their dead. A portrait of the deceased, painted
either in the prime of life or after death, was placed over the person's
mummy as a memorial. Many of these pieces have survived to our own time,
and their color has remained as fresh as any recently completed work.
the great period of economic instability that followed the decline of
the Roman empire, encaustic fell into disuse. Some work, particularly
the painting of icons, was carried on as late as the 12th century, but
for the most part it became a lost art. The process was cumbersome and
painstaking, and the cost of producing it was high. It was replaced
by tempera, which was cheaper, faster, and easier to work. In the 18th
century the idea of encaustic painting was revived, initially by amateurs
as a novelty to rediscover the techniques of the ancient painters. It
was further explored in the 19th century, to solve the problem of dampness
faced by mural painters in northern climates. The success of these efforts
was limited, and encaustic remained an obscure art form.
the 20th century, the availability of portable electric heating implements
and the variety of tools has made encaustic a far less formidable technique.
This factor has created a resurgence of encaustic painting, and it is
once again taking its place as a major artists' medium. "Its effects,
its visual and physical properties, and its range of textural and color
possibilities make it eminently suitable for use in several different
contemporary styles of painting that are not adequately served by our
traditional oil-painting process."
Ralph Mayer, The Artist's Handbook