Encaustic is a Greek word meaning “to heat or burn in” (enkaustikos). Encaustic is simply melted beeswax and damar resin, which results in a medium of unsurpassed clarity and luminosity. Pigment may be added to the medium to create opaque paints or glazes. It is applied in a molten state and each new layer must be reheated with a torch or heat gun to fuse the medium to the previous layer. The tools used are natural bristle brushes, styluses, scrapers, and other shapers – not that different from the tools the first encaustic painters used 2000 years ago. The finished painting, buffed to a high shine, could last that long. The medium is ancient, but it has only re-emerged in this generation, completely fresh and re-imagined. Welcome to the party!
THE HISTORY OF ENCAUSTIC
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 are sketchy. According to Pliny, encaustic was used in a variety of applications: the painting of portraits and scenes of mythology on panels, coloring of marble and terracotta, and work on ivory (probably the tinting of incised lines).
Wax is an excellent preservative and it was from this use that the art of encaustic painting was developed. The Greeks applied coatings of wax and resin to weatherproof their ships. Pigmenting the wax gave rise to the decorating of warships; Homer mentions the painted ships of the Greek warriors who fought at Troy. The use of a rudimentary encaustic was therefore an ancient practice be 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. The se of encaustic on panels rivals the use of tempera, in what are the earliest known portable easels 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 lifelike. Moreover, encaustic had a 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 time.
The ability 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 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 terracotta work on interiors was also painted with encaustic, a practice that was a forerunner to mosaic trim. Perhaps the best known of all encaustic works 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 the conquest by Alexander, eventually adopting the customs of the Eqyptians, including mummifying the dead. A portrait of the deceased painted either in the prime of their 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 competed work. In 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, encaustic painting was revived, initially by amateurs as a way of exploring the techniques of ancient paianters. It was further explored in the 19th century as a way to solve the problem of dampness in murals by painters in Northern climates. The success of these efforts was limited and encaustic remained an obscure art form.
Today, with the availability of portable electric heating implements and a wide variety of tools, working with encaustic is much less daunting. 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 texture and color possibilities make it eminently suitable to fuse in many different contemporary styles of painting that are not adequately served by the traditional oil painting process.
– Adapted from “The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques by Ralph Mayer, ©2009 – 2013 Susan Stayer. All rights reserved.