What is Encaustic Art?

Encaustica is a finicky and difficult technique to master. Not only do you work with hot wax, and in the process get burned and splattered, you also have to deal with the fumes and heating processes.

Encaustic is a Greek word meaning “to heat or burn in” (enkaustikos). Heat is used throughout the process, from melting the beeswax and varnish to fusing the layers of wax. Encaustic consists of natural bees wax and dammar resin (crystallized tree sap).

Pigments may be added to the medium, or purchased colored with traditional artist pigments. The medium is melted and applied with a brush or any tool the artist wishes to create from. Each layer is then reheated to fuse it to the previous layer.

Encaustic painting is an ancient technique, dating back to the Greeks, who used wax to caulk ship hulls. Pigmenting the wax gave rise to the decorating of warships. The 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. Perhaps the best known of all encaustic work are the Fayum funeral portraits painted in the 1st through 3rd centuries A.D. by Greek painters in Egypt. 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. These are the only surviving encaustic works from ancient times. It is notable how fresh the color has remained due to the protection of the wax.

From the Middle Ages up until the 18 th century, encaustic was basically a lost art form. Artists turned to tempera, fresco and oil mediums that didn’t require the cumbersome task of managing fire to liquefy waxy paints. However, there are some records of the technique being maintained in the medieval period in Constantinople, and in Russia where it was used for the painting of icons.

Traditionally, wax has been melted down to achieve a thin consistency before mixing it with pigment. Ancient Greeks and Romans passed a heat source close to the surface of the finished work to fuse and bond colors. Pliny the Elder outlined ancient Greco-Roman techniques; “one with wax, the other on ivory-by means of a cestrum or sharp point, and of melting the wax by fire and using a brush.”

In the 20th century, painter Fritz Faiss (1905–1981), a student of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky at the Bauhaus, together with Dr. Hans Schmid, rediscovered the so-called “Punic wax” technique of encaustic painting. Faiss held two German patents related to the preparation of waxes for encaustic painting. One covered a method for treating beeswax so that its melting point was raised from 60 to 100 °C (140 to 212 °F). This occurred after boiling the wax in a solution of sea water and soda three successive times. The resulting harder wax is the same as the Punic wax referred to in ancient Greek writings on encaustic painting.

Encaustic paintings are extremely archival, but as with any fine art, care should be given to them. There should be no fear of the work melting in normal household conditions. The wax and resin will not melt unless exposed to temperatures over 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Leaving a painting in a car on a hot day would not be advisable or hanging a painting in front of a window with direct desert-like sun. They are also sensitive to freezing cold temperatures.

Some encaustic colors tend to “bloom” or become cloudy over time. If your painting appears indistinct, simply rub the surface with a soft cloth or nylon stocking. Over time the surface retains its gloss as the wax medium continues to cure and harden for up to 1-3 years.