About Encaustic

About Encaustic

Encaustic is a painting technique using a wax and resin based paint. It is valued for its rich luminous surface and its versatility for use with other artist's mediums. The paint is typically applied to a rigid absorbant surface, often in multiple layers. The wax / paint must be melted to fuse to the rigid base, and each subsequent layer of paint must be fused to the previous layer. The word encaustic comes from Greek and means “to burn in”, which refers to this process of melting and fusing. The wax in the paint is beeswax and the resin is Damar, which is a sap from a tree in the East Indies. It raises the melting temperature and gives the wax extra hardness and shine. The final surface can be polished to a gloss.

The painting technique dates back to the 5th century B.C.E. The Greeks used coatings of wax and resin to waterproof ships and added pigment for decoration. The best known encaustic works are the Fayum funeral portraits, which were found in tombs along the Nile. They were painted in the 1st and 2nd century A.D. by Greek painters in Egypt. A portrait of the deceased was painted on wood and placed over the mummy as a memorial. Many of these pieces have survived and their colors are still vibrant. Encaustic was also used for murals, on statuary and on architectural stonework. After the 5th century the medium was rarely used. It was replaced by tempera and oil, which were less cumbersome. In this century, with the availability of portable electric heating implements, it has enjoyed a resurgence, with much variation and experimentation.

For my own artwork I use filtered beeswax and make most of my own paints. The wax / paint is kept liquid in small tins sitting on an electric griddle set around 200 degrees. For color, I add dry pigments to the wax. Different types of pigments allow for varying levels of transparency and opacity. The paint is applied with brushes that are also kept warm on the griddle. Each new layer of wax is carefully melted with a propane torch, iron or heat gun to fuse it to the layer below. The wax hardens immediately and can be carved, shaped or incised and engraved with tools. Multiple layers are built up and can be selectively scraped away to reveal the layers below. Areas can be remelted and reworked. Collage elements can be added and embedded. I frequently include paper, alone or with drawing, using pencil, colored pencil, and ink and other mediums. For a substrate, I typically paint on birch plywood panels, but have also been using 300lb. watercolor paper which is later mounted on a more ridgid underlament.

For several months after the wax has last been melted, it slowly cures and hardens. During this period the surface may become cloudy. This is called bloom, and is more visible on darker colors. It is not a defect. The surface may be gently polished with a soft clean cloth to dispell the bloom and restore a lustrous shine to the surface without harming the artwork. Because wax is impervious to moisture and air, it doesn't easily deteriorate and doen't need to be protected with a varnish or glass. It will not yellow or darken with age. Like most fine art, colors are still susceptible to fading from UV radiation and it should be kept out of direct sunlight. Tempuratures need to get much hotter than your home to damage the wax - typically above 170 degrees.