Encaustic paint is simply beeswax, Damar resin, and pigment that is heated and kept in a molten state to paint with. It is applied to a surface and reheated with a heat gun to fuse the paint into a uniform enamel-like finish. The ancient Greeks developed encaustic over 2,000 years ago. The word encaustic derives from the Greek word enkaustikos, meaning “to heat” or “to burn”.
The wax layers of an encaustic painting need to be “burned in”. This simply means fusing the layers of wax together with heat to ensure that the different layers of wax are bonded together. Due to the characteristics of beeswax paint the surface can naturally be polished to a high gloss for a luminous effect, or the wax can be modeled, sculpted, textured,scraped and etched. For me the ability to play with the depth, fluidity and luminosity bringing image through the layers onto the surface. Layers of pigmented wax deliver color in a way no other medium can, for as light passes through those layers and is reflected back up to the surface, the painting is actually illuminated from within.
An encaustic paint film is stable in a temperature range of approximately 40-110°F. Encaustic paints are perhaps the most durable form of painting, evidenced by the Faiyûm mummy portraits in Egypt, which have survived over 2000 years without cracking, flaking, or fading. Wax has several inherent qualities that allow it to withstand the test of time: it is a natural adhesive; it is moisture resistant, mildew and fungus resistant, and unappetizing to insects. Wax paint also does not contain solvents or oils so they will not darken or yellow with age. Greek artists were painting with encaustic as long ago as the 5th century B.C. The history of encaustic began in ancient Greece, where shipbuilders used beeswax and resin to seal the joints and waterproof the hulls of their vessels. Pigmenting the wax gave rise to the decorating of warships.
It is possible that the crude painting of ships lead to the refinement of painting pigmented wax onto panels, statues, ceramics, and architecture. Pausias was a Greek painter of the 1st half of 4th century B.C. He was celebrated for his decorative paintings, particularly in encaustic, a method which he is said to have invented. His most famous single work, A Sacrifice, containing an admirably foreshortened and modeled figure of a bull, was preserved until late Roman times in the portico of Pompey’s temple in Rome.
Phiny the Elder, the Roman historian writer in the first century A.D. mentions encaustic used in a variety of application: the painting of portraits and scenes of mythology on panels, the coloring of marble and terra cotta, and work on ivory. Pliny describes the process in which hot liquid colors were applied to the wall by means of heated irons. The use of encaustic on panel rivaled the use of tempera, which was a faster and cheaper process. Encaustic was a slow, difficult, 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. Phiny refers to encaustic paintings several hundred years old in possession of Roman aristocrats of his time.
A large Greek population had established itself in Egypt, in the Faiyûm district, near Cairo following Alexander’s conquest in 330 B.C. Greek influence in art and culture began to spread during the Hellenistic period. Also the Greeks were beginning to adapting to the customs of the Egyptians. This included the mummifying of their dead. An encaustic portrait was then placed over the person’s mummy memorial. Two cultures merged and created the famous Faiyûm funeral portraits in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. Since the beginning of the 19th century, archeologists have discovered over 600 portraits that have been found in the Egyptian mortuary temples.
These portraits were remarkably preserved, testifying not only to the advanced skills of these ancient portrait artists, but also to the unique color qualities and durability of encaustic paints. Then it wasn’t until the 20th century that encaustic use was truly revived. With the availability of electrical heating devices encaustic was much more accessible. In the 1920’s Mexican muralist Diego Rivera began using encaustic. In the 1940’s Karl Zerbe, head of Boston Museum School of Art at Cornell University, was very instrumental in the revival of encaustics. He is said to be the father of encaustics, however, Rifka Angel began experimenting with the medium a few years prior to Zerbe.
The history of contemporary encaustic begins with Jasper Johns who was using encaustic in the 1950’s. After the 1958 other artists such as Lynda Benglis began using wax. In the 70’s sculptor Nancy Graves and installation artist Michele Stuart also began adding wax into their work. Other famous artists who had tried their hand in encaustic are Pablo Picasso, James Ensor, Robert Delaunay, Antoine Pevsner, and Pedro Pruna, Tony Scherman, who does large scale portraiture, Martin Kline, who does sculptural paintings, and abstract painter Joanne Mattera.