What is Encaustic Art?
Encaustic is a Greek word meaning “to heat or burn in” (enkaustikos). Encaustic "paint" (the medium) consists of a mixture of natural bees wax and damar resin (crystallized tree sap). The addition of the damar resin increases the melting point of the mixture and makes the medium hard and durable once it cures.
The medium can be used alone for its transparency or adhesive qualities or a wide range of beautiful colors can be created by adding dry pigments.
The encaustic medium is melted and applied with a brush or any tool the artist wishes to create from. After each layer of medium is applied to the surface, heat must be used to fuse that layer to the previous layer.
Encaustic painters work hot (liquid stage) and cold (solid stage) as opposed to most other paint mediums where it is wet to dry. The beauty of encaustic paintings is that they can constantly be reworked many times, just by reapplying heat.
History of Encaustic
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. 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.
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.
Care of Encaustic Art
These 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.