What is Encaustic?
Encaustic painting is an art form that uses hot wax as the primary medium, with further application of heat to fuse each new layer of wax as the painting progresses. The name is derived from the Greek word enkaustikos, which means “to burn in.”
Artists in Greco-Roman Egypt used this medium over 2000 years ago in creating funeral portraits on panels which were applied to mummy casings. Many of these Fayum mummy portraits, as they have come to be known after their rediscovery in the 1600s, look as fresh and vivid today as if they had been painted recently.
Two factors are essential in order to achieve such long-lasting results. First, a hardening agent, most commonly damar resin, must be added to the wax. Pigments are added to the resulting medium to create the colors. The wax medium is kept liquid in a hot pan or in containers on a hot plate during the painting process.
The second factor is the addition of heat after the application of each layer of wax to permanently fuse it to the previous layer. A variety of tools can be used for this purpose: a blowtorch, a heat gun, light bulbs, or even sunlight. It is also important that the surface to be painted be rigid, as any bending might result in cracking of the cured wax, and that it be porous, so that the wax medium will fuse solidly to it. Typically, the surface is primed with one or multiple layers of clear wax medium before the application of colors.
Encaustic painting has grown a steady following among practicing artists since Jasper Johns revived the ancient medium in the 1950s.
This unique art form is highly praised for its luminosity, which photographs cannot render faithfully. A visit to a local encaustic artist’s studio, or to a gallery representing their work, is sure to be an enlightening experience.
For a more detailed survey of the art form, I recommend the following books:
by Lissa Rankin
For technical information, the R&F Handmade Paints website is a good resource.