So You Want to Do Encaustic Painting?

Encaustic painting is a process of painting using wax that contains colored pigments.

Encaustic literally means "to burn in" so the truest form of encaustic painting involves using heat to work with color pigmented wax in molten form. Our discussion today will focus on this form of encaustic painting.

The other type of encaustic painting is referred to as the "cold wax" method, which historically involved boiling beeswax in salt sea water, and straining through cheese cloth to remove impurities. The wax was then bleached in sun or moonlight for several days and then made soap-like by adding sodium bicarbonate. This was mixed together and then later, drained again through cheesecloth, rinsed in lukewarm water and finally air dried. It would then probably have been tempered for painting by mixing with other naturally available ingredients. This was a process attributed to the ancient roman egyptian era.


A brief history of encaustics is that it has been around a very very long time, probably back to Egypt around 3000 BC. Not much has survived but about 60 funeral portraits painted in the first and second centuries AD by Greek painters living in Egypt after Alexander the Great's conquest of that region, have survived. These have been dubbed or referred to as the Fayum funeral portraits. See some photos of these here.

The practice fell into disuse after the fall of the Roman Empire. Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt were two of the recognizable names from the Italian Renaissance who attempted to revive the art but unsuccessfully.

During the twentieth century, the availability of electrically heated equipment and commercially prepared materials brought about a resurgence in encaustic painting as an art form. A major figure in its early revival was Karl Zerbe, Head of Painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from 1937 to 1955. Soon thereafter, Jasper Johns revolutionized the possibilities of this ancient medium with his collage paintings of 1954 and beyond. Brice Marden and Lynda Benglis created highly influential paintings during the 1960s and '70s that further extended the parameters of encaustic and wax-based media. Today, there are many contemporary artists exploring the boundaries of this exciting and creative art process. It remains an ever-evolving art form.

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