What is Encaustic?

Encaustic painting, also known as hot wax painting, involves using heated beeswax and damar resin (a tree sap from China) to which coloured pigments are added (either a powdered pigment or an oil paint). The damar resin helps the beeswax harden once applied to a rigid yet porous surface. Wax is applied in a molten state and each layer of beeswax that is added must be fused with heat (heat gun, torch, iron or heat lamp). An average encaustic painting has many layers of wax, sometimes upwards of 40-50. The encaustic medium can be carved and manipulated with tools to create beautiful dimension.

The History Of Encaustic Painting

Encaustic painting (from the Greek: “burnt in”) was an ancient method of fixing pigments with heated wax. It was first practiced in Egypt about 3000 BC. The best known of all ancient encaustic works are the Fayum funeral portraits painted in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD by Greek painters living in Egypt. These Greek artisans adopted many of the Egyptian customs, including mummifying their dead, and the painting of a portrait of the deceased which was placed over the person’s mummy as a memorial.

The excellent condition of these ancient works is most likely due to the fact that wax is an excellent preservative of materials. The Greeks applied coatings of wax and resin to waterproof their ships. Pigmenting the wax gave rise to the decorating of warships.

Unfortunately, the process of producing encaustic art was costly and the medium fell into disuse after the decline of the Roman Empire. During the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci and others attempted unsuccessfully to revive the technique. However, it was not until the 20th century that encaustic art experienced a true resurgence. Through the availability of portable electric heating implements and other tools, encaustic painting has once again taken its place as a major artist’s medium.

Care of Encaustic Paintings

Here are some things to know about encaustic paintings:

  • Encaustic paintings do not have to be varnished or protected by glass.
  • Encaustic paintings will look cloudy/foggy over the first year while the beeswax is curing. This is called blooming and is a normal state of an encaustic work of art.
  • Your encaustic art can be buffed and shined using a soft, lint free cloth. This will bring back the amazing shine of the piece! Always lightly dust the piece and buff the painting first thing in the morning so that the surface is at it’s coldest. If it has been sitting under warm lights or is in a very warm room, avoid buffing as lint and dust will attach itself to the surface. Note: some areas of some paintings should not be buffed as it can damage some of the areas that may be a bit more textural or 3-d on the painting.
  • Encaustic paintings are extremely durable due to the fact that beeswax does not absorb moisture. Because of this it will not deteriorate, it will not yellow, and it will not darken.
  • DO NOT hang your encaustic painting: in direct sunlight or above a fireplace (while transporting an encaustic painting, DO NOT leave it in a sealed vehicle…drastic heat will cause it to melt and drastic cold can cause it to crack and separate from the panel).
  • Always protect the surface and edges of the encaustic painting when moving it. Although the surface is completely dry, encaustic paintings can be scratched, gouged, or chipped if handled roughly.