The only thing that greatly astonishes me is the inventiveness in the art techniques, which enable an artist to create fantastic artwork. Like Leonardo created the sfumato technique to make everything more perfect and real, a multitude of other artists developed their own techniques to lead the whole decade or sometimes a century through their artworks. One of these mind-blowing techniques or mediums is encaustic, which we intend to study today. Encaustic artists use the medium in a variety of ways, from ordinary cigarette burns in wax-coated paper to intricate knots and meanders in bas-relief. So let us start learning about this magical technique which can lead you to release your creative potential.
History and Background of the Encaustic.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, there remained very few artists, or just a bunch of people, who practiced and created a crucial body of encaustic work. Suddenly, a decade later, thousands of artists were inspired by zeitgeist, luminosity, or perhaps simply by the availability of good tools and materials- exploring pigmented wax’s possibilities of expression. But the irony is that this was not the technique which got invented in the 1900s; on the contrary, this laborious medium flourished around 2,000 years ago and again found its position in the 1900s.
The ancient Greek word enkaustikos, stands for ‘to heat’ or ‘to burn.’ And, not to forget, heat is used at every single stage of the encaustic painting. The medium consists of beeswax, which is melted with a small amount of resin to impart hardness, and then a pigment is added to this molten wax to paint. Since the wax begins to harden as soon as it leaves the heat source, the painting technique requires an artist to work quickly. What makes this encaustic unique is the application of heat between layers of brushstrokes. As a result, even though the image may consist of discrete compositional elements, structurally, it is a single crafted mass, a ball of wax, as the heat binds each new layer to the existing one. Now, let me tell you a quick history of the technique.
Primarily, shipbuilders used beeswax to caulk joints and waterproof vessel hulls in Ancient Greece. The pigmenting of wax and the patterned surface of the waxed hull seems like a short creative leap. Homer, writing in 800 BC, mentions painted warships sailing towards Troy. We can speculate about the designs on these vessels and the empowering effect they would have had on the soldiers within or the terror blood-red markings might have caused them to feel.
We are certainly not sure how these paintings worked (or were commissioned), but this led Greek artists to take encaustic in two directions- the first one was flat for easel painting and then the fully dimensional for the polychrome of clay and marble sculptures. One of the Roman historians, Pliny the Elder, wrote that Apelles, Praxiteles, Pausias, and other artists from the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. practiced this encaustic technique for art. One of the earliest examples that survive to date of this painting technique is a krater from the fourth century B.C., which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, portraying a sculptor applying wax to a marble figure.
But all these were just beginnings. The most significant improvement of the encaustic painting only began from 100 B.C. to A.D. 200, which included Fayum Portraits, changing the entire era of encaustic paintings. Not to confuse the terms, Fayum paintings are like the head and shoulder wax portraits, which were set into the mummy casings, designed to transport the bodies of the deceased to a spiritual afterlife. As a result, these were highly realistic, life-size pictures, which were believed to represent a departure from the ritualized imagery produced during the thousands of years of Pharaonic rule. Following the conquest of Alexander in 330 B.C., the Greek population adopted some indigenous customs, such as embalming and wrapping the dead with the use of encaustic painting. When the Roman Empire claimed this region in 30 B.C., after the death of Cleopatra, these encaustic funerary portraits evolved with such precision that they included a full or three-quarter view of the cremated person with the light source casting shadows on the face. In addition, it displayed the fashions and hairstyles of the Roman court, wrapped in Egyptian style and buried in mortuary temples at Hawara, Antinoopolis, Er-Rubayat, and elsewhere on high ground above the Fayum oasis. But not all wax portraits were destined to move into graves as at least over six hundred portraits of the time, painted on veneer-thin wooden panels, survived till date. There was a familiarity in these portraits as there was a use of resonant color and virtuosic brushwork to combine the light handling and rich impasto so that the viewer could see through these mere portraits. It was applied very thinly, dark-to-light, with translucent layers to create fleshlike skin tones. At the same time, it was also thickly applied to suggest luxurious fabrics and jewelry that symbolized the sitter’s class.
The common materials used by the Fayum painters, which we know as of now, are beeswax, pigment, resin, and brushes; the cestrum, a graving tool; and the bacterium, essentially a palette knife heated for fusing. Most portraits used this true encaustic, but others were painted with the Punic wax technique. The Punic wax technique is just a method where the beeswax is boiled with seawater and potassium carbonate and then bleached by the sun.
One of the best examples of this encaustic painting is the Portrait of the Boy Eutyches. It is now in the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Belonging to the A.D. 50-100, it is encaustic on limewood. The artwork is perhaps the most touching and perfect encaustic portrait from Greco-Roman Egypt, displaying the sitter’s tender age with soulful expressions. Rendered with the impastoed brushstrokes of olive-toned wax, it reads,
“Eutyches, freedman of Kasianos.”
That’s it for the ancient historical provenance of the encaustic art. I hope you now know a brief history of the art technique.
Reaching the contemporary encaustic, it began with the famous practitioner Jasper Johns, then followed by numerous people. But while we deal with the fact that Jasper Johns revived encaustic, we must not forget that Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican artist, also used encaustic for easel painting and murals. One of the good books that offer not only a little history of the contemporary encaustic but also the technical advice and recipes from the historical precedents is Encaustic Materials and Methods. So, the artists who really wish to perform this kind of painting can refer to this book.
Encaustic Painting | Fast Knowledge
Looking at Two of the Encaustic Paintings.
The two classic examples of encaustic paintings from the past and present are-
1. Portrait of a Young Woman With a Gold Wreath.
|Year Painted||A.D. 90-120|
|Medium||Oil on panel|
|Dimensions||16 1/4 x 8 1/2 in|
|Price||Not on sale|
|Where is it housed?||Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1909, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.|
The painting depicts a loose brushwork with an expressionistic approach over a colorful background. However, it seems that this background is an afterthought. It could simply be a stylistic difference since countless painters in different cities would have applied wax to panels in their own way over three centuries of Greco-Roman portraiture. Perhaps it’s a question of timing, as several portraits were painted during the life of the sitter and then cut down to fit inside the mummy casing at the time of embalming, whereas others were painted after death. In this case, broad strokes on the panel seem to stop abruptly, indicating that only what would be visible has been painted. The painting shows that the layers of wax were as thin as gouache and were brushed directly onto a cypress panel.
2. Fall by Jasper Johns.
|Medium||Encaustic on canvas|
|Dimensions||190.5 x 127 cm (75 x 50 in)|
|Where is it housed?||Whitney Museum of American Art|
A painting by Jasper Johns from 1986, Fall, incorporates found objects and reflective imagery. The artist challenges the boundaries of traditional painting techniques by using a chair, metal letters, and coat hanger to create an assemblage effect.
This piece gives glimpses of Johns’ biography, as it does with many of his late career pieces. Despite his claim that he does not wish to expose emotions through his work, elements such as crosshatched marks used in his work from 1972 to 1983 indicate otherwise. Furthermore, the use of encaustic in this painting was likely caused by frustration with the long drying times of oil paint.
It is also evident in Fall that John’s targets have been a recurring theme throughout his career. The inclusion of these shapes in his work challenges viewers’ assumptions about how they can view art without being seen themselves. Fall offers insight into Johns’ biographical influences while blurring the lines between traditional and non-traditional forms.
Materials Needed For Encaustic Painting.
Now, for the materials part, any low-heat tool that can melt the wax safely is good, but the most common tools used for encaustic paintings are-
There is a specific kind of iron rod- small, light, and easy to use. It operates between 70 to 80°C degrees on a low setting.
2. Stylus and Tips.
For the encaustic art stylus, there must be a correct low temperature as the soldering irons are too hot to handle, which can cause injuries. There are four tips that fit into the stylus stem: a split tip for drawing, a fine wire brush tip for applying wax, blending, and tooling wax, a micro tip, and a slightly larger mini tip. You can also file aluminum mini and micro tips into interesting shapes for the purpose, but please do not neglect safety, as wax causes severe blisters. Metal objects, such as screw heads or copper wire, can also be inserted to create interesting effects.
A scriber is a metal rod with one pointed end and the other with a blade to scratch extra layers of color or wax. You can always replace it with knife blades, needles, knitting needles, and old dental tools.
Other than these tools, you will require a hair dryer or heat gun for liquefying and blowing the wax, a marker pen to use for sketching over wax, a craft knife, a cutting mat, scissors, soft tissue, computer paper for protecting your work surface from wax, ruler, and paintbrushes. Now, you can always buy them from offline stores, but to reduce your efforts, I am adding the best of these products at the end of this section. Kindly know that these are affiliate links, so if you purchase anything from here, I get a few bucks to buy myself a good coffee.
Besides these tools, we are left with the most significant things- wax, pigments, papers for encaustic art, and wax seals. So, let me introduce you to every possible solution.
Before we get into the wax types that one can use for encaustic art, let me first tell you the foremost step is to blend the waxes with the resins for improved adhesion of the resulting medium. There are many encaustic paint mixtures one can create for the purpose, but the most traditional and uncomplicated type of mix is the base mix to which pigment is added. This base mix is nothing but- 85% beeswax and 15% Damar resin. Now, let me introduce you to a few kinds of wax you can use for encaustic art.
Beeswax melts generally at about 62°C and is the basis of all the encaustic paint used from ancient times.
6. Paraffin Wax.
Paraffin wax is a cheaper artificial wax product derived from oil, which has a cloudy transparent coloring and melts at around 55°C.
7. Carnauba Wax.
Deriving from plant leaves, this is hard and brittle golden or greyish-colored wax, which has high polish after application and has a melting point of around 80°C.
8. Candelilla Wax.
These have the highest resin content of all the natural waxes.
You can also use micro-crystalline waxes, which are hard and brittle. Also, it is lustrous after you use it for encaustic art, but the cooling needs to be done for several days.
As for color, you can always choose ground to fine powder pigments, which then can be mixed with the medium. But know that these fade over time. The best type of colors to use for this purpose is dyes, which provide vivid hues.
10. Wax Seals.
While the true encaustic wax paint did not really need any form of protection to handle the work, you need acrylic varnish or sealer to toughen the surface.
Before we finally learn to paint our own encaustic art, here’s what you can read by the artist Jasper John on his technique to make this painting. This excerpt is part of the interview from the book, The Art of Encaustic Painting: Contemporary Expression in the Ancient Medium of Pigmented Wax by Joanne Mattera.
“My paintings are under twelve by twelve inches. I paint on stretched linen with an acrylic gesso ground. Paraffin goes on last, over the oil paint, I make a lip with vinyl tape and then pour the wax all at once; if you do it in stages, the air gets tapped. When the wax is cool, I pull off the tape. A heat gun lets me smooth any scratches. In Wishbones, the skeletal form is oil paint squeezed out of a tube. When it was almost dry, I modeled it like clay. Then I poured a pink-tinted paraffin over it. I think of this work as a relief sculpture, though it’s only one-quarter inch thick.”
If you are confused with the technique as a beginner, don’t worry.
|Metal Scribing Tool||Available at Kings Framing and Art Gallery|
|Wood Paint Pouring Panel Boards||Available at Amazon|
|Heat Gun||Available at Amazon|
|Encaustic Wax Block Colors Set||Available at Amazon|
|Encaustic Paint 40ml, Ancient Gold||Available at Amazon|
|Damar Resins||Available at Amazon|
|Beeswax||Available at Amazon|
|Painting Iron||Available at Amazon|
|Scrapping Wax Tools||Available at Kings Framing and Art Gallery|
|Encaustic Gift Set||Available at Amazon|
|Carnauba Wax||Available at Amazon|
|Paraffin Wax||Available at Amazon|
|Candelilla Wax||Available at Amazon|
|Paint Brush||Available at Amazon|
How to Do Encaustic Art?
Time needed: 2 days
A wax-coated surface is the base thing, which we use for the encaustic art painting. But know that there are many techniques for doing so. I am here to tell you about one of them.
- The First Preparations.
The foremost thing you need is a rigid substrate. As in the past, the Fayum portrait artists used a panel of cypress, sycamore, or other hardwood for this purpose, but we are not using similar. You must have a substrate as it supports the ground or the surface on which you paint. Also, know that the ground must adhere properly to the substrate so that there is a right absorbency of paint on it. Now, a lot of artists use Gesso (made with chalk, pigment, and binder), but acrylic gesso does not accept wax easily and is not appropriate for encaustic painting. So, what you can use?
You can always choose a primed panel. Rachel Friedberg uses a beeswax medium with a wide and smooth brush on the birch plywood and then fuses it. This plywood is the substrate, and beeswax is ground. We are not using gesso. One of the simpler approaches is to create a simple ground by gluing watercolor paper onto a panel and then waxing it.
- Encaustic Surfaces and Temperature.
The only thing that gives you complete control over the medium is the temperature. It simply means that it must be balanced. In case you are using Beeswax with damar, the safe workable temperature is between 160 degrees Fahrenheit to 220°F. Please know that if it’s too low, you will have a creamy and thick wax, which is purposeful for the scumbling and creating textures, and at the higher end, it will almost go syrupy which is best to create a smooth surface. Now, you can always warm the ground from above or below through a heat gun, bulbs, or hair dryer. But know that a small propane torch or heat gun with a slight or greater distance lets you have a good textural range.
When you have the surface ready, you can use different brushes with paint mixes (I already told you how to make a good paint mix) over it and give a desirable texture and form.
A Simple Activity for Encaustic Art.
What you have to do is take a work surface of paper or wood with beeswax. Then take your clothes iron and heat it for two minutes (Don’t use expensive ones). Then, when it is heated, take your beeswax of different colors (the market also has already colored beeswax, so you don’t have to make your own paint mixture) and load the base plate generously with rainbow colors. Then, place this colored iron on your surface of work. Make sure you apply this wax evenly over the surface to produce your rainbow. Now lift it immediately and hold an iron at 45° to make clouds or butterflies or flowers over it. And your first piece of encaustic art is ready.
I am again and again repeating that this process needs immediate attention as the wax cools down and will do nothing good. But alongside, you have to be extremely careful so that you don’t burn your hands. If there is little redness over your palms with this process, you can use lavender oil. But if it is severe, please consult to doctor. And always wear an apron so that this wax doesn’t stick to your clothes.
- Giving Textures.
There are four kinds of textures, you can give to your paintings. As of now, let us use the hot iron itself to create these effects.
Use two different colors of wax to load the iron. Using a lifting movement, dab the product over the entire surface. When necessary, reload colors. This lifted movement creates a texture called dabbing.
Load the iron with two colors of wax. Create a zig-zag trail by moving the iron backward and wriggling the tip sideways at the same time.
There is no flat base plate or edge on the iron that creates this great effect. By using the pointed end as a pivot and keeping the straight rear edge of the base about an inch above the work surface you can rock the iron on altering edges. Move the iron slowly backward and away from the newly formed patterns while you are rocking it this way.
Of course, Encaustic is one of the great techniques that the Greeks invented, but honestly, I did not admire it when it came to creating abstract or modern art as it simply lost its foundational value.
Let me know which would you regard as your choice, the early artwork or the modern frames. Further, Encaustic painting is much more than what you have learned till now, which is simply impossible to put in a single read. Therefore, you can refer to the resources linked below to learn more about it.
1. The Art of Encaustic Painting: Contemporary Expression in the Ancient Medium of Pigmented Wax by Joanne Mattera.
2. The Encaustic Art Project Book by Michael Bossom.
Frequently Asked Questions.
Encaustic is an art technique invented centuries before by Greeks for portraiture. In encaustic painting, molten wax is used as a medium upon which the pigments for painting are added just before the medium gets hard again.
Beeswax or any type of wax suitable for the purpose.
Some of the examples of encaustic are the early Greek artworks such as Portrait of the Boy Eutyches or the modern paintings like Fall by Jasper Johns.
Hot wax painting is another commonly used name for encaustic.
Encaustic painting was invented about 2,000 years ago. However, the developments of the technique evolved between 100 B.C. to A.D. 200.