What is Encaustic Painting?

Encaustic is a Greek word meaning “to heat or burn in” (enkaustikos). Encaustic painting is an ancient technique, dating back to the Greeks who used wax to caulk ship hulls. Pigmenting the wax gave rise to decorating the ships. The 20th century has seen a rebirth of encaustic on a major scale. It is an irony of our modern age, with its emphases on advanced technology, that a painting technique as ancient and involved as encaustic should receive such widespread interest.

Encaustic painting, also known as hot wax painting, involves using heated beeswax to which coloured pigments are added. The liquid wax  is then applied to a surface, usually prepared wood. The medium is melted and applied with a brush or any tool the artist wishes to create from. Each layer is then reheated to fuse it to the previous layer.

The simplest encaustic mixture is made from a beeswax and dammar resin (crystallized tree sap) mix then adding pigments to medium. There are several other recipes that can be used, some containing other types of waxes, linseed oil, or other ingredients. Pure powdered pigments can be used as well as oil paints or other forms of pigment.

Metal tools and special brushes can be used to shape the paint before it cools, or heated metal tools can be used to manipulate the wax once it has cooled onto the surface. Today, tools such as heat lamps, heat guns, and other methods of applying heat allow artists to extend the amount of time they have to work with the material. Because wax is used as the pigment binder, encaustics can be sculpted as well as painted. Other materials can be encased or collaged into the surface, or layered, using the encaustic medium to stick them to the surface.

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 above 65 degrees Celsius (150 degrees Fahrenheit). Leaving the painting in a car on a hot day would not be advisable or hanging a painting in front of a window with direct 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.