Encaustic Art: The medium and its history

Encaustic, meaning “to burn in or fuse”, is an ancient painting medium composed of beeswax and resin first used by Greek boat makers and engineers waterproofing their ships’ hulls.  In ancient Greece as far back as the 5th century B.C., encaustic medium was also used to creatively paint ships, as well buildings made of stone. It was then repurposed for use in the arts (wooden canvases and carved statues) because of its ability to keep pigment vibrant.  From its origins, the medium was made from beeswax mixed with damar resin (Damar is a specific pine tree fond in India and East Asia). Greeks that settled in Egypt adapted the funerary customs of honoring the dead by painting a portrait of the deceased on wood panels and placing it over their mummified bodies before burial. The most famous ancient funerary encaustics are known as the “Fayum Portraits”, painted in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. by Greek painters in Egypt. Examples of these ancient encaustic paintings can be found in the Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Louvre in Paris, and other museums around the world. The Fayum portrait shown on the right is part of the Louvre collection and dates back to the 3rd century. Other samples of ancient faces preserved in the art of encaustics can be seen on the video below.

21st Century Encaustic Medium

Present day encaustic artists still use beeswax mixed with damar resin. The damar resin not only enables the wax to harden in an archival form but it  also gives encaustic paintings their rich and glass-like sheen if buffed.  The pigments added to the molten wax create jewel-like colors as well as seductively soft pastel shades.  

Encaustic medium is still used as it was in ancient Egypt to create works of art.  It is generally applied to wooden panels but it can also be applied to other substrates that can withstand the fusion process often carried out using propane torches. The medium is melted and typically applied with a brush to the substrate (e.g. birch panels). Each layer is then reheated to fuse it to the substrate or previous layer. It's a labor-intensive method that results in jewel-like pieces of art which, some artists (including Richard Coico) embellish further by burning in pigmented thin layers of another natural resin (shellac) to create the reticulation seen in the work presented in the Portfolio section of this website.

Caring for Encaustic Art

As with any fine art, care should be given to encaustic paintings but there should be no fear of the work melting in normal household conditions. The wax and resin will not melt unless exposed to temperatures over 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Care for encaustic paintings is simple. Sometimes, the only thing that may affect an encaustic painting is something called "boom" - a light haze that may appear during the first 18 months of a painting's completion. This is actually part of the curing process. There is a very simple solution if hazing is noticed. All you have to do is buff it off lightly with a soft lint free cloth. After buffing a few times, the painting will develop a beautiful high gloss finish with vibrancy of the colors that encaustic surfaces are known for. You can wipe your painting about four times a year, a practice that is recommended for all exposed paintings (oils, acrylics) to help keep dust off the surface. This all helps to bring out the radiant shine and vibrancy of the colors that encaustic surfaces are known for.

In the section below, check out the one-minute videos about encaustic art

Learn more about the raw ingredients used to prepare encaustic medium

Learn about the chemistry of encaustic medium.

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