Encaustic is the very earliest known form of paint, predating oil, fresco, tempera, etc., dating back to the Greeks over 2000 years ago. After Alexander The Great conquered Egypt in 331 B.C., a large number of Greeks went to Egypt bringing along with them their ideas and customs. One of these customs was to have one’s portrait done on what was the equivalent of a casket, or more precisely, on what was a “cross” between a casket and a mummy case. The portrait was displayed in the home well before old age, and was primarily a status symbol. These are known as the Fayum Mummy Portraits, as they were found in Fayum, Egypt. They are still fresh and vibrant, and exhibited still today in the world’s greatest galleries.
Encaustic paint is a mixture of pigment in a beeswax and resin base. The resin raises the melting temperature of the paint, hardens it and resists dust. Encaustic medium is the beeswax and resin base without pigment, and is used to make color transparent, giving it an optical depth unique to the medium.
|Encaustic paint, which comes in a solid block rather than a tube as in other paints, is melted on a heated palette and applied in the hot molten state with brushes or by pouring.
The literal translation of Encaustic is to burn in, meaning the new layer must be fused with heat to the layer beneath. The paint has cooled to a solid from a molten state so quickly it has not had enough time to “wed” with the layer beneath. Today this is done with torches or heat guns, but
2000 years ago it was done with tools over an open fire. Consequently, as other painting mediums came along not requiring this laborious painting and fusing process, encaustic became little more than a footnote in history books.
Encaustic has returned from obscurity as modern tools have made the process more practical. Diego Rivera used encaustic in the 1930’s on his murals. Jasper Johns is credited with the current renaissance of encaustic fine art with his work that began in the 1950’s.
Encaustic paintings have a brilliant luminosity, and a light delicate opalescence. They maintain their freshness and intensity, and will not darken or yellow. Because of the protective nature of wax they are impervious to moisture and need not be varnished or put under glass.