Encaustic Technique

The term encaustic technique derives from the Greek word enkaustikos which translates to “to heat” or “to burn”. Encaustic technique is an ancient painting style that was first practiced in the first to third centuries. The ancient Greeks often used this technique for mural painting. The shipwrights of ancient Greece used wax to protect the wood from water and the elements. They also figured out that pigments and binders could be added to the wax to create “paint.” Encaustic was put to use for more than giving the ship a coat of color. Elaborate designs were painted along the sides of ships with groups of figures at either end, especially at the stern.

The earliest and best-known examples of encaustic art are the Fayum mummy portraits from Egypt (c. 100-300). These works are on display at the New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art and are much more vibrant than you would expect in being from a time so long ago.

Encaustic technique disappeared and reappeared a few times in history until it resurfaced in the works of Jasper Johns and Diego Rivera.

Today, there’s a movement in the medium as a creative, textural, non-toxic alternative to traditional painting. Contemporary encaustic paint is a combination of beeswax, damar resin and pigment. The paint is melted on a warm palette and applied to a warm surface. Each layer is fused to the layer before it using a heat gun or torch or tacking iron. Encaustic paint cools in minutes, which means additional layers can be added almost immediately.  Once the surface has cooled, the paint reaches a permanent finish, but the painting can be revisited and reworked at any time, moments or years later. A variety of tools and techniques can be applied to the surface to shape, texturize or combine colors through scratching, scraping and or ironing.

Encaustic technique is a versatile, challenging medium—a mixed media artist’s heaven. Encaustic may be used in collage, sculpture and painting. Organic found objects (wood, cotton fiber, silk, plant material) that are porous can be encased or collaged into the surface, or layered, using the encaustic medium as glue. The best results are often found by working on wood surfaces, but artists today are challenging that school of thought using a variety of substrates.

I find working with encaustic very challenging. I’m self-taught and find something irresistible about working with beeswax. When I started, the encaustic paint would often cool from the time the brush left my palette to the time I decided where the stroke belonged. The first few paintings that I made looked more like color studies than paintings. After studying on my own for a year with books and videos, I took a class through R & F Paints with Barbara Ellman and an individual workshop with Cari Hernandez.

As time passes, I learn new possibilities with encaustic painting each day and continue to follow videos and workshops whenever time permits.

Is Encaustic Technique archival?

Encaustic painting may be the most durable paint medium as evidenced by the Fayum mummy portraits having survived over 2000 years without cracking, flaking or fading. The main component in encaustic paint is beeswax. Beeswax is moisture, mildew and fungus resistant, and unappetizing to bees and other insects once it has hardened. Encaustic paintings have survived the ages because wax repels moisture, and other environmental elements.

Care and Display

Encaustic paintings are not varnished, although they appear very shiny when polished. Encaustic paint contains tree resin beeswax and pigment. In the first year, paintings cure; and the artist or collector may polish the surface with a lint-free rag to keep its high gloss appearance. Over time the sheen may dull, and can be brought back by repeating this process. Each painting usually comes with a set of instructions for polishing. Encaustic paintings should be kept from extreme temperatures, and away from fireplaces and harsh sunlight. Extreme cold could potentially crack a painting, and extreme heat can soften the wax. These extremes can occur with shipping the painting and care must therefore be taken. The painting must reach 142 degrees before it will begin to melt and twenty degrees to crack from cold. If they are well cared for, encaustic paintings should remain intact for centuries to come.

More information on the history of encaustic
Discoveries in Encaustic: A look through History
Encaustic History
History of Encaustic

Related Blog articles
Setting up the Encaustic Studio
Encaustic Painting
Encaustic Technique: Encaustic Monotypes
Encaustic Painting Tools
Getting Started with Encaustic Painting

Learn more about Encaustic Technique
Encaustic Tutorials
Online Classes
Monotype DVD
Encaustic Educational DVD
Encaustic with a Textile Sensibility
Encaustic and Paper DVD
The Encaustic Studio

List of Encaustic Artists
Artists whose primary practice is the encaustic technique.

Natalie Abrams Tracey AdamsWendy AikinJody Alexander Ed Angell Fernando Leal AudiracNancy Azara | Michelle BeltoWillow Bader | Francisco BenitezAndrea Bird Binnie Birstein | Eric Blum | Andrea Cermanski | Lynda Cole | Barbara ConeMiles ConradDanielle CorreiaKris Cox | Amelia CurrierMichael DavidMadeline De Joly Caite Dheere Christel DillbohnerBetsy Eby |  Barbara Ellman | Peggy Epner | Fanne FernowKevin FrankLorrie FredetteKaren Freedman | Barbara GagelLorraine Glessner Eileen GoldenbergRuth Gooch | Kari GordenReni GowerGail Gregg Dusty Griffith  | Valerie Hammond Cari HernandezHoward Hersh | Ruth Hiller | Heather HutchisonJasper Johns Katsy Johnson  | Deborah Kapoor Barbara Kerwin | Diane Kleiss |  Martin Kline | Ellen KomentSharon Kyle Kuhn | Ruth LaGue |  Kandy LozanoMari MarksGiovanni Maranghi  | Alexandre MasinoJeremy MasonSara Mast | Don MaynardJames MeyerShawna Moore Laura Moriarty | Catherine Nash | Nancy Natale | Jane Nodine | Gay Patterson Mark PerlmanRichard PurdyDebra Ramsay | Lea Rochon | Josie RodriguezPaula Roland | Marybeth Rothman | Jeff Schaller Michele Schuff Andrea Schwartz-FeitLynda Ray | Cherry RoheTony Scherman | Thea Schrack | Donna SharrettAdele Shaw | Toby SissonRodney ThompsonAlicia Tormey | Linda WomackDaniella Woolf  |