A Brief History of Encaustic
Encaustic is one of the oldest and most comprehensive painting techniques ever developed. A simple combination of beeswax, tree sap and pigment, manipulated with fire results in an ethereal, enamel-like finish used in painting, sculpture, mixed-media and more.
This ancient art form had humble beginnings over 2 millennia ago as a sealant for Greek war and merchant ships. The Greek word enkaustikos, means “to heat” or “to burn”. Both Homer and Pliny refer to “pictura encaustica” in ancient writings so the Greeks are credited with developing this art form.
Of course, the Greeks were a highly creative culture that applied art to everything. It’s no wonder that pigments were added to the medium and paintings soon decorated their ships, utilitarian items and architectural structures. Even today, the remaining homes at Herculaneum and Pompeii depict images of artists practicing this method of painting.
Because beeswax remains a biologically active product – even after processing – it retains anti-bacterial properties. Hippocrates recommended and used it himself as an antiseptic and skin healer. Beeswax is also a natural adhesive, resistant to moisture, will not yellow and is impervious to mildew, fungus and insects.
This probably explains why paintings dating back to the late 1st century BC remain intact and as vibrant as the day they were painted. The famous Fayum Mummy Portraits, realistic paintings that covered the faces of mummies, are wonderful historical examples testifying to the unique color and durability of encaustic.
Encaustic fell in and out of favor with artists over the centuries. It was difficult to use and tempera paints were less expensive and easier to manipulate. Also, artists had to heat the wax in braziers, far less convenient than electric palettes and griddles used today.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that artists like Diego Rivera, Rifka Angel and Karl Zerbe revived the technique. Today, prominent artists such as Jasper Johns, Lynda Benglis and Robert Morris are credited with using encaustic as a modernist medium. In early 2010, Jasper Johns’ Flag, which was made out of encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric sold for $28.6 million dollars bringing more attention to this cross-disciplinary art form.
Today, encaustic is enjoying a revival. Its visual and physical properties, range of color and texture make it an ideal choice for many different styles of contemporary art. There are also more resources, teachers and artists using this versatile medium than ever before. It’s very exciting to view and create art today with this ancient art form.