The Collector's Guide to Encaustic
Durability and Longevity: Painting with beeswax may seem like a delicate, ephemeral, impermanent thing. In fact, encaustic painting --using a medium that mixes beeswax with tree resin and natural pigments-- has been documented back to fifth century BC in Greece. Beeswax mixed with pitch was used by the Greeks to waterproof their ships, and later, this simple wax medium was mixed with pigments to create paints that were used to decorate warships before battle.
In Egypt, encaustic paint was used in a stunning collection of funerary portraits called the Fayum Portraits (click here to read about them). These painted wood panels have lasted, in all their luminous glory, almost 2000 years. This amazing body of portraits show likenesses that are remarkably characterful highlighting the diverse humanity and personality of people who lived thousands of years ago. The encaustic portraits are among the best, the colors still vibrant, untouched by centuries, surviving as a testament to the durability and longevity of this venerable and very natural aesthetic medium.
Encaustic's more recent history: Jasper Johns "Flag" (encaustic and printed paper collage on paper laid down on canvas, 17½ x 26¾ in, Painted in 1960-1966) sold in at Christie's in New York in 2010 for a record $28 million.
The Encaustic Process: The medium used for painting varies from painter to painter but generally consists of about 8 parts beeswax melted together with 1 part damar resin (the sap from the Canarium strictum trees of Malaysia and India). The addition of the resin allows the beeswax to cool to a harder consistency thus creating a more durable paint medium. Color is added to the encaustic medium in many ways. I prefer to add non-toxic powdered earth pigments to the beeswax mixture to create paints that are both lovely and safe to use.
This beeswax based paint is kept molten on a heated palette before being applied to a surface to a cradled wooden board using natural bristle brushes. Each layer of wax paint is then heated with a torch or heat gun to fuse the new layer with the previous ones. This process is where the painting technique gets its name; "encaustic" comes from the Greek meaning "burn in". The layers of hot wax fused together harden rapidly required no drying or curing time. Encaustic creates an enamel like surface that can be left rough and textural or polished to a high gloss. The encaustic surface is impervious to moisture and does not darken or yellow over time, neither do encaustic paintings need to be varnished or protected by glass.
Working The Surface: One of the many wonders of encaustic is the amount of texture that can be achieved on the surface of the paintings. The topography of the surface can play a key role in both creating the character of the piece of art as well as in communicating meaning within the composition. The surface tells a story. Encaustic artists have many tools to work with that allow them to etch, scratch, carve, scrape, comb, crackle, melt away to sculpt the wax in a variety of ways to create pattern and symbolism on the surface, to reveal texture, to uncover layers of color below. Other materials can be worked into the wax to entomb meaning and impart feeling including gold and silver foils, inks and oil sticks, carbon, charcoal, pieces of paper, metal, fabric, and wire.
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