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A (brief) History of Encaustic Wax Painting

Wax has been known throughout history as an excellent preservative of materials. Think of sealing jams with wax and waxing your dining room table with beeswax.

In ancient times, the Greeks applied coatings of wax and pitch to weatherproof their ships, and later, they began pigmenting the wax for decorative purposes on warships and merchant ships.

This practice of using a rudimentary form of encaustic, which involved applying crude paint with tar brushes to ships, eventually evolved into the art of painting on panels.

During the Classical Period (500-323 BC), encaustic on panels rivalled the use of tempera (a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually a glutinous material such as egg yolk) in what are now considered the earliest known portable easel paintings. Tempera, being a faster and cheaper process, was more widely used.

Encaustic, on the other hand, was a slow and intricate technique that allowed for the building up of paint in relief, creating a rich optical effect with the wax as a medium.

The finished encaustic works were remarkably lifelike and had far greater durability than tempera, which was vulnerable to moisture. Pliny, a Roman author, mentioned encaustic paintings that were several hundred years old in the possession of aristocrats during his time.

Encaustic also played a role in ancient sculpture. The white marble that we see in the monuments of Greek antiquity was once coloured using various methods, including the use of wax to both preserve and enhance the marble. However, the details of how this was done are scarce.

A terracotta krater vase from the 4th century BC, now in the Metropolitan Museum, depicts a painter applying encaustic to a sculpture of Heracles while a servant heats metal spatulas on a charcoal brazier. Luckily, it's much easier to paint with encaustic wax these days!

(If you're interested, click here to book into one of my encaustic workshops and I'll show you how to paint with hotwax, pigments and a blowtorch!)

One of the most well-known examples of encaustic work is the Fayum funeral portraits, painted in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. by Greek painters in Egypt.

After the conquest of Egypt by Rome, a significant Greek population settled there and adopted the practice of mummifying their dead. These portraits, painted either in the prime of life or after death, were placed over the person's mummy as a memorial. The Fayum portraits represent a fusion of Egyptian religious rituals, Greek aesthetics, and Roman fashions and social ranking. Many of these portraits have survived to this day, and their colours have remained as fresh as if they were recently completed.

After the decline of the Roman Empire and the subsequent economic instability, the use of encaustic fell out of practice. While some encaustic work, particularly the painting of icons, continued into the 7th century, it largely became a lost art and was replaced by the cheaper and easier-to-use tempera.

The revival of encaustic occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries as antiquarians, inspired by the archaeological discoveries of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Egyptian tombs, sought to rediscover the techniques of the ancient painters.

In the 20th century, advancements in portable electric heating implements made encaustic a more accessible technique. The commercial availability of encaustic paint in the 1940s further fueled the explosion of encaustic painting in the latter part of the century.

Encaustic painting is more popular (or well-known) in the USA and Europe. To date, there are only a handful of encaustic artists in Australia and New Zealand. Make sure to click here if you'd like to talk with me more about learning to use this amazing medium.

Despite falling out of practice for over 1600 hundred years, encaustic wax has experienced a revival over the last couple of centuries. It has made a lasting impact in the art world, inspiring artists (including me) even to this day.

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