MEDIUMS: A Short History of ENCAUSTICS

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Over the years, I’ve admired encaustic paintings but knew very little about the actual process. Last spring, as the seeds of the 50/50 LIGHT project were just being planted, I was introduced to the encaustic technique by my friend Jessica Abbott Williams – owner of Brushstrokes Studio in West Berkeley, CA – who hosted a series of classes first with artist Susan Brady, followed later by artist Barbara Maricle.

Group encaustic shot

Encaustics proved to be one of the rare mediums that a beginner could attempt and achieve incredible results with almost immediately. It also has the potential for incredible depth of technique, and can be quite complicated and complex. The work that resulted from this class was a marvel to all of us who participated.

The word encaustic comes from the Greek word enkaustikos meaning ‘to burn in’, and the element of heated wax is a requirement for a painting to be called encaustic. The earliest known examples of this technique date back to the 1st century BC.

Romano- Egyptian Fayun mummy portrait encaustic panel paintings, 1st century BC
Romano- Egyptian Fayun mummy portrait encaustic panel paintings, 1st century BC

Encaustic painting, also known as hot wax painting, utilizes heated beeswax with the addition of colored pigments. The heated liquid is applied to a hard porous surface (necessary to bind the wax) – usually prepared wood, although canvas or other materials are also often used – to which multiple layers are then applied to build up the desired effect.

The wax can be worked in a multitude of ways to create an endless array of effects: metal tools, special brushes and/or other manipulatives can shape or texture the surface before the wax cools; or heated metal tools can manipulate the wax further once it has cooled on the surface. Historically, the wax was only able to be worked quickly and initially, as each layer was being applied. In modern times, though, tools such as heat lamps, heat guns, wax pens, and other methods of applying heat have allowed artists to extend the amount of time they have to work the materials.

Because the wax is the binder for the pigment, in addition to painting, encaustics can also be sculptural. 3D materials can be encased or collaged onto the surfaces, or into layers using the encaustic medium to adhere objects.

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