Susan M Gibbons
© 2017 Susan M Gibbons

The Art of Encaustic Painting


Encaustic is a word that is used to describe the medium as well as the painting process.  A Greek word (enkaustikos) meaning ‘to burn’, encaustic utilizes melted bees wax, damar resin, and pigment to create the paint.  It is one of the oldest painting mediums, dating back to the Egyptians and the Greco-Romans.  Wax was originally used to coat sea faring ships and eventually encaustics were used to paint the sculptures that were ornamenting them.  The Greeks and Romans used encaustics to paint their sculptures and pottery while the Egyptians used the medium to create life-like portraits for coffins.  Within the Byzantine period, encaustic was also used to create icons of Christ and the Saints.  While used sparingly during the Renaissance through the 18th and 19th centuries, encaustic was revived as a contemporary medium with Jasper Johns during the 1950’s and many artists have discovered its wonders since.  Today, many artists now use encaustic as their medium of choice and the expressions within it are infinite.

In order to paint with encaustics the wax must be melted with the damar resin resulting in what is known as encaustic medium.   This medium has a higher melting point than just plain bees wax and helps prevent ‘bloom’ (a dust-like covering that appears over the painting).  Once melted, pigment can be added to the medium.  This can be in the form of powdered pigments, oil pastels, and oil paints.  Pre-made paints may be purchased if desired.  The paints must be kept heated in a liquid state so that the artist can work with them.  The paint is then applied with a non-synthetic bristle brush to a board or a porous surface such as paper, canvas, etc. that will eventually be mounted onto a board (the board prevents the support from moving so the wax does not crack).  After the paint is applied, then each layer must be fused (‘burned in’) with a heat gun or blow torch to the other layers.  The layers must be fused together so they do not fall off of the painting.  Some materials and tools used for encaustics are:  a heating griddle or hot plate, heat gun, blow torch, tacking iron, hot spatula, metal nibs with an electric stylus, and even wood burning tools can be used.

The beauty and fun of encaustics is that it is conducive to experimentation in both realistic and abstract expressions.  The textures that can be created with encaustic are endless as you can use anything that can make a mark in the wax or collaged with the wax.  The surface created by encaustic is unique to the medium and can be buffed to a shine.   In addition to painting, encaustics are also used in, but not limited to: printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, photography, photo-transfers, and installation art.