A Brief History of Encaustic and Wax Painting

Fayum PortraitEncaustic paint consists of pigments mixed with hot, melted wax. It is melted and applied as a liquid or paste to a support—usually primed wood, though canvas and other materials are often used.

The simplest encaustic paint is made by adding pigments to beeswax, but there are many other recipes that include other types of waxes, resins, linseed oil or other ingredients. Metal tools and special brushes are used to shape the paint before it cools, or heated metal tools can be used to manipulate the wax once it has solidified.

The word “encaustic” originates from the Greek word enkaustikos, which means to “burn in” and this element of heat is necessary for a painting to be called “encaustic.”

History of Encaustic and Wax Painting

The earliest description of wax and encaustic painting technique is by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder in his Natural History from the first century.

This technique was used in the Fayum mummy portraits from Egypt around 100–300 AD, and in the sixth-century icon of Christ from Saint Catherine’s Monastery and other early icons.

Encaustic painting became outmoded at the end of the seventh century. Very few icons were painted in encaustic after the iconoclastic controversy began around 726.

About 1749, Comte de Caylus, a French antiquarian interested in Pliny’s writings on encaustic, began to experiment with the medium. He undertook to explain an obscure passage in Pliny regarding “Punic wax,” a water-soluble wax preparation believed to be the paint used by ancient Greek painters.

The Chevalier Lorgna, about 1787, investigated the making of Punic wax in a brief paper, Un Discurso sulla Cera Punica, where he asserts that the nitron Pliny mentions is the native salt found in the Wadi El Natrun valley of Egypt.

Later in the eighteenth century, wax painting experiments were performed by the Italian painter Antonio Paccheri, who made Punic wax with water infused with gum arabic.

In 1792, the Society of Arts awarded Mrs. Hooker the gold palette for her experiments in painting with wax, and published her results in the tenth volume of the Society’s Transactions under the name of Emma Jane Greenland.

Soon encaustic paintings began to appear in England, Germany, Italy and Sweden.

Flag Above White with Collage

Modern Use of Encaustic

In the twentieth century, painter Fritz Faiss (1905–1981), a student of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky at the Bauhaus, together with Dr. Hans Schmid, rediscovered the so-called “Punic wax” technique. The resulting wax is believed to be the same as the Punic wax described by Pliny.

Encaustic painting is used in many works of twentieth-century artists, including Jasper Johns, Arthur Dove, Tony Scherman and Mark Perlman.

Today, Ceracolors gives new life to wax painting by using the latest emulsification technology to create a water-soluble wax paint.

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About George O'Hanlon

George O'Hanlon is technical director of Natural Pigments and executive director of Iconofile, an nonprofit educational organization dedicated to promoting understanding of sacred art. George received his fine arts education and apprenticeship in Mexico. Upon his return to the United States, he worked as art director and then creative director for advertising agencies in Silicon Valley, working on such major accounts as Sony, Hewlett-Packard and Ricoh. He then established a marketing communications firm that was later acquired by the Japanese chemical giant, Shin-Etsu, where we was retained as president of U.S. marketing operations. In 1992, he left this post to study traditional art techniques and then in 2001, he founded Natural Pigments and Iconofile to promote an understanding of these techniques among contemporary artists. Since that time he has formulated hundreds of artists paints and materials, including Ceracolors, a water-soluble wax paint.