Encaustic Painting

Pliny the Elder’s, Natural History is our earliest written record of the encaustic style of painting.  As he states, no one knows who the inventor of “painting in wax” was, but it was agreed that the most famous painter of this techniques was Pausias of Sicyon. (Pliny, 35:39).  During the period of the Roman Empire there were only three types of encaustic painting, with wax and on ivory with a graver or cestrum, a small pointed graver, and on battleships.  Pliny writes of this last art form, “that of employing a brush, when wax has been melted by fire; this process of painting ships is not spoilt by the action of the sun nor by salt waters or winds.” (Pliny, 35:41)

Encaustic means “burning in” and is applied to this art form since the wax portrait is literally fixed through the aid of fire.  This painting process begins with mixing beeswax with different pigments to obtain the desired color.  The colored wax would then be prepared as either cakes or sticks.  Prior to beginning the painting process, the artist would sketch the portrait or scene on the medium.  Once the outline was finished, the artist would choose either a hot or cold painting technique.  If they chose the hot process, the wax was laid on quickly with brush strokes, using a thinner wax mixture of the background, garments, and facial features.  For this process the painter would employ the use of a heated rhabdion, which varied in shapes similar to today’s paint brushes.  Once the wax cooled, a hand tool would be used to blend in flesh tones to the face and neck.  If the artist chose a cold application, the beeswax would first have to be softened to work with by adding either eggs or oil to the wax.  This mixture is referred to as Punic Wax.  Since it took longer for the cooler wax to dry, this was a preferred method since it gave the artist more control and time to fix mistakes.  Once the painting was finished, the painter would then “burn” the wax.  It is unclear how they did this exactly.  When “painting” on ivory, the artist would use a cestrum, or viriculum to etch the design into the ivory first.  It is not thought that this form of art was detailed due to the firing process when completed.  The final painting process was called the pencillum encaustic.  Here instead of using hard wax cakes or sticks, the wax was kept in pots dissolved previous to painting, so that the painter could use an actual paint brush instead of the metal tipped rhabdion.  When the painting process was finished, the painter would then hold it over a cauteruim, a pan of hot coals or charcoal heater, until the wax was set.

Encaustic Painting Knives from Pompeii Photo Courtesy of http://www.encausticcumi.com/ESW/Images/pic_3076.jpg

While the most famous painter was a male, throughout history, and even mentioned by Pliny himself, there have been many female encaustic painters.  It is through one of these females that we know exactly what types of tools they employed.  “She, an encaustic painter, had been buried with her tools: reed brushes, bronze cauteria and a bronze box to contain live coals with a rhabdion, a silver top that was used as a plalette.” (Hansen, 2)

Today the painting process has not changed much.  The wax is prepared differently, and in most cases is softer than the original recipe.  In addition to “updating” the wax recipe, the “burning in” process has changed.  Originally, the artist would use simple metal tools and then burn in the artwork through the use of a cauteruim or direct heat.  Today’s encaustic artist employs hot plates to heat their wax and propane torches to “burn in” the process.

Although we can read about the great works of art done in the encaustic method, today we are left with few examples from antiquity.  The majority of this art from can be found on mosaic tiles, or in Greek mummy portraits dating to 160-180 AD.  These Egyptian portraits give us our best views of what people looked like and dressed so long ago.

Funeral Encastic Painting Photo courtesy of ehow.com


Encaustic Painting Knives, http:www.encausticcuni.com/ESW/Images/pic_3076.jpg (accessed: 9

Nov 2011).

Funeral Encaustic Painting, http://www.ehow.com/how 8541836_paint-encaustic-paint.html.  (accessed: 20 Nov 2011)

Hansen, Harold J., “The Development of New Vehicle Recipes for Encaustic Paints.” Leonardo 10

no. 1 (Winter 1977): 1-5.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/1573618 (accessed: 9 Nov 2011).

Pliny, Natural History. 1952 Loeb translation

The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  http://www.metmuseum.org

“Wax Painting or Encaustic.” The Crayon 6 no. 5 (May 1859): 148-149.  http://www.jstor.org/

Stable/25527899 (accessed: 9 Nov 2011).


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3 responses to “Encaustic Painting

  1. maazarat

    Very informational blog. I love seeing the utinsils that they used, makes it easier to picture the process that you are explaining. Very interesting that there are noted female encaustic painters. That is neat that the process has not changed much in such a long amount of time. When they did things back then they did them right.

  2. hadrian73

    Interesting, I’ve dabbled in wax finishes on stocks and have found them to be less than worthy for a life time, unless every 4 to 6 years a new coat is added, so what art is left is impressive!

  3. maximus4720

    Good job on the blog. I found this very interesting. It was really cool that you added the picture of the tools used to make the painting. I think it would take a lot of patience to be able to do that. Thanks for the information it was great to learn something different. I thought it was a great tribute to the arists when they had their tools and stuff with them when they died.

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