The meaning of the rarely-used word encaustic can puzzle even writers and wordsmiths among us. It did me. Not a word to be found in Roget’s Thesaurus, encaustic conjured up all sorts of meanings: The ‘cause’ of something—the effect? ‘Caustic’ – bitter and ill-humored? ‘Cauterize’—burn, heat? I was getting warm. I stopped scanning my every-day vocabulary for answers and inquired into Merriam Webster and there I discovered the origin of encaustic.
The word encaustic was first used in 1601 as an adjective from Latin encausticus and from Greek enkaustikos, meaning to burn in, to burn. Webster’s definition—“a paint made from pigment mixed with melted beeswax and resin and after application fixed by heat.” A work of art produced by this method is called encaustic, a noun.
But nothing in Webster’s definition described its lusciousness; the fragrance of grasses and wildflowers radiating from melting pots of wax straight from the honey and the hive. Or, the sensuousness of this alchemical elixir of wax and pigment and its transparency, translucency and opacity.
Merriam said nothing of how it can transcend the artist into an existential world of natural beauty and transport the beholder into etheric wonder by its simple ingredients.
Encaustic painting can be traced back to as early as the 5th century BC in Greece. It was discovered that by adding paint to the coatings of wax used to weatherproof their ships they could also design and decorate their fleet.
In the 1st century BC the Egyptians used wax and pigment to paint portraits onto wood panels for mummy cases. These ancient Egyptian artworks are called Fayum portraits, named for the town where they were discovered. Encaustic painting was also described by the Romans in the 1st century AD and was mentioned, though rarely, up to the Middle Ages and Renaissance when it nearly disappeared as other painting techniques became popular.
With the invention of the Bunsen burner in 1855 interest in encaustic was renewed; and with the discovery of electricity, artists’ enthusiasm for painting with beeswax was fully reignited. Still there was little information about the medium and few commercially made materials.
Each artist was left to find their own creative ways to express their artistic talents with beeswax.
It was not so easy for artists willing to experiment with encaustic, and we gratefully thank the gifted and talented innovators who early-on embraced encaustic and then graciously shared their trials and errors and successes with other emerging encaustic artists. I leave the twentieth century renewal of interest to your own research for fear of omitting one of these generous individuals.
The process is simple…
Melt the wax, apply it to a surface and then fuse it to the surface. Encaustic is a perfect world of love and harmony, always forgiving, with no limits to freedom and expression, however it has a mind of its own and there is no control over the process. Yet, when limits are tested, pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules—all is forgiven. Simply, heat, repeat and start again. A finished encaustic artwork can be re-imagined months or even years later after its initial completion simply by applying heat.
Encaustic can be built up, bundled with coats of wax or scraped down, bared naked. It can be precise or messy, finite or infinite, flat or dimensional. And it plays well with others; painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture or photography. It is a mixed-media’s best friend. Encaustic is accessible to all levels of skill and talent; welcoming even the reluctant among us to the hallowed studios and galleries of art.
Encaustic is my meditation, an open-eye prayer where in the spirit of play my prayer beads are replaced with beeswax and pigment, hake brushes, heat guns and hot plates. May this same Spirt guide you in the radiant and illuminative process of creativity that is uniquely you.