Ever Heard of Encaustic Art?



Have You Ever Heard of Encaustics?  Encaustic art is one of the oldest art processes but most people are unfamiliar with it, and artists are even vague in their knowledge of it.  That may have something to do with the fact that it involves heat and wax.  What the heck! why would I want to do that?

Well let me tell you more about encaustic art.  It is not as much of a mystery as I first thought, and much more approachable despite my complete resistance to it.  I’ve given in and I love it.   There are many other areas of art that have so much in common with encaustics, one of them is pottery.  I have even pulled out all of my old pottery tools which are perfectly suited to encaustic art.


Encaustic painting, also known as hot wax painting, involves using heated beeswax to which colored pigments are added. The liquid or paste is then applied to a surface—usually prepared wood, though canvas and other materials are often used. The simplest encaustic mixture can be made from adding pigments to beeswax, but there are several other recipes that can be used—some containing other types of waxes, damar resin, linseed oil, or other ingredients. Pure, powdered pigments can be used, though some mixtures use oil paints or other forms of pigment.

Metal tools and special brushes can be used to shape the paint before it cools, or heated metal tools can be used to manipulate the wax once it has cooled onto the surface. Today, tools such as heat lamps, heat guns, and other methods of applying heat allow artists to extend the amount of time they have to work with the material. Because wax is used as the pigment binder, encaustics can be sculpted as well as painted. Other materials can be encased or collaged into the surface, or layered, using the encaustic medium to stick them to the surface.

2016-01-30 16.08.11
Bird of Paradise
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Fish fossil


Encaustic painting

Encaustic sculpture

Encaustic mixed media


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.

Encaustic painting was developed by the ancient Greek shipbuilders, who used hot wax

800px-Encaustic Portrait Woman
Fayum mummy portrait

to fill the cracks in their ships.  Soon pigment (color) was added and this led to painting on the surface of the waxed hull;  an art form was born.

This technique was notably used in the Fayum mummy portraits from Egypt around 100–300 AD, in the Blachernitissa and other early icons, as well as in many works of 20th-century North American artists, including Jasper Johns, Tony Scherman, Mark Perlman, and Fernando Leal Audirac (de). Kut-kut, a lost art of the Philippines, implements sgraffito and encaustic techniques. It was practiced by the indigenous tribe of Samar island around 1600 to 1800. Artists in the Mexican muralism movement, such as Diego Rivera and Jean Charlot sometimes used encaustic painting. The Belgian artist James Ensor also experimented with encaustic.

The_Mummy_of_Demetrios,_95-100_C.E.,11.600a-b Encaustic
The Mummy of Demetrios, 95-100 C.E.,11.600a-b, Brooklyn Museum

The wax encaustic painting technique was described by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder in his Natural History from the 1st Century AD. The oldest surviving encaustic panel paintings are the Romano-Egyptian Fayum mummy portraits from the 1st Century BC.

Petersinai Encaustic
A 6th-century encaustic icon from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Egypt.

In the 20th 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 of encaustic painting. Faiss held two German patents related to the preparation of waxes for encaustic painting. One covered a method for treating beeswax so that its melting point was raised from 60 degrees Celsius to 100 degrees Celsius (from 140 °F to 212 °F). This occurred after boiling the wax in a solution of sea water and soda three successive times. The resulting harder wax is the same as the Punic wax referred to in ancient Greek writings on encaustic painting.

Encaustic art has seen a resurgence in popularity since the 1990s with people using electric irons, hotplates and heated styli on different surfaces including card, paper and even pottery. The iron makes producing a variety of artistic patterns easier. The medium is not limited to just simple designs; it can be used to create complex paintings, just as in other media such as oil and acrylic. Although technically difficult to master, attractions of this medium for contemporary artists are its dimensional quality and luminous color.

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  • Select & prepare substrate (panels or other solid surfaces) *porous vs. non-porous
  • Apply design or basecoat of wax
  • Fuse with a heat gun or blow torch
  • Layer, paint, incise and / or add fuse again


  • Good ventilation – consider a source for removing or cleaning air in the work environment
  • use heat resistant surfaces to work on
  • Try not to eat or drink in the work area
  • Not a bad idea to have a fire extinguisher in the studio. This process is safe but taking precautions is a good idea.


Soy wax

·        Non toxic

·        Used to clean brushes & can be washed with soap and water.

·        Good brush conditioner

113°F – 122°F
Paraffin wax (can add up to 25%) ·        Petroleum based

·        Least expensive wax

·        Colorless & transparent

·        Brittle

122°F – 165°F

Can be used to clean brushes

Bees wax (natural, bleached, filtered) ·        Base of encaustic painting 144 – 149 Degrees° F
Microcrystalline wax ·        Less expensive than beeswax

·        More flexible than beeswax

·        Petroleum based

·        Can yellow over time

145 – 202°F
Carnauba wax ·        From the palm tree

·        Adds hardness but can be brittle

·        Improves moisture resistance

·        Has a yellow hue

176°F – 187°F
Damar Resin ·        Raises the melting point of the wax

·        Allows wax to harden & cure over time

·        Adds gloss and can be polished

·        Prevents wax bloom – whitish haze caused by unsaturated hydrocarbons in beeswax.

Dammar is a hard natural resin that comes from a family of deciduous trees that grow in the East Indies. In encaustic paint dammar resin is the most common ingredient for hardening the beeswax and raising its melting temperature. Dammar allows the wax to be buffed to a higher, more translucent surface and helps prevent blooming in the wax.
Encaustic medium ·        Mixture of wax & dammar resin. Usually beeswax but other waxes can be used Ratio of 1 dammar : 9 beeswax

Other ratios can be used to change hardness

Griddle ·        A unit to keep the wax heated and fluid Should have a thermostat
Thermometer ·        For reading temperatures of the heating surfaces Heating to correct temp should eliminate burning & reduce toxic gasses
Heat gun or torch, iron, tacking iron, calligraphy tips, heated brush tips ·        Used for melting and fusing wax There are many choices available but it should have a variable heat adjustment mechanism
Bristle Brushes ·        For use in the wax Multiple natural hair bristle brushes
Substrate Any rigid support – must have absorbency and or tooth ·        Panels with paper or canvas glued or encaustic gesso

·        mat board

·        Plexiglas

·        Other sculptural substrates

Tools Pottery tools Scrapers, pin tools, loop tools etc
SUNDRIES Materials that can be used in conjunction with encaustics ·        collage papers

·        photographs

·        alcohol inks

·        India ink

·        pastels

·        watercolors

·        oil bars

·        shellac

·        pigments

·        Found objects to embed

·        found objects to create relief


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