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June 10, 2012



 History of Encaustic Art

Derived from the Greek word: enkaiein
  – to burn into

This term, used by ancient authors, is somewhat misleading, because heat is not absolutely necessary to attain the effects seen in the encaustic panels.
Therefore, encaustic has come to mean any painting method in which pigment is mixed with beeswax.
Researchers have found that a great variety of methods were used to achieve the desired effects in the encaustic paintings: hot or cold wax, under-painting with various colors, and a variety of soft or hard tools that were used cold or heated.

To the modern viewer, part of the attraction of encaustic paintings is their similarity to oil painting, since the wax medium could be applied in thick layers showing a great variety of tool marks and free brush strokes. An important characteristic of encaustic mummy portraits is the use of wafer-thin gold leaf. In some pieces, the entire background is gilded, in others, wreaths and fillets are added, and jewelry and garment decoration is emphasized.

Earliest Evidence / ca. 800 B.C.

Plinius Mayor / 1. century A.D.

Fayum  Mummy Portraits / 1. – 3. century A.D.

Decline of the Roman Empire / Middle Ages until 18. century

Revival of an ancient art / 18th century

20th. century till present time

Earliest evidence / ca. 800 B.C.                                  

Wax is an excellent preservative of materials. It was partly from this use that the art of encaustic painting developed.
Encaustic art dates back almost 3000 years to Egyptian & Greek times when heated coloured waxes were used to decorate warships and the walls of tombs.
The Greeks applied coatings of wax and resin to weatherproof their ships. Pigmenting the wax gave rise to the decorating of warships. Mention is even made by Homer (800 B.C.)of the painted ships of the Greek warriors who fought at Troy.

The use of a rudimentary encaustic was therefore an ancient practice by the 5th century B.C. It is possible that at about that time the crude paint applied with tar brushes to the ships was refined for the art of painting on panels.

Plinius Mayor / 1. century A.D.                                                                         

Most of our knowledge of this early use comes from the Roman historian Pliny, who wrote in the 1st century A.D.
Pliny seems to have had little direct knowledge about studio methods, so his account of techniques and materials is sketchy. But his discussion gives us an idea of its general usage. According to Pliny, encaustic had a variety of applications: for the painting of portraits and scenes of mythology on panels, for the coloring of marble and terra cotta, and for work on ivory (probably the tinting of incised lines). Pliny mentions two artists who had in fact started out as ship painters.

The use of encaustic on panels rivaled the use of tempera in what are the earliest known portable easel paintings. Tempera was a faster, cheaper process. Encaustic was a slow, difficult technique, but the paint could be built up in relief, and the wax gave a rich optical effect to the pigment. These characteristics made the finished work startlingly life-like. Moreover, encaustic had far greater durability than tempera, which was vulnerable to moisture.
Pliny refers to encaustic paintings several hundred years old in the possession of Roman aristocrats of his own time.

The nature of encaustic to both preserve and color led to its wide use on the stone work of both architecture and statuary. The white marble we see today in the monuments of Greek antiquity was once colored, probably delicately tinted like the figures on the Alexander sarcophagus in the Archeological Museum of Istanbul.
Pliny says that when the sculptor Praxiteles was asked which of his pieces he favored, he answered those "to which [the painter] Nicias had set his hand." Decorative terra cotta work on interiors was also painted with encaustic, a practice that was a forerunner to mosaic trim.               

Fayum Mummy Portraits / 1. – 3. century                                       

Perhaps the best known of all encaustic work are the Fayum funeral portraits painted in the 1st through 3rd centuries A.D. by Greek painters in Egypt.


Fayum Funeral Portrait
Mummy Portrait of a Woman, 
Antinoopolis, End of the Reign of Trajan, 98-117 A.D.,
Wax portrait on wood.


The Fayum, a flourishing metropolitan community in ancient Egypt, consisted of Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians, Libyans, and others.
A significant Greek population had settled in Egypt following its conquest by Alexander, eventually adopting the customs of the Egyptians. This included mummifying their dead. A portrait of the deceased, painted either in the prime of life or after death, was placed over the person's mummy as a memorial. These are the only surviving encaustic works from ancient times. It is notable how fresh the color has remained due to the protection of the wax.

Like many of their contemporaries throughout the Nile Valley, these people embalmed their dead and then painted commemorative portraits of them, usually on wood or linen, to be placed over the mummies. Looking into the well-preserved, startlingly lifelike faces collected in this beautiful volume, one can trace the earliest roots of portraiture as it began in these Greco-Roman Fayum, or mummy, portraits, and continued through the Renaissance to the present. Despite their ancient history, the stylized portraits appear strikingly modern and painterly, with echoes of Modigliani and Matisse.

Decline of the Roman Empire / Middle Ages until 18th century                

In the great period of economic instability that followed the decline of the Roman empire, encaustic fell into disuse. Some work, particularly the painting of icons, was carried on as late as the 12th century, but for the most part it became a lost art. The process was cumbersome and painstaking, and the cost of producing it was high. It was replaced by tempera, which was cheaper, faster, and easier to work.

Revival of an ancient art / 18th centuy                                                      

IIn the 18th century the French archeologist Anne-Claude-Philippe Comte de Caylus  paved the way for the Encaustic of our modern times. He studied old writings and the ancient murals of Pompeii to experiment with Encaustic techniques. He wrote several papers on Encaustic. In the Paris Academy he found followers of his methods and in the library of the convent Saint-Germain-des-Prs a statue was erected to honour him for his efforts to rediscover the Encaustic Art.

Unfortunately the artists and scholars of the 19th century had not enough sources to reconstruct the antique ways of the Encaustic. So they started to re-invent the techniques  to establish the New Encaustic Art.
A center of Encaustic Art developed in Munich: inspired by Leo von Klenze and Georg Dillis King Ludwig I of Bavaria sent the artist Georg Hiltensprenger to Italy to study the Encaustic.
The most famous Encaustic paintings were made by Carl Rottmann (1797-1850), who captured his impressions of Greece in his Greece Series in 1838.  (Samples in the Pinakothek, Munich).

20th century till present time                                                                              

Earlier attempts to revive encaustic failed to solve the one problem that had made painting in encaustic so laborious — the melting of the wax. The availability of portable electric heating implements and the variety of tools made the use of encaustic more accessible.
The fact that wax required no drying time and that it had structural properties that allowed it to be textured and built up in relief enticed both painters and sculptors to employ encaustic in both traditional technique and the development of newer.... (adding to 20th Cent. stylistic developments)
Early 20th Century ventures into encaustic included Jasper Johns, Robert Delaunay and Antoine Pevsner. Diego Rivera returned to it constantly throughout his career.

Jasper Johns, Spring – 1986  

Encaustic on Canvas





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