History of Encaustic Painting
Encaustic painting was practiced by Greek artists as far back as the 5th
century B.C. In the 1st century A.D. the Roman historian Pliny wrote that
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. Wax is an excellent preservative of materials. It was
partly from this use that the art of encaustic painting developed. 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 of the painted ships of the Greek warriors who fought at Troy.
Pliny mentions two artists who had in fact started out as ship
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.
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. 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
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.
In the 18th century the idea of encaustic painting was re-examined,
initially by amateurs in order to rediscover the techniques of the ancient
painters. It was further explored in the 19th century, to solve the problem
of dampness faced by mural painters in northern climates. But the success of
these efforts was limited, and encaustic remained an obscure art form.
The 20th Century saw a rebirth of encaustic on a major scale. It is an irony
of our modern age, with its emphasis on advanced technology, that a painting
technique as ancient and involved as encaustic should receive such
widespread interest. 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.