What is Encaustic?
Nothing in the definition of encaustic describes 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.
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.” The word encaustic — meaning to burn in — originates from the Latin word encausticus and from Greek enkaustikos. Webster 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 5th century BC where Grecian seafarers decorated their ships by adding paint to the wax used in weather-coating. Later, Romans and Egyptians are known to paint with encaustic. By the Renaissance encaustic nearly disappeared as other painting techniques became popular. Today artists’ enthusiasm for painting with beeswax has reignited.
Melt beeswax mixed with resin and pigment. Paint and fuse with fire. Repeat. There can be up to 20-30 layers of wax in a single painting. A finished encaustic can be re-imagined months or even years later after its completion simply by applying heat. There are no limits to the freedom and expression of encaustic. It 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, collage and photography. It can be smoothed, and polished to a high gloss, or left textured, rough yet refined. It can be cast and sculpted, combined with oil and pastel or left in its natural hue. The free flow of molten beeswax has a mind of its own and there is little control over the process. Every painting is a practice of allowing and surrendering. And yet encaustic is forgiving. Simply heat, repeat and begin again.
Encaustic is archival and durable and requires common-sense care like all fine art paintings. Wax is its own protectant from moisture and rot. Beeswax is sensitive to extreme heat and cold and thrives best at room temperature, 75 to 80 degrees. Wax and resin will melt around 200 degrees so it is unlikely a painting will ever melt; however it is not recommended to hang a painting in direct sunlight; or leave in a car on hot days where it may become sticky; or on freezing days it might shatter. Once the beeswax and resin are fully cured the painting will retail a beautiful patina and permanent gloss. Before then, by simply buffing with a soft white cloth will give it a high luster.
Painting with beeswax connects me to nature and draws me into sacred resonance. It is my open-eye meditation. Similar to life, every layer of beeswax, one upon the other, represents each moment in time fused with our past and present creating life’s journey. There is depth to the layers of beeswax that is at the same time translucent and opaque revealing a luminosity within and an untold story left to our imagining.