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Encaustic History

I previously set out to offer the histories of encaustic, narrowed down into a few paragraphs. Knowing the impossibility of this, and the availability of other resources (see: Book Sources), I instead have offered a brief historical note (below). The fact that others have already pursued brief historical synopses on their own websites, was also what deterred me. I am not a historian, but an artist who would rather focus on presenting other information- such as my own artwork and technique. In conclusion, I hope what I have offered is a relief and a well presented packet of information to assist those curious about this medium (found below).

Portrait of a Boy
Brief History of Encaustic 
by Jonathan D. Parks. Copyright 2007.

The word encaustic derives from the Greek word enkostikos, which means to heat or burnt in. Encaustic is a medium that dates back to the ancient Greeks, as far back as the 5th century B.C. 1 The Roman historian Pliny wrote in the first century A.D. one of the earliest known writings on encaustic. Pliny describes the paintings of portraits and scenes of mythology, coloring of marble and terra cotta, and work done on ivory and wood. Pliny also explains three techniques of encaustic painting that have changed little over the centuries. However, Pliny’s exact formula and ingredients for encaustic are lost in translation. 2 One historic technique is in using a stigma or stylus, typically a pointed, but sometimes broad or bladed metal tool; which was heated and used to fill incised lines on ivory or wood. The stylus was also used in Egypt as a writing tool; a wooden frame was filled with wax and the 'stylus' was used to write into the wax. Another technique was achieved by heating a spatula and spreading already cooled prepared encaustic paint with it. Lastly the paint was liquefied in a metal cup over a fire as a brush was dipped and used to paint it directly on the surface. It is assumed that the layers were fused together by holding a red hot metal rod or bar close to the painting. 3 It was necessary to fuse the painting so the different layers did not separate.

Conceivably the Greek Fayum funerary portraits, painted in the first through the third centuries A.D. in Egypt, are the most well known. The portraits are the majority of a few surviving works from ancient times, painted depicting the deceased in what is assumed the prime of their life. The painted portraits were then placed over the face of the mummified remains of the dead, held on by the outside wrappings. 4 Portrait of a Boy, amongst others, dwells in the Egyptian Art section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Personally viewing these portraits in the Metropolitan Museum; amongst others, one can see the timeless qualities of encaustic and aging wooden substrate as they sit in a sealed display. The method in which Portrait of a Boy was painted was widely recognized in Greco-Roman Egypt. However, this method was very different from customary Egyptian style, and has its origins in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. classical Greece. Stylistically the painted portraits are Greek; however, the way in which they were used in their burial ceremonies was Egyptian. These Greco-Roman Egyptian methods included the subject being coiffed like Romans, bearing Greek names, and finding solace in the beliefs of the afterlife of ancient Egypt. 5

The Fayum funerary portraits speak to the incredible archival qualities and versatility of the medium. The portraits previously discussed, like the Portrait of a Boy, are painted on wooden supports that have, and may continue to be, slowly deteriorating over time. The portraits have lasted centuries, where the paint looks as though it was painted fairly recently, only showing its age in content and the material (wood) it was painted on. 6

Experimentation with encaustic did arise later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but was short lived. It was not until the availability of modern electrically heated palettes and the easy acquisitioning of materials, that in the twentieth century, this outmoded medium really experienced a revival. Over the centuries many other types of paint including oil, egg tempera, acrylic, and watercolor, were cheaper and readily available. Due to the accessibility of other mediums and the difficulties artists faced with acquiring and working with encaustic (such as modern conveniences that are usually taken for granted today), encaustic fell out of favor. 7

1. Joanne Mattera, The Art of Encaustic Painting: Contemporary Expression in the Ancient Medium of Pigmented Wax. (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2001.)

2. Gail Stavitsky, Waxing Poetic: Encaustic Art in America. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000.)

3. SusanWalker and Morris L. Bierbrier, Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits in Roman Egypt. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art Publications Series, 2000.)

4. Euphrosyne Doxiadis, Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995.)

5. Walker and Bierbrier.

6. Ibid.

7. Stavitsky.

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---------------------------------------{ A Note to Readers }---------------------------------------

Revisiting old topics and filling in holes is quite a chore, yet a necessary one, one that will offer more quality information. For example: recent activity and questions surrounding hardboard and/or masonite, has directed our attention to fill in the blanks on that topic (currently under revision/addition), as well as, more about gesso (specifically encaustic gesso) and other topics (search the tabs), all are in the works. 

Prior years were to get as much general information as possible up and available- a starting point. More and more however, new topics are focused and detailed, and old ones will be getting revisiting; removing any possibility of confusion. 

I should point out that this is a one person operation (takes me awhile to get around to everything, ohh yeah, I should make some art), Anyway, where was I?, oh! one person operation..., even though I tend to refer in posts and topics as we, it is to remove the need to revisit things later when it really is we. All of this whilst working, making art, and whatever may be the case.

As always, I welcome any opinions, comments, and questions- simply contact me.

Thank you
Jonathan Parks