So, I’m hooked. It’s called “encaustic.” And little did I know that this was THE medium for art and decoration in the ancient Greece. Before there was frescoes, before there were oils, way before acrylics, there was encaustic. It is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, painting technique, heralding as far back as the 5th century BCE. Remember the Fayum mummies? Those deeply expressive Mediterranean faces with dark eyes and eyebrows that seem so alive even millennia after their owners turned to dust? Those, my friends, were made in encaustic technique. If you haven’t seen them, a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when you have a chance, is a must. These portraits of the dead seem so life-like, so vibrant, you’d think they were Polaroids. These mummy portraits would wrap the faces of the upper-class noblemen and women in the Hellenistic Period in Alexandria, Egypt in the 3rd century AD and served as memorials. The pity is that, while encaustic was the medium in use throughout the span of the ancient world, very little evidence of it survives. This is another reason why the Fayum funeral portraits are so incredible–they are the only remaining examples of encaustic art to survive to our times. Anyone who has seen them in person can attest to their unforgettable vibrancy. You do not forget those faces created in encaustic technique.
So what is it? “En-kausticos” comes from the Greek meaning to “burn into.” The technique consists of preparing a porous material, usually wood, with a medium of wax and demar resin (retsina). (Demar is a specific pine tree whose sap is just the right consistency to mix with the wax when warmed, not too hard, not too soft). The medium is warmed in vats under fire and then pigment is mixed into the wax which the artist paints directly onto the surface. The pigment must be warmed and then the various layers fused by more heat. Encaustic technique originated from Greek boat makers and engineers waterproofing their ships’ hulls with pitch or tar in wax. It traveled over to the arts because of its ability to keep pigment vibrant. Greek sailors loved to paint their warships, boy! It is equivalent to the boys detailing and waxing their Porsches today. Homer mentions the painted ships sailed by the Greek warriors to fight Troy. Encaustic technique served two functions: to preserve and to decorate. This is why most Greek statues and buildings made of stone were painted. And how was the paint applied? En-kaustikos of course!
Ancient craftsmen would literally burn kettles of wax and ground up natural pigments such as oxide and lapis lazuli to create paintings. They used burning coals handled on long pliers to burn the pigments into the medium (and burned themselves in the process too). The process was cumbersome, not to mention smelly and asphyxiating (demar wax must be used in a well-ventilated room). But the results, that lasted and kept their vibrancy made it worth the trouble. At least until the Romans took over. Romans wanted things fast, cheap, and simple. So they opted for tempera over encaustic technique. And so an ancient art form disappeared into the annals of art history.
Until the modern era. What with the ease of using hot plates and extra-powerful hair dryers, encaustics are making a comeback. Well, at least in niche circles. The 20th century has seen a rebirth of encaustic on a major scale. It is an irony of our modern age, with its emphases on advanced technology, that a painting technique as ancient and involved as encaustic should receive such widespread interest. Why is this so? Because with all things ancient, it signals a return to the elemental, the raw and the natural. The ancients in their minimalism spoke in products and processes that appear post-modern and quite abstract.
Why do I love encaustic so much? First of all, it’s versatile. It can be combined with painting, collage, mixed media. It acts like glue or medium but with the advantage of making paper transparent. It takes well to toner transfers. Secondly, it’s so SENSUOUS. The smell of the wax, the warmth of the wax gives the artist a personal connection to the medium. There is nothing like the warm feeling of rubbing your fingers over the wax, adding pigment sticks to bring out the fissures and crannies. Thirdly, it allows for multi-dimensionality and texture. Because the medium can be built up in hundreds of layers, encaustic painting is able to be texturized in a thousand ways. In fact, some encaustic artists actually sculpt pieces from the medium itself. The medium gives the pigment a rich optical effect. It is so addicting because of all these things.
I do recommend taking an encaustic workshop to get to know the basics of the technique. I took one at R and F Paints in Kingston, New York. (WOW! Aren’t we lucky that the epicenter of encaustic pigments and mediums is less than two hours away in the beauty of upstate?) This place resurrected itself as an encaustic paint factory in the last 25 years. So quaint that their building sits in front of an active railroad that passes every hour or so. They also double as an impressive encaustic gallery and workshop space. They also make a mean line of encaustic paints and pigment sticks. I picked up a few at my visit there.
While I have mostly kept my compositions to abstract motifs, I am starting to move into traditional or “real” images. Again, the wax builds up the piece, and if I don’t like the way something came out, all I have to do is put the dryer on full blast and melt the whole thing away. That’s another mystery of encaustic–you can always begin from a clean slate because you can melt it all off; on the other hand, because you can build layers and layers, you theoretically never really finish an encaustic painting. You can incise things in it, add objects and build around them, mix colors, layer papers and pictures between the layers of wax, add dried leaves and natural elements–the possibilities are endless.
But I think for me the technique is like uncovering a deep layer of my identity. When I craft my encaustics, as a Hellene, I feel a certain elemental connection. I think it has become my technique of choice because I feel an ancestral affinity. I took to it so quickly because I feel it courses through my body. It’s part of my DNA.
That’s another thing about encaustic art making: it combines both the mind and the body in a harmonious whole. You need the body to create encaustic, whether by heating and mixing the medium, rubbing the pigments, feeling the textures. It is very therapeutic in this regard; bridging both left and right brain hemispheres.
As a matter of fact, it lends itself nicely to my latest endeavor: workshops in expressive arts therapies for at-risk communities, children, and generally, all those harried hapless souls living in the 21st century who have lost balance or touch with their most elemental selves.
Join me and I can introduce you to the vibrant beauty of encaustic paintings at a workshop that can travel to you. You can always query me about possibilities via my email email@example.com
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