Encaustic Painting

What is Encaustic Painting?

Encaustic painting is an ancient mixed media technique or process of painting characterised by the use of colored pigments mixed with hot wax (mostly beeswax). The beeswax acts as a binder and the liquid is kept warm through the use of a brazier, then applied through a brush or a metal spatula to the support -usually prepared wood, canvas or plaster. The consistency of the mixture can be varied by adding resin or oil to the wax. The original encaustic technique also includes a final fix with heating elements applied to the surface. Used since Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, Encaustic painting is also used by contemporary and abstract artists, to add texture to their artworks.

The term encaustic is derived from the Greek (gr. έγkαυστον da έγkαίω, Enkaustikos; lat. Encaustum) meaning  burning in, to heat. This etymology documents the importance of the use of heat during the process. The ancient method of encaustic painting was, in fact, recorded in the 1st Century AD by the  Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, in his treatise Natural History. Pliny used the expression ‘ceris pingere, picturam inunero’ or ‘encausticare’ to make a relevant distinction between wax painting and encaustic one. The Roman scholar also explained its different applications and purposes: from portraiture to application on walls, mythological scenes on panels, to colouring of marble, terracotta, ivory and even architecture.

Examples of Encaustic Artworks


History of Encaustic Painting

According to the primary source of Pliny the Elder, encaustic painting reached its peak in Classical Greece, used by the genre painter Pausias in the 4th century BCE. It was also perfected by Aristides of Thebes, and other ancient Greek artists. It spread to the Romans as well, fascinating roman aristocrats who commissioned encaustic paintings in their villas. However, it is inaccurate to point to the Greeks as the inventors of the technique; encaustic painting was already in use among the Egyptians about 3000 BCE and encaustic for ships was used from the time of Homer and possibly predates brush painting.

However, evidence of ancient encaustic paintings is rare; among the most famous are the mummy portraits found in the Faiyum Basin in Egypt from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, and currently preserved in major international museums including the Louvre Museum and the British Museum. These portraits of the deceased were placed over the person’s mummy as a memorial, and some of them are encaustic images closer to the Greco-Roman than to the Egyptian tradition, suggesting that they were executed by Greek-trained artists. Other important finds of encaustic painting are the icons in the monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai. Encaustic icons continued to be realized by Byzantines, but this technique was abandoned in the Western Church. During Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci attempted to revive the process; the technique obtained a minor revival with artists like Lucas Cranach and Andrea Mantegna, but without great success.

In the 18th century, with the archaeological interest of the period, several painters and treatise writers described the method of encaustic painting. The Count of Caylus outlined the ancient process, the painter Jean-Jacques Bachelier published in 1755 his Mémoire sur la Peinture à l’Encaustique and also Denis Diderot published an anonymous pamphlet on the use of wax in painting.

However, encaustic technique was also experimented by artists of the 20th century; it become particularly known with Jasper Johns which used this heating process for his iconic flags; it was also used by painters like Picasso, Paul Klee, Arshile Gorgy and abstract artists like Robert Delaunay, Antoine Pevsner, and muralists like Diego Rivera. In the 20th century, a student of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, the painter Fritz Faiss, rediscovered the ancient “Punic wax” technique of encaustic painting.

Encaustic painting is a technique with limited risks because it does not require solvents, except for heat and flammable wax. It enables to obtain very brilliant paintings and with a final enamel appearance. The surface can be left textured, or with a matte, semi-gloss or glossy finish. Thanks to its adhesiveness it is also a suitable technique for creating collages.

Notable Artists of Encaustic Painting

  • Heraclides or Heracleides, 168 BC ca, Macedonian
  • Pausias, 4th century BCE, Ancient Greek
  • Jasper Johns, (May 15, 1930-), American
  • Fritz Wilhelm Faiss (March 6, 1905 – October 1, 1981), German-American
  • Benjamin Calau (1724–1785), German
  • Janise Yntema (March 29, 1962), American
  • Tony Scherman (1950-), Canadian

Related Terms

  • Painting Techniques
  • Wax Painting
  • Mural Painting
  • Greek Art
  • Egyptian Art
  • Byzantine Art
  • Abstract Expressionism
  • Abstract Art










About Cinzia Franceschini

Cinzia Franceschini is an Italian Art Historian specializing in the History of Art Criticism, with a second degree in Communications and Sociology studies. She studied in Padua, Brussels, Turin as well as anywhere with an Internet connection. She works as a guide in Museum Education Departments and as a Freelance Writer. She writes about Contemporary Arts and Social Sciences, and how they intertwine.

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