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A Brief History of Encaustics


What do the famous Fayum funeral portraits (1st and  2nd centuries AD.) and Jasper John's 20th century "American Flag" series have in common? The artists used a medium of hot wax and damar varnish to create their works. Today, this method is called encaustic.


The encaustic process began in ancient Greece.  In fact, "Encaustic" derives from the greek word "Encaustikos" which means "for burning in".The early Greeks applied hot wax and pitch to their ships. Hot wax is an excellent preservative which kept the surface dry. Soon pigment was added which enabled the decoration of war and merchant vessels. By 500-325 B.C. the crude mixture could be applied with tar brushes. Encaustic painting was born!


Sadly, during  a long period of instability following the decline of the Roman Empire, encaustics almost became a lost art. However, during the 1st to 3rd century AD greek artisans settled in Egypt. Since they knew the encaustic process, they painted panel portraits ( commonly referred to as the Fayum portraits) which were bandaged over the mummy's head.  Also, until the 7th century, encaustic was used to paint icons.

Although knowledge of  the encaustic process was nearly extinguished, the 18th century's discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum, ignited a new interest in this technique. This ancient technique was further explored in the 19th century as a way to rid dampness in murals.


By the 20th century, electricity, portable heating elements and pigmented wax made the encaustic method more accessible. In 1988, Richard Furness started R&F, making high-quality pigmented wax available. Early 20th century artists, such as Arthur Dove, Robert Delaunay, and Diego Rivera explored using encaustics in their work.

By the mid 20th century, Jasper Johns and others turned this method into a cross-disciplinary and modernist procedure. Encaustics were incorporated into assemblage, collage, printmaking and sculpture. Jasper John's "American Flag" series are a prime and insightful example.


The history of  encaustic painting is long and varied, experiencing 

periods of decline and popularity. However, its special beauty, fresh colors and versatility does and will continue to entice artists.


****** Google The Fayum Portraits to see them.

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