The word encaustic originates from the Ancient Greek word "enkaustikos," which means to heat or burn in. Encaustic painting, also known as hot wax painting, is a form of painting that involves a heated wax medium to which colored pigments have been added. The molten mixture is applied to a surface also called a substrate, which is often wood, although other materials are sometimes used. The encaustic medium is made by adding pigments to beeswax and damar resin, which acts as a hardening agent. For pigmentation, dried powdered pigments can be used though some artists use pigmented wax, inks, oil paints or other forms of coloration.

The wax and resin medium is kept in metal cups and placed on a heated palette to keep the wax in a molten state. Metal tools are often utilized to shape, scrape, carve, and incise the medium after it cools. Butane or propane torches, heat guns, irons, and heated stylus’s are used by encaustic artists to fuse and bind the layered medium. Because encaustic medium is thermally malleable, it can also be sculpted. Other materials can be encased, collaged or layered into the molten wax medium as well.

Encaustic painting is a painting technique dating back to the Ancient Greeks who used wax to caulk ship hulls and decorate their warships. Tempera paints during this time offered a faster, cheaper process, while encaustic was a slow, difficult technique. However, with encaustic, the paint could be built up in translucent layers and create textured relief. The wax produced a rich optical effect to the pigments, which gave the paintings startlingly life-like qualities. In addition, encaustic had far greater durability than tempera, which was vulnerable to moisture. Perhaps the best known of all encaustic works are the Fayum funeral portraits painted in the 1st through 3rd centuries A.D. by Greek painters in Egypt. A portrait of the deceased was painted either in the prime of life or after death, and was placed over the person’s mummy as a memorial. These portraits still survive today and retain their colorful brilliance.

Encaustic paintings are extremely archival and are impervious to dust and moisture. However, as with any and all fine art, care should be given to them. There should be no fear of the artwork melting in normal household or other interior conditions. The wax and resin will not melt unless exposed to temperatures over 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Leaving a painting in a car on a hot day for example, would not be advisable nor should a painting be hung in front of a window with direct desert-like sun. This is true of all fine artworks. Encaustic wax paintings are also sensitive to freezing cold temperatures, which may cause cracking.

Some encaustic colors tend to “bloom” or become slightly dull or cloudy over time while they are curing. This is a temporary process. If a painting appears indistinct, one may simply rub the surface with a soft cloth or nylon stocking. Over time the surface will retain its gloss as the wax medium cures to a permanent shiny hard finish. Encaustic paintings, like oil paintings, are typically displayed without glass over them, making it easy to lightly polish the encaustic artwork if and when it is needed.