The word encaustic originates from the Ancient Greek 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 mix 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, crystallized tree sap, 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 pigmentation.
Metal tools and brushes are used to shape the medium as it cools. Also, heated metal tools, including spatulas, knives and scrapers are often used to manipulate the medium after it has cooled onto the surface. Additionally, butane or propane torches, heat guns, irons, and heated stylus’s are used by encaustic artists to fuse and bind the medium. Because encaustic medium is thermally malleable, the medium can be also sculpted. Materials can also be encased, collaged or layered into the molten wax medium.

Encaustic painting is an ancient technique, dating back to the Ancient Greeks, who used wax to caulk ship hulls and for decorating of 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 relief, and the wax gave a rich optical effect to the pigment. These characteristics made the finished work startlingly life-like. Moreover, encaustic had far greater durability than tempera, which was vulnerable to moisture. Perhaps the best known of all encaustic work are the Fayum funeral portraits painted in the 1st through 3rd centuries A.D. by Greek painters in Egypt. A portrait of the deceased painted either in the prime of life or after death, was placed over the person’s mummy as a memorial. These portraits still survive today.

Encaustic paintings are extremely archival, but as with any fine art, care should be given to them. They are impervious to dust and and moisture. There should be no fear of the work melting in normal household 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 would not be advisable or hanging a painting in front of a window with direct desert-like sun. They are also sensitive to freezing cold temperatures.

Some encaustic colors tend to “bloom” or become slightly dull or cloudy over time. If your painting appears indistinct, simply rub the surface with a soft cloth or nylon stocking. Over time the surface will retain its gloss as the wax medium continues to cure. Encaustic painting, 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.