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Notes on The History of Encaustic

 Some notes on the History of Encaustic.

Encaustic became the medium of choice when the only other media were fresco, tempera or water media.  In the years between the 400s BC and the third century AD, encaustic was widely used first by the Greeks and then by the Romans and Egyptians.

Encaustic artist Francisco Benitez writes of the history of the medium in Encaustic Arts, the magazine of The Encaustic Institute.

“One of the first artists mentioned by the Greek Pliny, to use encaustic was Polygnotas who painted between 475 and 450 BC.  He was an artist who made the break with the hieratic and schematic Archaic style, pointing the way for a more optical and scientific approach to visualizing nature.  There is a striking parallel with oil painting nearly 2000 years later, as it became the painting medium par excellence in the Renaissance and Baroque because of an overwhelming impulse to represent nature and optic reality.”
With encaustic came the invention of skiagraphos or shading.   Benitez writes “art was propelled down a radical path whereupon it would give three dimensional form to the human figure and bridge the gap between the painterly imagination and optic reality.  The invention of skiagraphos created a ripple effect in which a chasm developed causing a division in art which lingers to this day... the eternal debate and tension between form and colour, pathos and ethos and line and chiaroscuro.”


Preceded by water-based media, encaustic, because of its inherent optical qualities was soon seen as a better medium to represent the complexities of the human form and of nature than the flatter tempera and fresco.

The golden age of  Hellenistic painting saw  great development in the arts and encaustic took center stage.  A great school of the arts flourished at Sikyon, the ancient Greek city state, known as the cradle of the srts.  Eupompos who founded the famous school is credited with lifting the arts from the practice of craft into the the spheres of the intellect and philosophy.  When asked by his pupil Lysippus, who would be a good choice for a model he is said to have replied to the effect that an artist ought to “imitate nature not another artist.”

Painting in encaustic took painstaking efforts where wax was heated in small pots on braziers or in flat metal pallets with indentations for the pigmented melted wax.  It was applied to a surface with brushes and knives. Cauteria were metal modeling tools heated and used to apply, smooth and further shape the warm wax.  Many of the tools used were actually medical instruments possibly originally used for eye surgery, or cleaning the ears.

A Cauterium was a sort of long handled metal palette knife and it was used to blend the coloured wax after it was painted on  the surface.  There was a rather delicate long handled metal needle called a Cestrum which was used to sketch and draw lines on the painting. Pencillium was a paint brush used to apply the hot wax color on the surface of the painting.

Perhaps because it was so work intensive, encaustic was dying out by the 6th century.  Replaced by oil painting, it was not until the invention and proliferation of electricity was there any sustained interest shown by artists in encaustic painting.  In the 1920’s  among the first to use encaustic were the Mexican muralists, David Alfaso Sequerios and Diego Rivera.  Both, famously socialist realist painters, their encaustic murals were “Creation” by Diego Rivera 1922-29 in encaustic and gold leaf and “The Elements” by  Sequerios painted in 1923 in encaustic and fresco.  

Arthur Dove and Jasper Johns are two New York painters of post WW2 who used encaustic extensively. In her book The Art of Encaustic Painting, Joanne Mattera writes " The history of contemporary encaustic begins with its most famous practicioner, Jasper Johns. It was he, of course, who put pigmented beeswax on canvas in 1954. "I went out and bought some wax and started working. It was just right for me. Everything became clearer, he said in a 1984 Vanity Fair interview."


 Jasper Johns continues to paint with encaustic. Artists such as Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein have made encaustic part of their painting practice.  Tony Sherman of Canada uses encaustic exclusively in his huge (86” x 86”) paintings.

Today, encaustic has substantially regained its popularity.  Many artists are discovering its proclivity for intense colour and interesting structural possibilities. There is endless potential for layering and for processing new forms. In short, a renewed rendering of optic reality.


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