Art Term Tuesday: Encaustic

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

An ancient art practice started by the Greeks to decorate their ship hulls, encaustic painting is being reimagined by contemporary artists today, including Audrey Riley and Kaylee Dalton, who are now on view at FWMoA in A Sense of Place: Abstract Art in Northern Indiana. A laborious process due to the necessary heating component, what does encaustic painting allow an artist to achieve that they can’t with oil, tempera, acrylic, or watercolor?

Audrey Riley, American, b. 1959. I Love Rich People. Encaustic, 2021. Loan from the Artist, Modus System used with permission from Cooper + Hutchinson. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.
Close up of the encaustic layers. Audrey Riley, American, b. 1959. I Love Rich People. Encaustic, 2021. Loan from the Artist, Modus System used with permission from Cooper + Hutchinson. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

First described by Roman scholar Pliny the Elder in the 1st century AD, the oldest surviving encaustic panel paintings are Roman-Egyptian Fayum mummy portraits from Egypt. Funeral portraits were portraits of the deceased, either painted before or after they died, that were placed over the person’s mummy as a memorial. Continued to be used in early Byzantine icons, the process was abandoned in the Western Church in favor of tempera and oil paints. “Rediscovered” by 20th century painter Fritz Faiss, a student of the Bauhaus, encaustic has since seen a resurgence in popularity, growing in use from the 1990s onward. Used by Mexican Muralists like Diego Rivera, Abstract Expressionist/Pop artist Jasper Johns, and Karl Zerbe, encaustic painting has effectively moved into the realm of fine art.

A durable medium (obviously, if it was used to decorate ship hulls), encaustic painting, or hot wax painting, involves using a heated medium and adding colored pigments to it. Artists can use either pre-pigmented wax or dried powdered pigments mixed with beeswax and damar resin. The molten medium is then applied to a prepared surface, whether wood or canvas. To achieve the molten state necessary, artists apply heat using heat lamps, torches, and/or heat guns. Metal tools and special brushes can also be utilized to shape the medium as it cools; because it is thermally malleable, it can be sculpted, encased, collaged, or layered for textual effects unlike those possible using acrylics or oils. Once cooled, heated metal tools likes spatulas, knives, and scrapers can further manipulate the layers and add texture.

Unlike an oil painter or watercolorist who mixes their colors on a palette, an encaustic painter’s palette is their hot plate and the colors are pigmented wax. This means that most encaustic paintings are worked on lying on a flat surface, as opposed to stood upright on an easel. An artist will start with a layer, building them up by separately fusing each to the next. These built up layers result in the depth and luminous translucency characteristic of encaustic paintings. Dependent on the texture the artist is trying to achieve, they may build up multiple layers to scrape or carve them away, then follow-up with more layers to achieve more depth. We can see this in the visible layers of Audrey Riley’s work, as some areas are raised above others to achieve depth and the overlapping, geometric style.

Audrey Riley, American, b. 1959.Knowingly and Intentionally. Encaustic, 2021. Loan from the Artist. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.
Close up of the encaustic layers. Audrey Riley, American, b. 1959.Knowingly and Intentionally. Encaustic, 2021. Loan from the Artist. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

What sets encaustic painting apart is the burning of the colors. The heating elements used today, thanks to electricity, simplify the process and add a dimensional quality to an otherwise 2D surface. It also provides a luminous color not achieved with acrylic paint. The practical difficulties of keeping a medium warm, as encaustics are never completely wet or dry but transition from a liquid to a solid state and back again in seconds, means that additional layers can be added immediately. Tempera and oil paint require a drying out period. Encaustics are also moisture-proof (consider a ships hull that cannot get wet), so these paintings can be re-worked indefinitely. The artist can melt and re-melt layers to create different effects: opaque or translucent layers, texture, scraping, sculpting, polished, and collaged (mixed with other materials).

A malleable medium, what effects are achieved when it is mixed with other mediums, like in the works below, that would not be possible with paint alone?

Michael David, American, b. 1954. Winter of Discontent. Oil and encaustic on board, 1984. Gift of Jeffrey Hoffeld, 1986.07. Image courtesy of FWMoA.
Steven Sorman, American, b. 1948. reluctant soldiers. Polymer, gouache, Flashe, oil pastels, oil, encaustic on Indian watercolor paper, 1993. Gift of the Artist in memory of David Shapiro, 2014.167. Image courtesy of FWMoA.
Kaylee Dalton, American, b. 1986. Lavish Evening. Hand-painted papers and encaustic monotypes with mixed-media collage on panel, 2021. Loan from Artist. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

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