What Is Encaustic Medium?

(posted 02/22/2024)

I’m interested in finding a detailed answer to this question myself, actually. I’ve worked with encaustic medium for over 6 years now, and thought it’d be a well-deserved homage to my favorite art supply to delve into its history and how the medium is made and used.

Brief History of Encaustic

Beeswax is a preservative and has been used as such for thousands of years. We know the Greeks used it to protect and decorate their ships’ hulls as early as 500 BC. Going forward to the 1st-2nd centuries A.D., the Romans in Egypt used pigmented wax to paint portraits of the deceased, covering the faces and bodies of their affluent mummies. The 900 or so famous Fayum mummy portraits (one pictured below) are said to be very well preserved, retaining much of their brilliant color. Eventually, the use of encaustic in portraits gave way to a less expensive and easier alternative, tempera paint.


Mummy portrait of a young woman, Antino√∂polis, Middle Egypt, 2nd century, LouvreParis.

A resurgence of the wax painting came about in the 18th century, after archeological discoveries sparked interest in encaustic techniques. What ignited the use of the medium by artists even more in the 19th century was simply the invention of portable electric heat sources. Famous artists such as Jasper Johns, Diego Rivera, and Robert Rauschenberg are just a few who incorporated the medium into their work in modern times.

Encaustic Combinations

Since the 1990s, encaustic medium in art has become more attractive and popular as artists have discovered the myriad of ways to incorporate it into mixed-media processes and even into pottery and sculpture. This is what I personally find most fascinating about encaustic. It can be used with various other media to give an artist several paths he or she can take when attempting to master it.

Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen different combinations to use encaustic in art:

1. Over a dried watercolor painting
2. Over a dried ink illustration
3. Over an inkjet print on matte paper (including photos)
4. Combined with cold wax
5. Combined with oil pastel
6. Combined with oil paint
7. As a ground for alcohol ink
8. Over fabric such as linen or silk
9. Over a collage
10. Over pottery
11. Over sculpture
12. Over a cyanotype (what I call “Suncaustic”)

The most important guideline I find when working with encaustic is the need to avoid pairing it with acrylics. But even that rule can be broken since I successfully use acrylic chalk paint as a ground at times.

Grounds for encaustic art vary widely according to artist preference. I usually use parchment or watercolor papers pasted to the wood canvas. Aside from that, I’ll occasionally paint encaustic gesso or acrylic based chalk paint over the wood surface before laying down the molten medium.


Encaustic Medium Sources

Image by CJ from Pixabay


I am pretty sure at most every art sales event, a beekeeper has kindly asked if I have need of beeswax. While I’m in awe of the beekeepers’ work and grateful for their care and service to the bees, I solely buy refined encaustic medium made by R&F Paints. It comes in tiny pellets which are easy to store and melt in small batches. The “refining” process filters out the organic matter left by the bees so the medium is quite clear.

Some artists create their own medium by mixing melted beeswax with melted damar (or dammar) crystals, then filtering out the organic matter manually. Damar resin (or gum) is a natural tree sap from lowland tropical trees in India and Southeast Asia. Adding more or less of the damar resin is known to result in a respectively harder or softer wax surface. I’ve never used a brand other than R&F, but will eventually to see if my surfaces end up more luminous with a different brand. I have seen some artists use only beeswax over a photo, and that works too, but the cooled surface won’t be as hard and resilient as when it contains damar resin.

While I use the clear encaustic medium in my art, I also use pigmented encaustic paints made by R&F and Enkaustikos. Very little of these go a long way since they can be diluted with clear medium. Combining pigmented wax with clear medium is also a great way to tone down bright colors or add translucency.

Care of Encaustic Art

Most of my art work made with encaustic comes with a label giving care instructions. Typically any fine art that has pigment will eventually fade in sunlight, so keeping all your art out of the sun’s rays will help them look their best for the longest period of time. Unfortunately, it seems encaustic has been avoided by some who fear it’s too fragile for them. I find it quite resilient once the wax cools and hardens. Sure if you take a sharp object and puncture or carve the surface, it won’t be the same. That would most likely be the case with an acrylic or oil painting too.

The worst thing in my opinion you could do with encaustic is leave it in a hot car. (Well, THE worst is to take a blow torch to it, but most people won’t accidentally do that.) Unfiltered sunlight can quickly cause the surface to glisten and perhaps even liquify, which is a good sign you should move it to the shade.

The melting temperature of beeswax is around 140F degrees, so I recommend avoiding storage in any area with such high temperatures. Encaustic medium (with the addition of the damar) melts closer to 200F degrees, so it’s a bit more resilient. Keep in mind some attics get very hot in the summer.

Avoiding storage in temperatures below freezing should be avoided too, some say. I’m not sure what will happen though. Right now I’ll stick an encaustic mini in the freezer overnight to see the results … I’ll share my findings with you at the end of this blog.

I’ve been asked if it’s ok to hang encaustic art in the bathroom – the short answer is yes since the beeswax acts as a protective barrier to whatever it covers. But that’s not the case with ALL encaustic art. For example, if you have a watercolor painting that’s only partially covered in encaustic, the humidity could do some damage to the unprotected watercolor. Rest assured, if I ever do make something that can be damaged by high humidity, I will note that on the label.

I believe wrapping encaustic art in tissue paper or wax paper and then bubble wrap is the best storage option, taking care that all the edges and corners are protected. I have seen a few encaustic artists on social media repairing chipped edges and corners for clients. Life happens, and maybe you end up accidentally damaging an encaustic piece. Chances are if you contact the artist or any experienced encaustic artist they can take a look and let you know if it can be repaired.

Cleaning encaustic art will really depend on the piece. As long as any art you bought from me was not covered with metal leaf, you can wipe it with a silky soft cloth (old nylons work great). Doing this can also bring back the shine on the surface should the piece lose its shine over time.

The results of the freeze test are in:

My encaustic mini looked the same as when it went in the freezer 8 hours before. I did a little more Google research on freezing encaustic art while I was waiting. I found that freezing them is a good test to see if the ground is compatible with the medium. If the surface easily chips or flakes off when frozen, an incompatible ground was most likely used. I think I can safely say that keeping them in a unheated area wouldn’t affect my pieces, but that can’t be said for encaustic art from all artists.

Sources:

Thanks to Wikipedia and R&F Paints web sites for many of the facts I shared above. Here are the linked sources I used, in case you want to read more. In fact, you can find many encaustic art teachers have very in-depth, interesting information about encaustic on their web sites.
Wikipedia: Fayum Mummy Portraits
Wikipedia: Dammar Gum
R&F Paints History of Encaustic