Encaustic (Hot Wax) Medium

Is a medium that consists of natural bee wax and damar resin or crystallized tree sap, where wax is melted and then applied with a brush. Each layer is fused into the previous layer with high temperatures of heat.

Melted Wax


Includes a brief history with advantages of the medium.

Encaustics paintings are made of layers used for adhesive qualities, or the clear wax medium itself may be used as a transparent layer over a collage as the wax is an excellent preservative of materials.

Because of the brittle nature of encaustic paint, it is best applied to a rigid support, such as a panel or sturdy sculptural surface, and the surface should be absorbent. The wax must be able to adhere to the surface. Do not use acrylic gesso as an underpainting or ground.

Use a brush with natural hair and palette knives, or pour the paint from a cup. Apply the melted wax or molten paint to the surface. Use a heat gun or flame to fuse the wax together with other layers, then let it harden. Ready-made colors may be purchased from traditional artists' pigments, or pigments may be added to the medium.

Some encaustic colors tend to "bloom" or become cloudy over time. If your painting appears indistinct, simply rub the surface with a soft cloth or nylon stocking. Over time the surface retains its gloss as the wax medium continues to cure and harden for 1-3 years.

Encaustics are incredibly archival. There's 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 in the desert would not be advisable, or hanging a painting in front of a window with the direct desert-like sun. They are also sensitive to freezing cold temperatures.

Encaustics painting is an ancient technique, dating back to the Greeks around the 5th century B.C. They applied coatings of wax and resin to weatherproof their ships or caulk hulls. They later added pigments this technique evolved into painting which gave rise to the decorating of warships. The word "Encaustic" was derived from the Greek word (enkaustikos), which means "to heat or burn in" heat is used throughout the process, from melting beeswax to fusing layers of wax.

The use of encaustic on panels was the earliest known portable easel painting. Even though encaustic portrait painting was a slow and methodical technique, it rivaled the use of tempera. Tempera painting was a quick and inexpensive process; however, it was vulnerable to moisture.

Encaustic portraits could be layered or built up in relief fashion with the wax, which gave a rich optical effect to the pigments and made the finished work appear startlingly life-like. The encaustic painting had far more excellent durability and was waterproof.

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 painted either in the prime of life or after death was placed over the person's mummy as a memorial. These are the only surviving encaustic works from ancient times. It is notable how fresh the color has remained due to the protection of the wax.

The 20th century saw a rebirth of encaustic on a significant scale. It is an irony of our modern age, emphasizing advanced technology, that a painting technique as ancient and involved as encaustic should receive such widespread interest.

Earlier attempts to revive encaustic failed to solve the one problem that had made the painting in encaustic so laborious – the melting of the wax. The availability of portable electric heating implements and the variety of tools made encaustic more accessible. Today it is gaining popularity with artists around the world.

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