Encaustic Wax Art

Contributed by Judy Vars

Encaustic is a Greek word translated, it means “to burn in.” Natural pigments are made from pure organic beeswax, mixed with dammar resin and fixed with heat. The exact formula was lost until a modern chemist reinvented it in the 1940’s. 

The earliest surviving examples are the Fayum mummy portraits (300 B.C. to 100 A.D.), discovered near Alexandria, Egypt where embalming was big business and a lengthy process taking 70 days, the head and shoulder portraits of the individual were painted onto wood panels for the mummy casing - an early Greek version of the funeral makeup artist. 

On a recent trip to Southern California we visited the J. Paul Getty Museum; this marvelous museum contained a room devoted to Fayum portraits and other fascinating funerary from Roman and Egyptian culture. Alone in this room I felt a visceral connection to the long dead people and the artists who faithfully tried to create a likeness of the person, it was a rare glimpse into the faces and eyes of an ancient civilization. 

The earliest icons were painted with encaustic wax.

Encaustic painting fell into obscurity by the seventh century and was forgotten with the invention of more practical methods such as oil and tempura. Electricity and pre-made pigments have made encaustic more available to everyone. Now in the 21st century encaustic is back in a big way!

The qualities of the artwork that can be achieved with encaustics are unique. The beeswax is pure and organic, perfect for artists concerned with the Green Revolution. The methods are more like alchemy and magic than painting. It can be layered with translucent pigments to mysteriously reveal what lies partially hidden, carved back to reveal what is beneath. The depth and luminosity that can be achieved is remarkable.  Modern artists have taken the wax to amazing places. It also appeals to artists who want to carve, sculpt or collage. 

As encaustic goes main-stream, art collectors and galleries are becoming more interested in the medium. Encaustic art is losing some of its novelty - which is good. Collectors will not shy away from this medium as more people hear about it and understand its unique qualities which include durability and permanence.

My mission is to spread the “cult of the wax” so, fired up with enthusiasm!  I will be teaching a 1 ½ day workshop Artist Technique, Experimentation and Enlightenment in Encaustic paints at the Machetanz Art Festival at Mat-Su College June 3rd and 4th. 

Bring your ephemera, sacred objects, photographs  and I’ll bring mine, together we’ll create some art, imagination and willingness are all that is required.