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ArtemidorusLady from Fayum - modern interpretationIcon - interpretation of an original now at St Catherine, Mount SinaiHISTORY of
Encaustic means : "to burn in"
This is a process of applying molten wax colours to a surface for the creation of images, decoration and so forth. It started over 2 millennia ago. No one can say for sure exactly what the components of the wax paints were since there are several formulae and a number of application techniques discovered for the creation of the original Roman Egyptian wax portraits. The wax colours appear to have been applied with some swiftness which would certainly make sense if the wax was molten and liable to cool on the brush if not handled with some speed.

The Hot Wax Method - is how we might think of encaustic in its truest sense - that is in using heat as the solvent for beeswax based pigmented wax paints. It is generally agreed that there were three tools used in this type of working.

  • Cautarium - probably a type of metal palette knife that could be used heated to blend the wax colours
  • Cestrum - a small needle like pointed item that may have been used to draw into the wax cold or perhaps it was heated. It may also have been used more directly in the molten wax.
  • Pencillium - brushes used to apply most of the wax colour and backgrounds in the portraits.

    Thin wooden panels were usually the best choice for painting onto with molten wax, although linen was also used. Remember that these portraits were designed to be bound into the head area of the mummy wrappings so thin flexible wood was better suited than thick rigid boards.

    The wax would be heated by some means, perhaps over charcoal?
    Anyway, once molten the pigments might have been blended into a volume of wax and applied to the wood surface by brush. For finer colouring or smaller quantities it might have been more practical to dip a brush into some molten wax then blend this on a heated palette surface with small amounts of pigment, perhaps laid out in bowls so that the brush tip could just be dipped in to collect the right amount of the powder. Looking at the portraits it seems that the main body of colour was applied using the brushes and then afterwards tooled with the hot or cold instruments (named above) to form greater blending, texturing and variety of thickness.

    The Cold Wax method - Punic Wax - Pliny and Dioscorides, both men of Ancient history, give very similar recipes for Punic Wax. They told of a process where beeswax is boiled in salt sea water then strained through cheese cloth to remove impurities. This was done several times. They then decreed that the wax be left in sun or moonlight for several days to better bleach it. After this the wax needed to be saponified (made soap-like) by adding sodium hydrogen carbonate (Sodium Bicarbonate). This was mixed together and then later, drained again through cheesecloth, rinsed in lukewarm water and finally air dried. It would then probably have been tempered for painting by mixing with other naturally available ingredients:

  • oil to improve and help keep it fluid (perhaps linseed)
  • egg yolk to improve adhesion to the support and add resilience to the wax making it slightly harder.
    These components when combined into a medium and mixed with pigment certainly produce a workable paint that enables results of very similar visual character to those found in Ancient Roman Egypt.

    An truly excellent book with magnificent photographs and carefully researched texts is:
    The Mysterious Fayum Portraits Faces from Ancient Egypt
    Published by THAMES & HUDSON 1995
    ISBN 0-500-23713-1

    encaustic .com has a library which lists a number of books about encaustic art, both ancient and modern
  • Mummy of a man - taken from HawaraIn 1997 the British Museum held an exhibition of several hundred exhibits, including many encaustic burial portraits.
    Ancient Faces - Book of the exhibition available from the British Museum PressArtifacts from that exhibition are laid out in this colour book which takes its title from the event itself -Ancient Faces
    It is available from the British Museum Press
    Close look at the portrait section of the man from Hawara
    Artemidorus - Egyptian Prince - VISIT THE FAYUM WEBSITE - but please do come back!
    Artemidorus - Egyptian Prince - FAYUM WEBSITE
    In Ancient Egypt it was customary for those who could afford it (or were accorded it) to have a burial portrait made and bound onto the mummified body of the deceased. Some were painted in Tempera but many were done in encaustic wax. At FAYUM many examples were found. Click Artemidorus to go and see some examples.
    This whole site is about what is happening to encaustic wax as a medium for art, creativity, relaxation, therapy, eductation and more. You can look pretty much anywhere to discover something interesting and the site is being expended continually to form a resource of information for everyone to browse and use. Our experience of encaustic started in 1986 and has already led many others into a direct exploration and in involvement in this fascinating medium.
    You could go to this brief article about How to paint with an iron written as a beginners guide to beekeepers not painters!
    or find out how we got going by clicking on this link which explains a bit about us.
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