What is Encaustic

Encaustic is a Greek word meaning “to heat or burn in” (enkaustikos). The medium uses beeswax combined with pigments and natural resin.  In ancient Greece, ship hull were waterproofed with beeswax and tinted with brightly colour pigments. In 800 B.C., Homer writes of painted warships sailing to Troy. Hundreds of encaustic paintings exist of the Fayum funerary portraits painted to honour the dead by using encaustic to paint portraits of those past in the prime of their life. Known as the “Fayum Portraits”, with some dating as far back as 23 B.C., the Portraits were first discovered in the late nineteenth century.

Encaustic is the oldest known pigment binder. The resilience and colour remained intact, uncracked and unfaded over centuries due to wax's imperviousness to moisture. Encaustic was later used during the renaissance by Rembrandt and later by such painters as Diego Rivera, Jasper Johns and Tony Scherman.  Most encaustic artists today have reinvented the process for themselves through countless hours of experimentation and exploration.


Encaustic is a very versatile medium that offers a variety of handling methods. Once liquefied, the wax is applied to the surface with a brush and each layer is fused to the previous layer with a heat gun, heated iron or propane torch allowing the layers to become one. It can be manipulated to create dramatic three-dimensional effects, subtle atmospheric illusions, or realistic details.  Its unique properties allow encaustic to appear molten or solid, translucent or opaque, smooth or textural, thick or thin, shiny or matte.  It can be polished to an enamel-like lustre or used with subtlety to create muted but luminous surfaces.

The medium is heated to 90 degrees centigrade, applied to a rigid board, and each layer is fused with a blow torch or heat gun.  The result is works with a deep finish, and luminous, ethereal qualities and the smell of beeswax.

Shellac burn is shellac flakes diluted with methylated spirits then poured across an area of the painting and set alight. Once burned out it leaves wonderful patterns in the wax surface, and then more wax layers are added.

Other materials such as dyed silk and found objects such as shells, stones and dry leaves can be incorporated into this medium.

This medium provides the viewer with a truly sensory experience. The multiple layers gives works a luminous, ethereal quality, which retain the beautiful aroma of beeswax.  These works can be safely touched, to feel the texture involved (from the smooth wax, to roughness of incorporated materials) and is waterproof.


These paintings are extremely archival, but as with any fine art, care should be given to them. There should be no fear of the work melting in normal household conditions. The wax and resin will not melt unless exposed to temperatures over 93 degrees centigrade. Leaving a painting in a car on a hot day would not be advisable or hanging a painting in front of a window with direct desert-like sun. They are also sensitive to freezing cold temperatures.

Some encaustic colours 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 up to 1-3 years.

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