Encaustic: from the Greek: egkaiein - brand


Wax painting, with the colours burned in. One method, the wall paintings covered with wax, to preserve the colour fastness.



After the cave painting, Encaustic belongs to one of the first creative forms. A common thesis assumes that about three thousand years ago the encaustic artist applied colour pigments in Beeswax with hot spatulas on wood and ivory boards, or used it for decoration of tombs.
Due to wax having an excellent preservative effect, the ancient Greeks used this substance to make their ships water-resistant. From there it was only a small step to use waxes imbued with colour pigments. Even Homeros (about 800 BC) mentioned the painted ships of the Greek warriors, who besieged Troy.
Were these perhaps decorated with encaustic painting …?


Nefertiti (the beauty has come) Woman and co-regent of Akhenaten Bust at the time of the 18th dynasty (New Kingdom) between 1353 and “1336 v. Chr. A C 14 analysis of the wax used resulted in an age of approx. 3350 years. By the use of Punic wax, the magnificent sight of Nefertiti has been preserved to this day. The pigments were tied in Punic wax and the bust then covered with a layer of Punic wax.


Our present knowledge of ancient encaustic painting comes mainly from the “Naturalis Historia”, written by the well-known Roman historian Pliny Mayor (the Elder). He lived in the 1st century A.D. In 37 books Pliny describes more than 20,000 strange things, including the technique of Encaustic. However, he apparently did not have any direct knowledge and was more likely to “get facts from a third hand”. Nevertheless, his work gives us an impression of the various techniques and applications of Encaustic: portraiture, mythological scenes, the colouring of marble, ivory and terra cotta. Pliny also mentions encaustic paintings, which for centuries had been owned by some Roman aristocrats, and thus dated the Encaustics into the 5th century BC. Lt. Plinius’ panels were painted with encaustic by boat painters- a connection between application (as water protection) and the art form has been created. The nature of the wax, to provide both colour and protection, has led to the frequent application of this technique, e.g. as decorations of Greek marble statues, which today look white.


It seems that the Greek painters used hot coals in bronze containers to liquefy the wax. Over these containers was placed a kind of grid with depressions for the melted colours and to keep the cauteria/spatula and brush warm. Plinius mentions three different tools to apply the wax:

  1. The bronze cestrum (Greek lace) was used for ivory work. On one side was a tip and the other side was flattened like a spoon. How this device was used is no longer exactly traceable today. It was probably used for scratching, as well as filling out the resulting scratches.
  2. The cauterium, or rhabdion (small rod), also of bronze, was pointed on one side and round on the other. These two tools were probably heated and used to model the wax.
  3. The brush was originally used only for large-scale ship painting and later on adapted for finer work. These were initially very labor intensive to produce with bronze tools. Later Fayum portraits show first traces of brushwork.


The highlight of the Encaustics was in the classical epoch of Greek art in Egypt from the 1st to the 3rd century. The best known are the Greek-Roman Fayum mummy portraits, which were buried alongside the dead in the grave. In the oasis of Fayum (a flourishing community in the Nile Valley) Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians, Libyans, and other people lived in unison between the 1st and 3rd centuries. A considerable Greek population had settled here after the conquest by Alexander, and gradually took over the Egyptian habits. They also mummified their dead and gave them encaustic portraits. These are the only remaining examples of the Encaustics of antiquity. It is remarkable how, through the protective effect of the wax, colours appear fresh even after more than two millennia. An important feature of these images is the application of gold leaf, either as a background or, as here, clothing or jewellery.


The Fayum portraits were painted on thin, slightly curved wooden parts. Most of the work was done directly on the wood from dark to light. Sometimes the wood was treated with a type of glue or gypsum.


After the great Roman empire collapsed, the art of encausticism also fell into obscurity. The method was labor intensive and difficult. The production costs were high and could not compete with the emerging art form of Tempera.


Although encaustic painting was practiced a thousand years ago, it is as versatile as any modern painting technique. The finished pictures can be polished and would then appear to shine from inside. The wax can always be changed and combined with other materials. Wax hardens quickly, but can be melted and reworked again and again. Since bee’s wax is insensitive to moisture, an encaustic image is almost indefinitely durable. The colours do not fade and do not need to be fixed or protected by glass.


Encaustic art was so valuable that, for example, Emperor Tiberius (14 – 37 AD) paid a 6 million Sesterzen (over 4 million euros) for a painting by Parrhasios (beginning of the 4th century BC), the portrait of a priest of Cybele.

An argonaut painting of Cydias (114 – 50 BC) was bought for approximately 250,000 euros.

Caesar paid 1,000,000 euros, for a painting of the temple Yenus Genitrix (50 BC) by Timomacu of Byzantium.


  In the eighteenth century, the French archaeologist and writer Anne-Claude-Philippe Comte de Caylus was one of the great pioneers of modern Encaustics. He conducted numerous studies based on ancient writings and Pompeian wall paintings. He summarised his experiences and research in numerous Encaustic essays. He found adherents for his methods at the Paris Academy of Fine Arts. In the library of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Près a monument was erected,in honour of Caylus’, which reveals the rediscovery of encaustic. In the end, however, the artists and scholars of the 19th century had to recognise that the ancient encaustic art could no longer be reconstructed identically on the basis of the few sources. It was therefore decided to rediscover this technique and to use it as the “New Encaustic”. A centre of encaustics developed in Munich: inspired by Leo von Klenze and Georg Dillis, King Ludwig I of Bavaria sent the artist Georg Hiltensprenger to Italy, where he studied encaustic. Carl Rottmann (1797-1850),created the most famous encaustic portraits with his first copies of the Greek cycle (1838). Rottmann describes his subjective view of Greece on 23 cast iron plates. Parts of this cycle can be viewed at the Pinakothek in Munich.


In the twentieth century, encaustic painting experienced a real renaissance. This art is again becoming more and more interesting due to the advancing technical development – the tedious melting of the wax at exactly the right temperature has been greatly simplified by electronic devices. Another important advantage is that the wax hardly needs time to dry and can be processed again and again. In modern art, Jasper Johns, Robert Delaunay, Antoine Pevsner and Diego Rivera have repeatedly used encaustic techniques in their works.

The painting “Flag” by Jasper Johns from the art collection of the best-seller author Michael Crichton has been auctioned at a record price. The work of the pop art artist went at Christies for 25.5 million dollars. An unknown bidder thus paid double the estimate for the work that was created in the early 1960s.