he Dark Ages meet the Industrial Revolution in the ancient art medium called
encaustic painting. Dating to the 5th century B.C., with examples surviving
from the 1st century A.D., encaustic has come into its own in the past 20
years, primarily because of the availability of portable electric heating
devices and a wide variety of sculpting tools. As a result, encaustic painting,
once a lost art, is again taking its place as a major art medium.
A painting method where color-pigmented wax is melted, applied to a surface and
reheated to meld the paint into a smooth or textured finish, the word encaustic
comes from the Greek and means
“to burn in” or fuse with heat. Melted, colored wax is daubed onto a sturdy backing and
spread with brushes and other tools just like the artist would do with oils,
tempera or acrylics. Unlike paints however, wax can be allowed to cool and then
carved into textures and shapes. The wax can be manipulated repeatedly by heat
guns and similar tools that soften the wax, allowing the artist to work and
rework the texture until completely satisfied.
Almost any medium can be used as a base for an encaustic painting—wood, canvas, glass, cardboard, grass paper and other decorative papers, for
example. Items used to create texture and form are limited only by the
imagination. Houston artist Gwen Plunkett has created diverse texturing from
buttons, floppy discs and foam pads, while Julia Koivumaa, a colleague of
’s and also a local artist, incorporates photographs into her encaustics. “Encaustic is a marriage of ancient and new—digital photography and ancient wax,” Koivumaa said.
Beeswax is the wax of choice for most encaustic painters because it makes the
painting more resilient. Natural beeswax has a lot of impurities such as bugs
and bark, as does natural resin from trees, so damar crystals are recommended
for a cleaner, longer lasting resin. The wax can be polished to a high gloss
and can be molded, sculpted, textured and combined with collage materials.
Encaustics can last for a lifetime
—or several hundred lifetimes, as archeologists are now discovering. The
durability of encaustic is due to the fact that beeswax is impervious to
moisture and does not deteriorate. Encaustic paintings also do not have to be
varnished or protected by glass like oils do.
The textures, colors and styles of an encaustic painting are as varied as the
’s and patron’s personalities. The paintings are quite heavy and can be expensive, ranging
from $500 to $5,000.
“Encaustic is an expensive medium,” Plunkett said. “Most artists mix their own colors because paints are expensive.”
Encaustic can also be a dangerous medium. In addition to the burns that can
occur from the hot wax, working with powder pigments can harm the eyes and
lungs. The artist must wear a respirator and keep gloved hands in a plastic bag
when mixing colors, and every layer of the painting has to be fused.
Experts believe the reason encaustic has experienced a recent resurgence in
popularity is due to the increased convenience and safety of heating
appliances. The encaustic painter
’s tools include heat guns, propane torches like the kind used to make crème brulee, tacking irons, wood burning tools, pancake griddle or electric
skillet and a crockpot, muffin pans and cookie sheet.
Plunkett, a college instructor of design and drawing, became interested in
encaustic in the 1990s and now leads workshops across Houston. She will be
conducting a class at Lone Star College-CyFair beginning Sept. 4. The class
will be held on Fridays from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. for six weeks.
Cost for the class is $120. For more information contact the Continuing
Education Department at Lone Star College-CyFair at 281-290-5983, or go to
’s Web site, www.gwendolynplunkett.com.
“The class is limited to seven participants because of the electrical power
required. There must be a dedicated line for each station and lots of
” Plunkett said. “Heat guns blow fuses if there is not enough power.”Koivumaa has worked with encaustics for about 10 years. She was living in
Atlanta and painting with water colors when she became interest in encaustic.
“I was seeking more of a sculptural medium,” she said. “A sense of touch gives an added tactile sensibility.” She began playing with different mediums and read JoaneMattera’s book,
The Art of Encaustic Painting, which she still uses as a reference tool. “My husband and I moved to Guatemala for two years where I was pretty isolated,
so that gave me an opportunity to focus on encaustic.
” Her work from the Guatemala years is brightly colored and has a strong South
Koivumaa uses a blend of encaustic and mixed media in her paintings, including
abstract layers of photos. She does sketches for every series, then works off
the sketches. Sometimes she will base a new piece off an old painting
“if it still has its soul,” she says.
Koivumaa also uses metallic colors made from gold leaf metallic powder and dried
oil paints. She doesn
’t frame her paintings because she paints the edges.
Both artists show and sell their work through galleries, the Web and word of
mouth. They enter many art shows throughout the year with other encaustic
artists across Texas.
“Encaustic painters share more openness and dialogue than in other mediums,” Koivumaa says.