Encaustic painting is an ancient and highly permanent technique in which the vehicle or binder is beeswax. Unlike linseed oil or synthetic resin (e.g. acrylic) binders which dry to harden, the beeswax is heated until molten, mixed with dry pigments to make paint, and, when applied to the painting, cools and hardens instantly. When the painting is completed, the entire surface is reheated to fuse the layers and bond them to the support. This is called burning-in, which is the literal meaning of encaustic.
Although the surface is not as tough as an oil film, encaustic paintings do not darken or yellow with age. Portraits made in the Fayoum district of Egypt as early as the 1st century A.D. are as fresh as if they were painted yesterday. The most famous contemporary painter to revive the use of this technique is Jasper Johns. Some painters combine wax with linseed oil binders; this is known as cold wax encaustic. Encaustics should not be exposed to extremes of temperature; cold may make the surface brittle and extreme heat may cause the paint to soften or even melt. Yet encaustics are free from problems of moisture and atmospheric impurities that can damage oil and tempera paintings. When properly cared for encaustic paintings will remain unchanged for centuries. Sometimes when encaustic paintings are exposed to cold temperatures, a whitish “bloom” may appear on certain portions of the surface, caused by small amounts of moisture or impurities in the wax. This will disappear when the painting is “reheated” and can also be removed by a light touch from a warm finger.
In 2005 and 2006, I made a series of encaustic paintings that are linear abstractions of trees seen close-up. They are entitled Tree Glyphs because the lines are grooves in layered surfaces, “carved” by heat, and because the imagery is a distilled essence, like a pictograph.
I made digital photographs trees and then translated a selected image from my laptop computer into a line image and transfered it to a panel using transfer paper and drawing on Japanese paper. Then I made a representational oil or pastel painting and covered it with two separate differently colored layers of hot-wax encaustic.
The original drawing was placed on the painting in the same orientation and the lines were traced with the heated tip of a soldering gun or wood-burning tool. The underlayer of encaustic rose to the surface making graphic-looking lines in paint and the encaustic also transfered to the paper.