The Touch of Wax
A pivotal moment came years ago when I spotted what seemed to be a large dark silhouette of a tree shining through a window-shaped opening in a South Beach hotel lobby. Like someone in an old movie looking across the room and falling recklessly in love, I was spellbound. It was a photographic art piece by Doug and Mike Starn. Its luminescent detail was something new−and the light passing through the tree was mesmerizing. “I think it’s wax,” said my all-knowing husband at my side. I wanted to know more.
History of Encaustic
Encaustic painting, or simply “encaustic,” is a technique that uses beeswax and damar resin as a medium to create paintings or mixed media photography. The “caustic” part of the term indicates that heat is used to melt and blend the layers of wax into a unified piece. The encaustic look is sensual and inviting; the warmth of its layers calls to be touched like soft skin or a treasured object beautifully encapsulated. Photographers often mix old and new technologies, working with classic chemical methods or digitally mimicking the look of historical prints. Working with encaustic, you travel down the history’s timeline, past photography’s birth and enter the dawn of painting and the decorative arts.
In ancient Greece, ship hulls were waterproofed with beeswax and tinted with brightly colored pigments. In 800 B.C., Homer writes of painted warships sailing into Troy. Hundreds of encaustic paintings exist in the form of the Fayum funerary portraits painted on wooden masks that adorned the deceased, leav- ing their realistic portrayal in pigmented wax. These nature-based materials from B.C. times are surprisingly consistent with those found in an encaustic workroom today.
Contemporary encaustic flaunts some well-known names such as Diego Rivera in Mexico working on murals in the 1920’s and Jasper Johns, beginning in 1954, using encaustic to paint intricate textures and layering in his iconic numbers and American flags.
Painters still comprise the largest group of encaustic practitioners and their methods do not always include imagery in a way that is helpful to photographers. The recent popularity of combining photography with wax has encouraged photographers to learn encaustic techniques utilizing archival materials, ensuring the permanence of an encaustic piece.