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Encaustic Painting

( Originally Published 1955 )

Probably the most important method of painting of the ancients, both on walls and on panels. The pigments were mixed with a refined beeswax binder, and were applied by means of heat. The writings of the ancients suggest that there were three methods: 1) panels of wood were painted by brush and by a heated cauterium, a spoonlike instrument for spreading the wax; 2) ivory and marble were painted by incising the design with a cestrum or burin and the color was laid on in heated wax; 3) wood, linen or marble could also be painted with a brush. There is evidence that the process originated in Egypt. No classical Greek examples survive; we first hear of it as a specialty of Pausias, a fourth-century B.C. pupil of Pamphilos of Sikyon. The Fayum mummy portraits (see) were painted in encaustic, facial details rendered by cauterium, the remainder by brush. Other extant examples are the grave stelae of Pagasae (third to second century B.C.). The process was referred to by Theophrastus and Dioscorides, and was described in detail by Pliny the Elder, who termed it too painstaking for mural work. The latest traditional instance we have of its use is a set of panels from Sinai of the ninth and tenth centuries A.D. In 1845 a complete encaustic painter's kit was discovered in a tomb at St. Medard-des-Pres. Modern painters such as Diego Rivera have revived the encaustic method: e.g., the latter's work in the Anfiteatro Bolivar in Mexico City, 1922.

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