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A Brief History of Encaustic Painting

The word is encaustic originates from the Ancient Greek “Enkaustikos”, which means “burning in”, and refers to the element of heat necessary to create the painting. It is beeswax and damar resin blended, and not at all about being “caustic” as some are wary of it for that reason.

The oldest surviving encaustic panel paintings are the Romano-Egyptian Fayum mummy portraits from Egypt around 100-300 AD!! It was a common technique in Ancient Greek and Roman painting. The method of using wax painting was also practiced by indigenous tribes in the Philippines, along with sgraffito methods, between the 1600 and 1800’s. They called it Kut-Kut.

Many artists through time used wax as one of the mediums they explored. Diego Rivera, Jean Charlot, and James Ensor, all experimented with encaustic. In the 20th century, painter Fritz Faiss (1905-1981), a student of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky at the Bauhaus, together with Dr. Hans Schmid, rediscovered the technique of encaustic painting, developing a way to make it stronger. Other well-known 20th-century artists explored the medium, including Jasper Johns, Tony Scherman, Mark Perlman, and many others.

Encaustic Art has been on a resurgence since the 1990’s! It’s not going out of style, that’s for sure, more and more people coming to it because of the intoxicating aroma and alchemy of the medium. With the use of electric hot plates, irons, and other heated styli, artists can work on a wide variety of surfaces; creating textures and layers that were unimaginable before, while also creating stability by adding the damar resin; and longevity, using stronger substrates to support the medium. Artists push the boundaries of what’s possible all the time; it’s what makes it exciting and new, even though its roots are from ancient times.

Caring for your Encaustic artwork

As with any piece of art, keep it out of direct sunlight, and never leave it in a hot car or trunk, should you need to move it. Under extreme temperatures encaustic may very well degrade; so it should be in a well-lit room, away from the direct hot sun. That said, it is otherwise very stable and with proper care should have no issues. Polish only with a soft cloth such as a microfiber (pair of panties, or nylons) or the padded part of your palm if the wax looks dull. That is a natural occurrence of the beeswax and damar resin, as these are products of nature, and will rise to the surface for the first year of “life” as a painting. After that time frame, it is good to keep it dusted just as you would other things in your home. Be careful not to scratch the surface.

Cyanotype: A brief summary

Cyanotype is an alternative form of photography, often termed Sun Prints, or Photograms, which were discovered by Sir John Herschel, an astronomer, chemist, and inventor in 1842, to create diagrams and notes known as blueprints.

The Cyanotype process was further explored by his colleague and friend, Anna Atkins, a botanist, who created the first illustrated books of cyanotypes of seaweed and botanicals. Her work is still in existence, so this is impressive and indicative of the lasting quality of Cyanotypes. While it is light sensitive, it can regenerate if found to be fading, by placing it in a dark space.

These cyan prints are created using ferric ammonium citrate, a light-sensitive iron salt, and potassium ferricyanide, a red-iron salt. The chemicals are combined and painted on the paper or fabric, layered with botanicals or a photo negative, and sandwiched between glass or acrylic sheets. Then, exposed to sunlight or a UV light box for some time and developed by washing as much of the solution off as will come off with gentle water baths.

The process of creating cyanotypes is quite magical as you’re able to watch it during every stage of development. It’s incredibly fun. Cyanotype chemicals are widely available and a worthwhile exploration.

Cyanotypes are best viewed in a well-lit room but not hung in direct sunlight. They are created using UV light and are not resistant to the effects of UV over time, so care should be taken with placement in a room. They are fine to be framed as any photographic work would be, matted, and placed in a frame with glass.

(Cyanotypes combined with mixed media such as Cold wax or Encaustic wax don’t need to be framed behind glass, because the natural materials need to breathe.)

I hope this gives you a hint of a start into the beautiful world of Cyanotype.

Care of Cyanotype on Silk:

My cyanotype printed scarves are 100% silk, and some are blended with wool. Both fibers are delicates and should only be hand-washed with mild detergent. Wrung in a towel and hung to dry. It is best to use the silk/wool setting with no steam if ironing.

Should you find any fading, the beautiful nature of cyanotypes is re-enhanced by placing them in a dark closet or drawer. Long-term exposure to sunlight will probably fade your scarf over time. Cyanotypes are a photographic process and that is why the fabric has a printed side and a non-printed side. One side is more vivid, which is natural for cyan works. Some fabric is 8mm, 12mm, or 19.5mm which is why some are more see-through than others. Those that are very thick make great wall hangings or table runners. Of course, they also make great shawls or scarves. Every design is unique, hand-created, as much an improvisation with nature as with the sun. I hope you enjoy your cyan-printed scarf for years to come.