Encaustic paint consists of pigments mixed with beeswax and applied while the wax is molten, a technique first used in antiquity. In Greco-Roman times, encaustic artists painted marble sculpture and architecture in a riot of brilliant colors. In ancient Egypt, the “Fayum” portraits, haunting likenesses of the deceased, covered the faces of mummies.
Partly because encaustics is so labor-intensive (coals had to be kept raging hot in order to melt the wax), it gradually lost prominence. Other techniques, first egg tempera, and then in the 15th century, oil paints, superseded it.
In the centuries that followed, encaustics remained fairly esoteric. However, in the second half of the 20th century, a few artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg, began to experiment with it. They were drawn by the expressive potential of the medium, its magnificent translucencies and transparencies, and the depth and texture it can yield. During the last twenty years, the development of artist- grade paints, and innovations such as heated palettes and brushes, have sparked the biggest surge of interest in encaustics since ancient times.