Encaustic is a painting technique in which the binder for dry pigments is beeswax.
Early Christian icons and Fayum portraits were created using various techniques of wax painting. The restoration studies evidence that waxy binder of the natural pigments could include not only wax, but also oils, resins and animal glue. The applying of wax colors could be make in hot or cold condition.
Among the various methods of using the wax as a binder for icon writing, there is a wax tempera (so called – Cold encaustic). A description of such a technology can be found in “Herminia of Dionysius of Furna”, compiled in the beginning of the XVIII century by athonite monk Dionysius. In the 36th chapter Dionysius describe one of the recipes of wax binder used in painting since the time of early antiquity.
The essence of this method consists in saponification (hydrolysis) of wax in water with potash and than connecting the waxy soap with the glue. Applying this method in our icon writing practice for more than six years, we came to the conclusion about the possibility of various modifications of this method.
As the glue component, the best results are obtained by the use of gelatin or casein. As the wax component can be used Punic wax or pure beeswax bleached in the sun. These wax mediums are useful not only for writing icons, but also for wall writing on the lime-sand plaster, were wax forms a very strong waterproof compound with lime. Using of such technique is confirmed by scientific studies of Pompeian wall paintings, created with the saponified wax.
The absolute transparency of the binder is a considerable advantage of this technique because it does not alternate the white and blue colors, which is very important in the composition of the color palette.
Wax tempera also have excellent adhesion to any surface, colors can be applied on wood, stone and metal without special preparation of the surface. This is especially useful in creation of ornaments, halos, inscriptions, on the gilding surface of icon.
Perhaps the most important advantage of wax technology is the finish coating of icon. Icons written by wax compositions do not require coating with olifa, which is known to become very dark in 30-50 years. Icons created in the technique of encaustic can be covered with resin varnish, as well as wax-oil composition called “Ganosis”.
The properties of the paint layer in the wax technique make it possible to apply a varnish coating with the very thin and even layer, which is hard to achieve in the egg tempera.
Modern scientific research proves that the wax mediums and “Ganosis” form a protective filter for ultraviolet rays and retain coloration even for unstable pigments. This was also confirmed by our experiments in using wax techniques.
Experience in creating icons in encaustic technique by Pavel and Andrei Zharov’s workshop is the demand of today, because the early Christian artistic tradition is still the basis of icon writing. The technique of encaustic expands the usual range of artistic techniques, helps to achieve wholeness and special artistic expressiveness of the image. That is why, the encaustic opens up new ways for Modern Icon-Writing.
Author: Andrei Zharov (icon writing workshop)