The word encaustic originates from the Greek word enkaustikos which means to burn in, and this element of heat is necessary for a painting to be called encaustic.
This technique was notably used in the Fayum mummy portraits from Egypt around 100–300 AD, in the Blachernitissa and other early icons, as well as in many works of 20th-century North American artists, including Jasper Johns, Tony Scherman, Mark Perlman, and Fernando Leal Audirac. Kut-kut, a lost art of the Philippines, employs sgraffito and encaustic techniques. It was practiced by the indigenous tribe of Samar island around 1600 to 1800. Artists in the Mexican muralism movement, such as Diego Rivera and Jean Charlot sometimes used encaustic painting. The Belgian artist James Ensor also experimented with encaustic.
The wax encaustic painting technique was described by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder in his Natural History from the 1st Century AD. The oldest surviving encaustic panel paintings are the Romano-Egyptian Fayum mummy portraits from the 1st Century BC.
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 so-called “Punic wax” technique of encaustic painting. Faiss held two German patents related to the preparation of waxes for encaustic painting. One covered a method for treating beeswax so that its melting point was raised from 60 to 100 °C (140 to 212 °F). This occurred after boiling the wax in a solution of sea water and soda three successive times. The resulting harder wax is the same as the Punic wax referred to in ancient Greek writings on encaustic painting.
Encaustic art has seen a resurgence in popularity since the 1990s with people using electric irons, hotplates and heated styli on different surfaces including card, paper and even pottery. The iron makes producing a variety of artistic patterns easier. The medium is not limited to just simple designs; it can be used to create complex paintings, just as in other media such as oil and acrylic. Although technically difficult to master, attractions of this medium for contemporary artists are its dimensional quality and luminous color.
Diego Rivera, a memorable figure in 20th century art, actively painted during the 50 years from 1907 to 1957. Mexican by birth, Rivera spent a good portion of his adult life in Europe and the United States as well as in his home in Mexico City. Early in his career, he dabbled in Cubism and later embraced Post-Impressionism, but his unique style and perspective is immediately recognizable as his own. He was involved in the world of politics as a dedicated Marxist and joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922. He hosted Russian exile Leon Trotsky and his wife at his home in Mexico City in the 1930s. Lived in unsettled times and led a turbulent life, Diego Rivera, widely known for his Marxist leanings, along with Marxism Revolutionary Che Guevara and a small band of contemporary figures, has become a countercultural symbol of 20th century, and created a legacy in art that continue to inspire the imagination and mind.
Diego Rivera’s first government-commissioned mural, Creation was created over the course of a year and covers over a thousand square feet. It is an allegorical composition with mythological and religious motifs.The figures in the mural are over twelve feet high, which were in proportion to the huge pipe organ which surrounded the wall. At the top a symbol, which could represent the Divine Trinity with blessing hands.It also follows old Egyptian iconography of Aton, the symbol of the creative sun. At the bottom Eva and Adam. Over them on both sides the nine Muses. And on the next level the Christian Virtues: From the left: Love, Hope and Faith and on the right side: Prudence, Justice and Strength. In the sky Wisdom and Science.Everything is in classical renaissance style, where similar allegories are common. The figures are based on life models. Note that the picture does not have any political, ideological tendency. The painting technique is encaustic, which means that the pigments were applied suspended in molten wax. A complicated technique which the old Egyptians already knew.
Although it was widely popular, Rivera felt that the painting was too Italian in technique, and he did not like it. During the painting of the mural, Rivera felt compelled to carry a pistol with him at all times, to protect himself from the right-wing students.