Waxes

Waxes are a class of materials that can be of animal, vegetable, or mineral origin. For artistic purposes, the most important one historically has been beeswax. Chemically, beeswax contains some free fatty acids, hydro carbons (compounds consisting only of carbon and hydrogen), and esters formed from alcohols and fatty acids. Beeswax can be dissolved in organic solvents such as turpentine, and it can also be easily melted. While wax was known in ancient Egypt, and may have been used as a binding medium, the major use of this medium in antiquity occurred in Greek and Roman times. While no examples remain, there are descriptions pointing to the importance of the wax medium, which is usually known as "encaustic," derived from the Latin for "burned in." Since it is doubtful that suitable solvents for wax were known in ancient times, wax paintings were probably done by melting the wax/pigment mixtures and applying them with a heated metal tool or brushes to panels, which were also probably heated.

The earliest surviving wax paintings are a large group of portraits done in the Fayum region of Egypt, around the second century b.c. to the second century a.d. These paintings probably reflect Greek and Roman practice, not a native Egyptian tradition (Figure 3.9).

Other waxes, some quite different in composition from beeswax, have been used in sculptures and for other purposes, but beeswax has been the only wax of importance in the history of painting.

In the nineteenth century there was renewed interest in painting techniques of antiquity. That wax had been a common binder in paintings of classical times was known, and a number of artists began to experiment with the material. Some artists

Fig. 3.9. Portrait of a Man, Graeco-Roman (the Fayum). Painted wood.

Many paintings carried out during the Roman period in Egypt were done with the "encaustic" or wax medium. The wax used was beeswax, which may have been heated in an alkaline solution, which would have chemically broken down some of the compounds found in the pure natural material. In order to be used, the wax colors had to be melted. They could then be quickly applied with a brush, and reworked locally on the panel with heated metal tools. Gift of Egypt Exploration Fund. (Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Fig. 3.10. Arthur Garfield Dove. Square on the Pond, 1942. U.S., 1880-1946. Wax-based paint on canvas.

Many paintings from the later part of this American artist's career, such as this one, were done with a mixed medium that contained wax as well as drying oil, and possibly smaller amounts of other binders (such as resins and proteins). To make his medium, Dove heated beeswax in an alkaline solution until it formed a creamy emulsion, which was then mixed with some oil. Gift of the William H. and Saundra B. Lane and Henry H. and Zoe Oliver Sherman Fund, M. Theresa B. Hopkins Fund, Seth K. Sweetser Fund, Robert Jordan Fund and Museum Purchase. (Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Fig. 3.10. Arthur Garfield Dove. Square on the Pond, 1942. U.S., 1880-1946. Wax-based paint on canvas.

Many paintings from the later part of this American artist's career, such as this one, were done with a mixed medium that contained wax as well as drying oil, and possibly smaller amounts of other binders (such as resins and proteins). To make his medium, Dove heated beeswax in an alkaline solution until it formed a creamy emulsion, which was then mixed with some oil. Gift of the William H. and Saundra B. Lane and Henry H. and Zoe Oliver Sherman Fund, M. Theresa B. Hopkins Fund, Seth K. Sweetser Fund, Robert Jordan Fund and Museum Purchase. (Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

used unusual combinations of materials, such as oils, waxes, and resins. One example was Arthur Dove, an early twentieth-century American abstract painter, who experimented extensively with wax (Figure 3.10).

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