Bees, Sticky Trees, and Blowtorches: Encaustic Painting Enthralls Missouri Artists

“There’s a translucency, a mysterious aspect to the final product I cannot achieve with any other medium.” “An unequaled sense of physical depth and distance in time.” “One of the most beautiful paints on the planet.”

Julie Snidle, Laura Skroska, and Robin VanHoozer are in love with hot wax.

These three Missourians—from St. Louis, Florissant, and St. Joseph respectively—are among a small but growing number of artists in our state devoted to the uniquely luminous, flexible, and forgiving medium that is encaustic paint.

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In its simplest form, encaustic paint is melted wax with added pigment. The artist brushes the hot paint onto a porous surface like a wooden board, then adds more wax layer by layer, reheating each layer to fuse it to the one below it. Within this basic framework, “the variations are amazing,” says St. Louis artist Sheri Goldsmith. “There’s so much you can do with it…there’s endless possibility.”

“Especially in the last 10 years, there’s been an explosion with encaustic,” said O’Fallon artist Lisa Sisley-Blinn. “More than 5,000 artists across the U.S. are now using encaustic as their primary medium. Joanne Mattera, who in 2001 wrote

the very first comprehensive book about contemporary encaustic artists, has said that encaustic is probably the biggest movement in fine art since the Impressionists.”

From caulking warships to easing the afterlife

Though its current flare-up of popularity is recent, encaustic technique goes back 2,500 years.

Starting around the fifth century B.C., encaustic was one of the favorite mediums of the Greek and Roman world. When the Roman historian Pliny the Elder made a list of notable encaustic painters for his Natural History A.D. 77-79, he included Greek artists from 600 years before his own time. Pliny called painting with wax “encaustica,” and he quoted the Greek word from which the Latin sprang, ἐνέχαεν, which means “burnt in.” He linked encaustic’s beginnings to shipwrights who would paint the sides of their wooden warships with wax to help make the ships watertight.

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Written by Barbara MacRobie, public information coordinator for the Missouri Arts Council

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