Thursday, January 23, 2003

Encaustic Painting and the Fayum Portraits

Last night I received a beautifully illustrated book "The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces From Ancient Egypt" by EUPHROSYNE DOXIADIS. I've been fascinated by Fayum portraits ever since I saw one at the "Splendors of Ancient Egypt " exhibit ( several years ago. I particularly liked the portrait of Aline, daughter of Herodas, an example of the tempera technique. I also liked a male portrait with an oil-paint texture that the author suggests indicated the wax was applied cold as in the Punic wax technique.

"Pliny and Dioscorides, both men of Ancient history, give very similar recipes for Punic Wax. They told of a process where beeswax is boiled in salt sea water then strained through cheese cloth to remove impurities. This was done several times. They then decreed that the wax be left in sun or moonlight for several days to better bleach it. After this the wax needed to be saponified (made soap-like) by adding sodium hydrogen carbonate (Sodium Bicarbonate). This was mixed together and then later, drained again through cheesecloth, rinsed in lukewarm water and finally air dried. It would then probably have been tempered for painting by mixing with other naturally available ingredients:

oil to improve and help keep it fluid (perhaps linseed)
egg yolk to improve adhesion to the support and add resilience to the wax making it slightly harder.

These components when combined into a medium and mixed with pigment certainly produce a workable paint that enables results of very similar visual character to those found in Ancient Roman Egypt. "

One of the most beautiful portraits, an Antonine woman, was produced using the more typical encaustic hot wax technique.

"The wax would be heated and once molten the pigments might have been blended into a volume of wax and applied to the wood surface by brush. For finer colouring or smaller quantities it might have been more practical to dip a brush into some molten wax then blend this on a heated palette surface with small amounts of pigment, perhaps laid out in bowls so that the brush tip could just be dipped in to collect the right amount of the powder. For many portraits, the main body of colour was applied using the brushes and then afterwards tooled with special hot or cold instruments to form greater blending, texturing and variety of thickness:

Cautarium - probably a type of metal palette knife that could be used heated to blend the wax colours
Cestrum - a small needle like pointed item that may have been used to draw into the wax cold or perhaps it was heated. It may also have been used more directly in the molten wax.
Pencillium - brushes used to apply most of the wax colour and backgrounds in the portraits. "