The First Encaustic Paintings

Pliny the Elder

Pliny The Elder

The earliest references to encaustic painting are found in the works of Roman authors, including Pliny the Elder, Vitruvius (1st century BC) and Plutarch (c. AD 50–after 120). The most extensive references are in book XXV of Pliny’s Natural History. Pliny states that “We do not know who first invented the art of painting with wax colors and burning in the painting.”

He mentions several Greek artists active in the 4th century who can be credited with the earliest use of the medium and says that Pausias was the first well-known master in this style, having learned the process from Pamphilos, the master of Apelles. Pausias painted small pictures on wood, which he was able to execute very rapidly, probably owing to the speed with which the wax hardened as it cooled. In another section of the book XXV, Pliny indicated that there were three different methods of encaustic painting: “one with wax, the other further on ivory – by means of a centrum or a sharp point,” and the third, introduced when it became fashionable to paint ships of war, “of melting the wax by fire and using a brush.” This third method attests to the medium’s impermeability and permanence.

– from the Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art by Gerald W.R. Ward