Author Archives: Pat Preble

Ancient Painting Methods

reproduction of Fayum portrait

“The Bejeweled Lady of Fayum”
watercolor encaustic
7″ x 3:”

Encaustic is an ancient medium that has been undergoing a modern revival.  This site presents experiments that are based on concepts and methods  archeologists and museum curators theorize to have been used by ancient painters.

The body of paintings known as the Fayum mummy portraits are still undergoing scientific analysis.  It appears that some of them were painted with some kind of under painting and then a wax overlay.  Was the under painting watercolor?  Was it tempera?  Was it casein?

Recently quite a bit of scientific research has taken place and perhaps with the results of scientific analyses of the ancient paintings that have survived, using several different techniques, we may actually learn the definitive ingredients that made up the ancient painting medium known as encaustic.

For the present, we do not know for certain what materials the ancients used in their paintings. But that does not mean we cannot experiment and test the viability of theories.  My adventure with the ancient quest began after one such experiment carried out by an art historian in my studio 35 years ago.  He set up my encaustic materials exactly as then current theory held that the ancients had painted.  The result was a dismal failure.  There was a serious technical problem of applying hot wax to a cold surface.  The wax hardened on contact and left daubs of color.  Certainly nothing that looked like a painting.  It was pretty, but it was not ancient.

The Greeks were reputed to have been able to paint so realistically with wax that a viewer sometimes could not tell the difference between a painting and reality.  That got my curiosity even more aroused and for 35 years I have carried out experiments to see if I could discover how to use the medium in a realistic manner.  The desire for greater realism in my encaustic paintings lead to the discovery of a method for doing the water color under painting with encaustic overlay process.

Cherry Tree in bloom in Golden Gate Park

The Early Riser — Watercolor Encaustic — 12″ x 16″

The Early Riser Cherry Tree pictured here is a work in progress using this method.  And, although the book is not ancient, I have also been reading a very fine reference book on Leonardo D’Vinci’s ideas and methods for painting that was edited by Prof. Martin Kemp, titled “Leonardo, On Painting”.  and using those ideas in the painting of the cherry tree.  The painting is a bit of a hybrid being painted with an ancient technique, utilizing ideas from the Italian Renaissance and looking a bit like an impressionist painting.  It is quite a fun adventure!

Whether you are an historian, an artist, or simply one of my fellow very curious minded folks who just like to know how things work, I hope this site will be of use to you.

Pat Preble

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