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  • Writer's pictureEleanor Crook

A new but ancient wax paint - and it mixes with water!

The wall paintings of Ancient Greece and Rome were long a puzzle. Neither fresco nor oil paint, they were made with coloured wax, which by every reckoning has to be applied hot in small dabs, setting as it cools. This is "encaustic " painting, mixing beeswax over heat with pigments and applying it right from the stove or hot pot. But when you look at, say, a Pompeiian wall painting or one of the elaborate decorations from the Domus Aurea of Nero in Rome, you see huge areas of colour blocked in, painted in layers, with a rather three dimensional brush stroke.

Even froth and splashes can be discerned, hardly a texture you get with small blocks of coloured wax melted on a heated tray. Nor did the ancients have access to blowtorches or heat guns to get a whole area warm at a time. Famous names tried to work out the puzzle during the Renaissance, to no avail and indeed Leonardo da Vinci himself had a famous fail in his attempt to produce a horse battle on a large scale in the antique method.

In fact the secret was not cracked until 1962 in the research of Jose Cuní of Madrid (1924 - 2021)

who worked out that if you mix pigment and beeswax with a potassium based soap you get a wax emulsion that is soluble in water, can be applied cold, used in a gestural painterly way and requires no heating equipment whatsoever. Much close observation of ancient paintings and chemical analysis led to this breakthrough and he excitedly revealed the rediscovery to what he assumed would be a fascinated public of Classicists and art historians. He was met with indifference at best, and scepticism, and returned disappointed to his own fine art.

It was his children who picked up the baton, demonstrated the truth of the research and put it into production, and now the product is available in tubes and tubs for us to experiment with in a range of ancient and modern colours. You can use it on a wide range of supports and surfaces, it is flexible when cured and dry so can be rolled on a canvas, and although its surface is a little softer when dry than perfectly dry oil paint, it is vivid, satin and luminous. I've been running some tests and experiments with it, out of interest as it falls into the wax family of art materials, and while I have much practice to do before I produce a resolved artwork with it, the initial results have been exciting. It shares qualities of both watercolour, ink painting and oil painting, can be translucent and opaque, applied thick or impasto. They sell a pot of the water soluble encaustic medium so you can use it with your own pigment powders too. It really is its own material, with its own sensual qualities, easy to clean up and powerfully pigmented. I can only suggest, if you are curious, that you try some, and it's available direct from the Cuní family at this link.

As for using it to colour wax sculptures, time will tell - the water soluble aspect of it makes me think no, but actually applied neat it has a texture not unlike very thick matte oil paint, so ...when I try it, I'll report! Here is an unfinished sketch I was working on ,

This started as an image based on a heart surgery photograph in the public domain but I hijacked it to be an apocalyptic landscape...must have been the influence of the heatwave. All great respect and gratitude to Jose Cuní for his hard work, dedication and rediscovery - and exasperation at an academic world that failed to see the import of his work! Watch a film about his work here

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