Textile Art for Performances with Encaustic Applications


Assoc. Prof. Margaret C. Perivoliotis, BA, Dr.

Department of Interior Design, Technological Educational Institute (TEI), Athens, Greece.

e-mail: perivoliotis@teiath.gr


Barbara Toumazatou, educator.

Department of Interior Design, Technological Educational Institute (TEI), Athens, Greece.



The installation artworks are part of the research programme of Technological Educational Institute (TEI) of Athens, Greece “ATHENA 2004, Application of the Encaustic to Textiles for Theatrical Performances” and results of the experimentations of the research team on the application of the ancient Hellenic art, the encaustic, on textiles. The research question, addressed by the head of the research programme, was if the encaustic could be applied on fabrics, a question that has been answered by the here presented artworks, created for scenery applications to ancient Hellenic drama performances, and specifically for the ancient tragedy “Media” of Euripides.

Encaustic is a beeswax-based paint that is kept molten on a heated palette and then is applied to a surface. It can be polished, modelled, sculpted, textured, and combined with collage materials. It cools immediately, so that there is no drying time and it can always be reworked. The durability of encaustic is due to the fact that beeswax is impervious to moisture. Because of this it will not deteriorate, it will not yellow, and it will not darken. Encaustic paintings do not have to be varnished or protected by glass. Encaustic paint has no toxic fumes, nor does it require the use of solvents. As a result, a number of health hazards are reduced or eliminated.

Encaustic is an ancient technique of painting with pigments mixed in wax. The technique was used in Rome, Greece, and other countries around the Mediterranean littoral. The word encaustic comes from the Greek word “encaustikos”, meaning, "to burn in" and evidently it is a Hellenic technique. The encaustic technique is familiar to the Western world from the funerary portraits found in Fayum, Egypt, of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, painted by Greek painters of the time. A significant Greek population had settled in Egypt following its conquest by Alexander the Great, eventually adopting the local customs. This included mummifying their dead. A portrait of the deceased, painted either in the prime of life or after death, was placed over the person's mummy as a memorial. Many of these pieces have survived to our own time, and their colour has remained as fresh as any recently completed work. Greek artists practiced the encaustic painting much before the 5th century BC. Most of our knowledge of this early use comes from the Roman historian Pliny in the 1st century AD. He refers to encaustic paintings several hundred years old in the possession of Roman aristocrats of his own time. According to Pliny, encaustic was used in a variety of applications: the painting of portraits and scenes of mythology on panels, the colouring of marble and terra cotta, and work on ivory. Wax is an excellent preservative of materials. It was from this use that the art of encaustic painting developed.

Hercules was the one credited, by Philostratus the Elder, with bringing into use the encaustic method of painting a thousand years BC, but the Greeks new the qualities of beeswax much before the Minoan era. They used to apply coatings of wax and resin to weatherproof their ships from the 3rd millennium BC. Pigmenting the wax gave rise to the decorating of warships. Homer describes the wax painted ships of the Greek warriors who fought at Troy. The use of a rudimentary encaustic was therefore an ancient practice by the 5th and 4th centuries BC. In Antiquity, sculptures were coloured, just like the mosaics and wall paintings. The white marble we see today in the monuments of Greek Antiquity was once coloured, probably delicately tinted like the figures on the Alexander sarcophagus (Archaeological Museum of Istanbul). Famous Greek encaustic artists had painted many of the well-known status of antiquity. Pliny says that when the sculptor Praxiteles was asked which of his pieces he favoured, he answered those "to which - the painter - Nicias - had set his hand." Decorative terra cotta work on interiors was also painted with encaustic, a practice that was a forerunner to mosaic trim. Kore statues were thoroughly painted in ancient times in order to emphasize the life-likeness of the object by applying pigment in order to distinguish between surfaces (hair, flesh, eyes, cloth), and for ornate reasons, as was the case with the decorations painted on the garments. Black was used to create plasticity or illusions. The colour was applied to the surface of the stone by coloured pigment mixed with wax that was used as a bonding agent, and the mixture was applied to the sculpture after it was heated. In the great period of economic instability that followed the decline of the Roman Empire, encaustic fell into disuse all around Mediterranean. Some work, particularly the painting of icons, was carried on as late as the 12th century, but for the most part it became a lost art. The encaustic process was cumbersome and painstaking, and the cost of producing it was high.

Can the encaustic be applied on fabrics? Is the question that 20th century’s availability of portable electric heating implements and variety of tools has proved as possible. Images on wax-coated cards can easily be transferred onto fabric. The wax melts and is absorbed into the fabric, creating a reverse print of the original image. This simple process opened up all sorts of possibilities on natural fibres that will retain a reasonable version of the printed wax image and offered support to the present research work application and conclusions. For the presented here examples of the research work creations, beeswax with colour pigments was applied on natural silk, cotton and linen cloths that have been pre-treated with the tie-dye technique. The works were finished with hand painting. Combination of batik and encaustic, in layers of natural silk fabric (figure 1), is also part of the work, since batik is a sister art to the encaustic, implying the use of hot beeswax and colours. Natural colours, acrylics and beeswax have been all used. Wax and colour pigments were also used as ‘drawing pens’ for painting and finishing the work on the heavy cotton and linen fabrics. After the ironing and wax removing process, the so painted images became clear and resist. These simple processes have opened new possibilities to the aforementioned research, its conclusions and textile creations.

The presented here artworks (figures 1, 2, 3, 4) are inspired by Euripides Tragedy Media and the involved myth. Lines, colours and symbols are expressing the inner world of Media, presenting her feelings and emotions, describing the identity of the performance event and Media’s origin from the Black Sea littoral. The quality of the tragedy - the anger, the jealousy, the pain, the desire for revenge, are all identified by the bloody-red and black dominating hard lines and the colours of the costumes, (figure 2). For the outdoor scenery softer, earthy hues have been used, (figure 3, 4, 5), presenting the tranquillity of the nature, in total contrast to the feelings, thoughts and decisions of the bloody queen Media. Scenery made of lightweight fabrics is ideal for travelling theatre and open-space performances, types of entertainment that are still part of the Mediterranean culture and not only.




Figure 1. Part of the scenery, made of silk and cotton, painted with batik and encaustic


Figure 2. Example of the power that colours and lines have to express feelings and emotions as used for Media’s costumes, created by batik and encaustic art


Figures 3, 4, 5. Cotton, linen and silk fabrics, parts of the tragedy’s scenery