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Zharov, Andrei

Andrei Zharov: The technique of wax tempera in the modern practice of icon painting

by Andrei Zharov

Encaustic is a painting technique which uses beeswax as the binder for dry pigments. Early Christian icons and Fayum portraits were created using various techniques of wax painting. Restoration studies evidence that the wax binder of natural pigments could include not only wax, but also oils, resins and animal glue. The application of wax colors could be made in hot or cold conditions.

Among the various methods of using the wax as a binder for icon painting, there is a wax tempera (so called ‘cold encaustic’). A description of such a technology can be found in Herminia of Dionysius of Furna, compiled in the beginning of the 18th century by the Athonite monk Dionysius. In the 36th chapter Dionysius described one of the recipes of wax binder used in painting since the time of early antiquity.

The essence of this method consists in saponification (hydrolysis) of wax in water and then mixing the waxy soap with the glue. Applying this method in our icon painting practice for more than six years, we found the possibility of various modifications of this method.

As a glue component the best results are obtained by the use of gelatin or casein. As a wax component pure beeswax bleached in the sun can be used. These wax mediums are useful not only for painting icons, but also for wall painting on the lime-sand plaster, where wax forms a very strong waterproof compound with lime. The use of this technique is confirmed by scientific studies of Pompeian wall paintings, created with the saponified wax.

The absolute transparency of the binder is a considerable advantage of this technique because it does not alternate the white and blue colors that are very important in the composition of the color palette.

Wax tempera also have excellent adhesion properties to any surface and their colors can be applied on wood, stone and metal without special preparation of the surface. This is especially useful in the creation of ornaments, halos or inscriptions on the gilding surface of an icon.

Perhaps the most important advantage of wax technology is the finish coating of icons. Icons written by wax compositions do not require coating with olifa, which is known to become very dark in 30 - 50 years. Icons created in the technique of encaustic can be covered with resin varnish, as well as the wax oil mixture called ‘ganosis’. The properties of the paint layer in the wax technique make it possible to apply a varnish coating with a very thin and even layer, which is hard to achieve with the egg tempera.

Modern scientific research proves that the wax mediums and ‘ganosis’ form a protective filter for ultraviolet rays and retain coloration even for unstable pigments. This is also confirmed by our own experiments in using wax techniques.

Thre is much demand for the icons created in encaustic technique by Pavel and Andrei Zharov's workshop, because this early Christian artistic tradition is still the basis of icon painting. The technique of encaustic expands the usual range of artistic techniques and helps to achieve wholeness and a special artistic expressiveness. That is why the encaustic opens up new ways for modern icon painting.


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