Rediscovery of the water-soluble encaustic

Beginnings

José Cuní began his research on encaustics during his studies at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Madrid, while working as an assistant of Ramón Stolz Viciano (1903-1958), professor of Painting Techniques and Wall Painting. Stolz was himself an excellent painter and muralist, and also a researcher who studied in depth the techniques of fresco and encaustic.

Cuní came to know the possibilities and limits of fresco, in virtual disuse since the 19th century, while working with Stolz in the execution of large wall paintings done in fresco. He also collaborated with his master in researching wax painting, Stolz’s passion.


Training in encaustics

Ramón Stolz had gathered a large library on encaustics. He examined the various reconstructions proposed by previous researchers and concluded that the formula used by Greco-Roman artists was different from any modern reconstructions. He developed several formulations based on waxes and organic solvents that he used in easel painting. Cuní assisted Stolz in this research, and was fascinated by the qualities of the beeswax as a painting material, as well as by the enigma of the original material used by ancient painters. His research on encaustic was reflected in his final project, a large-scale encaustic painting made with waxes, resins, and organic solvents, according to a procedure developed from the experiences of Stolz.

After finishing his studies in Fine Arts, Cuní combined the execution of fresco wall paintings with artistic practice in oil and tempera paint, etching, and ceramics. His experience with fresco led him to the conclusion that the execution features of Roman wall paintings did not correspond to fresco paintings. This thesis was backed up by the information provided by Greek and Roman texts on painting, which indicated that the most common technique in classical Antiquity both for mural and easel painting, was encaustic.


The solution

In 1961, Cuní obtained a scholarship from the Fundación Juan March to study in depth the technique of Pompeiian wall painting. Cuní made a careful study of the Roman wall paintings at Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabia, fully confirming his thesis that the Roman wall paintings were not done in fresco. The greasy and voluminous quality of the paintings reminded him of his own wax paintings.

In Naples he met the Italian chemist Selim Augusti and learned of his chemical studies on the mural paintings of Pompeii, as well as the insurmountable technical problems encountered when attempting to reconstruct the paint formulation. Cuní approached the problem from a different angle. He thought that if it any trace still survived of the Greco-Roman painting technique, the practitioner would be found among the traditional stucco workers in the Naples area.

He visited their workshops and learned the craft and use of their materials: limestone and siliceous aggregates, lime, waxes, soaps, and pigments, the same materials identified by Augusti in the Pompeiian wall paintings. In the Archaeological Museum of Naples, Cuní copied the Roman paintings in order to study their execution features, and to compare the original paintings against the results of the experimental studies carried out in his workshop.

In 1962, Cuní developed the formulation of the water-soluble encaustic based on beeswax and soap, confirming its outstanding quality and capacity to reproduce the execution features that characterize Roman wall paintings. Throughout that year he was fixing the proportions and materials necessary for formulation, laying the basis for the subsequent evolution of his own water-soluble encaustic paints.