June 19, 2007

Ahead Of The Wax Surge

2000 - Whitestaff -18x18 - Encaustic

I've never seen so many encaustic artists in my life! No, I didn't go to the recent First National Encaustic Conference but wax artists are blogging about it all over the 'net. Where were all these artists and resources when I needed them back in 1998? If I sound a tad jealous, believe me, I am! In my corner of the world there was no one who had a clue as to what I was trying to do. I was alone with my heat and passion... and my many, many questions.

I'm trying to think what spurred me on to investigate and self learn a medium as old as time, which had reappeared here and there through art history and now a few seemed to see the potential as it began reestablishing itself. I think I was heavy into Jasper Johns' work at the time, that had to be part of my interest. And I discovered (in real life) the fabulous encaustic artist, Mark Perlman who's surfaces made my heart flip. And yes, when no one was looking, I would touch them. I was hooked! BTW at that time his work, always very large, had much less color and pattern, the minimal black scratches on white were my weakness, and what I tried to emulate in my own way.

I found a few forums on the 'net where info could be gathered... R&F was making headway as a leading resource of info and supplies, even holding annual shows with terrific catalogs. An encaustic surge had begun in NY and Calif, but not where I could benefit, not in NOLA. Yet, without a doubt, I was still way ahead of the current wave of hot wax passion. Joanne Mattera was gathering material for her timely and influential book, (I sent slides and she noted that my work made it to the last cut.) Looking for a community to hash over the process, I created a Yahoo list for encaustic artists (the only one at the time, now defunct) and met a few others willing to share info in hopes of learning more.


When we added a studio over our garage (still near NOLA at the time) and included a corner devoted to working in wax, complete with exhaust fan. I developed several series in a style that became very labor intensive, but the surfaces were fantastic. My galleries were a bit shy of the medium, having little or no experience with it and afraid of it's vulnerability. My local gallery did gave it good space and people were beginning to appreciate and collect it when the gallery closed, we moved and I pretty much gave up the process.

'Labor intensive' in this case meant physically scraping away hardened wax with a razor blade to reveal the colors beneath. Scoring and filling lines, then scraping again... many repetitions as layers upon layers developed and a rich patina was achieved. I loved everything about it from the warm honey smell to the revelations that sent waves of wonder through me. There's no way this sensory depth can be transfered digitally. I couldn't keep my hands off the surfaces, would often buff to a hardened gloss which, years later, still creates a faint wafting of aromatic beeswax.

I used no damar, no additions other than a bit of carnuba wax for hardening and powdered dry pigment for color, eschewing ready-made crayons and implements designed just for the process. Our old buffet hot plates kept cat food tins of mixed wax ready and a crock pot melted the big blocks of wax. Most tools needed could be found in the kitchen, but I kept an eye out for anything that might serve a carving or scraping purpose. I never needed a whole catalog of 'artist's equipment' in my studio, for this medium or any other. Creativity extends well beyond the surface of the painting... or should, IMHO.

Even so, once we moved and my next studio didn't have the same exhaust system... I could tell things weren't the same. I aborted the process after a few tries... just couldn't get into the swing of it again... and my hands were now prickling at the thought of hours of scraping... so just as encaustics began getting quality respect from artists, galleries and collectors, I quit.

But it's not over... I haven't given up beeswax for good. There will be a renewal of the process, I feel sure. I have images in my head that must be done with wax... just waiting for the right time. It's good to review where I've been and what I've done to better picture the next step. I have the gear and the motivation... I need the time to focus, to learn again. Maybe when the weather cools and I can move to the deck just outside my studio... yeah, that would work!

8 comments:

Tracy said...

Great post about your history with beeswax. I never even heard of the medium when I was in college. Although there was a girl, a painting major, who used to melt wax on the stove in the middle of the night and I suppose she did some kind of painting with it. I never saw her work though, she scared me a little!

Anyway, I love encaustics and it is on my list of things to do one one of these days.

Deanna said...

I love the way you describe the process. Makes me want to go to the studio!

Joe said...

I believe that piece along with it's partner is currently garnishing a red brick wall in my living room. Ah, the texture!

Daphne said...

Back in 1992, when I was in university my boyfriend, who was in fine arts began working with encaustic.

He liked doing portraits (how Roman!), and you're right the smell of the wax was beautiful.

I had all but forgotten about that medium until last year when I saw a series of encaustic work in a commercial gallery here.

Now it seems to be everywhere. I think part of it's resurgence is due to the fact that the art community as a whole isn't caught up in the kind of snobbery about what materials are better than others (oil vs. arcrylic for instance).

KJ said...

Tracy, I'd love to see what you'd do with wax... especially with your color palette!

Deanna, I'm loving the way you and the others are making the most of this medium... long overdue!

Joe... go buff your collection. Any one of your old tee shirts will do ;-)

Daphne, your boyfriend wouldn't have been Tony Scherman, would it? HUGE fantastic encaustic portraits. See at: tonyscherman.com

Cyndy Goldman said...

Hi Karen!
thanks for stopping by to visit my Throwing Wax post. I loved reading about your history with wax. It reminds me of how I studied and read Joanne Mattera's book for an entire year trying to grasp how to go about creating my setup and ventilation not to mention painting in wax! I too had my nose up against an encaustic painting at a show and gently touched it when no one was looking while at Art LA -- falling in love with the glass surface of Joe Goldberg's work! That did it!!! I'll be back to see you waxing again.

KJ said...

Cyndy, thanks for mentioning Goldberg's name, I googled and discovered a new fav. Love minimalism, so hard to pull off but oh, the reward!

Daphne said...

No, hah! Tony Scherman wasn't the boyfriend. Imagine how much I could have learned from him...