Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Exploring the Encaustic Technique

By Susan Foss

My first experience working with encaustics came in the winter of 1999. Intrigued by what I had heard from acquaintances, I enrolled in a workshop given by R&F Handmade Paints in Kingston, NY. Although the materials themselves were not new to me, the combination and technique was. I have always enjoyed working sculpturally with wax, and using the lost wax process for casting silver jewelry, and was no stranger to pigment and collage. However, my initial impression of the technique was less than enthusiastic; encaustics seemed to require an incredible amount of work to get paint on a surface.

I persisted because I just loved the artwork I was seeing. Within a few sessions, I fell in love with the process as well. It is a multi-sensory experience that begins with the magical transformation which takes place as the hard cube of colored wax melts onto the surface of the heated palette. Excitement builds from the moment I dip my brush into the brilliantly colored liquid. the smell of the beeswax is heavenly and the finished piece maintains this scent. The lustrous surface of the finished work calls for you to touch it. It is tactile - smooth, bumpy, sculptural; a feeling not unlike that of human skin.

The encaustic process incorporates painting, sculpture, collage and printmaking, thus tying together many aspects of two and three-dimensional disciplines. Encaustic painting dates back as far as the Fayim portraits of the 1st and 2nd centuries, A.D. The word "encaustic" is derived from a Greek term meaning "to burn in". The primary encaustic painting method calls for molten wax mixed with pigment on a heated surface. The paint can then be applied to surfaces such as wood, clay, plaster, traditional gesso covered boards, paper coated wood, and so on. Traditionally, a heat source is then passed over the surface, which causes the colors to fuse to each other and create a bond.

One of the many joys of this technique is the way one can interact with the wax. At times, it seems to have a mind of its own. As the wax is being fused, it may drip or move in a way not intended by the artist. This creates an active relationship between the artist and the material. The material itself challenges you to work in the moment and be present to the medium and its properties. Will you scrape away or otherwise remove the unintended effect, or incorporate it and see where it wants to take you?

In order to produce fine lines in encaustic painting, a pointed tool is used to incise the wax. Oil paint can then be applied over the incisions and wiped down, giving the paint an etching-like quality. The wax can also be applied in thin glazes or built up to thick impasto layers. Because of the adhesive qualities of the wax, it is an excellent method for collage. Paper, string, fabric, dried leaves or petals, and many other objects can be dipped in the encaustic paint and fused to the painting. Drawings can also be enhanced by the application of a thin, clear or subtly tinted encaustic layer. The drawing remains visible, with just a hint of dimension and color added.

Having been an artist all my life, I have found it very exciting to work with a new medium. One that incorporates the techniques I have traditionally used to express myself through my art. Encaustic painting enhances that expression in a unique and engaging way and the work I have done since has reflected the broadened approach to painting that my work with encaustics has made possible.


becky n said...

I enjoyed this very much, Sue. And I loved the paintings you used to illustrate some of the outcomes! The incomplete control reminds me of some of my experience with egg tempera - it is something that makes me feel a little apprehensive at times, but also provides some wonderful surprises.

pinksnakejewelry said...

I would LOVE to try this myself!!!! Great article and beautiful works to illustrate the process.

Sue Foss said...

Thank you both! I love working with the wax...pinksnake you should try it, R&F has a mini workshop once a month on a Saturday, and it's only about $40 including the supplies! Best art deal in town.

Amy said...

R&F is so great! I've been there several times with painting classes over the years. Their colors are so lush and beautiful, I nearly want to eat them! Lovely article, Sue!

JoAnne Ruggeri said...

Sooozeee! Great article. I agree with so much of what you say about the seductiveness of encaustic. Such a wonderful medium to work with, especially if you have a lust for visceral and tactile surfaces.