Friday, March 21, 2008
Over the last 20 years I have been asked about the encaustic medium. What is it? How do you use it? So here we go, I will attempt to explain this mysterious medium and how I came to use it.
Currently enjoying renewed interest among artists for its versatility and permanence, encaustic remains a mystery to many people. I have seen looks of bewilderment on the faces of people looking at my paintings. Even relatively art savvy collectors and other artists are largely clueless.
The term encaustic comes from the Greek, enkaustikos, which means to heat or burn in.
Wikipedia defines encaustic as, hot wax painting using heated beeswax to which colored pigments are added.
One of the oldest mediums, encaustic can be traced back to ancient Greek warships and funeral portraits in Egypt.
Jasper Johns pioneered modern era encaustic painting during the 1950's and 60's and many of his famous flag and target paintings were done in the wax based medium. When I first began experimenting with encaustic there was little information available other than the occasional reference to Johns. This was before the information age, before the internet, pre Wikipedia and Google.
In order to paint with encaustic, the wax must be heated to a liquid or semi liquid state to work with it, thus making it somewhat cumbersome and may help explain why it fell out of common use for so long. Modern tools such as hot plates, heat guns, irons etc. make working with encaustic much more practical.
I use the term paint somewhat loosely. Some artists do use the medium in a fairly straight forward method of painting with a brush or more often palette knife. The medium kept warm in muffn tins on a hot plate or some other similar way to keep the wax liquid.
Many contemporary artists, myself included apply the medium in a variety of untraditional ways, often experimental. The nature of encaustic allows the artist to become very physical in application.
The methods I have developed are unique and as far as I know I am the only artist using it quite the way I do. I will save my technique discussion for a future workshop or post.
Until recently, commercially manufactured paint was not available. Anyone wanting to work in encaustic had to pretty much make their own. Considering the lack of reference material available, you were left to your own experimentation.
I stumbled onto encaustic quite by chance. One summer day back around 1988 I was visiting the studio of my friend and mentor *George Welch. We sat discussing art over a cup of tea as we often did. I mentioned that I had been experimenting with melting crayons and some of the interesting things I was discovering. George immediately piped in with the term encaustic. That was the first time I had heard of it and that was the beginning of my now 20 year adventure with the medium.
It turns out George had crates full of encaustic bars and sticks in his basement that he had inherited from a friend who had made them back in the 1950's. He had saved them thinking that someday he would use them but decided that he would just as soon give them to me. George was a prolific artist. I helped him out with some of his framing needs and he gave me art work,and this time four crates of pigmented wax.
In 1992 I won " Best Work on Paper" at the Canastota Small Scale Show for "The Reach" a collage piece with encaustic as the primary medium. The work was also featured in "Hot Process", at the Manlius Library, an Associated Artist show with Enameling by George and Marcia Ferber. The whole show was dedicated to painting that required heat in the process. In 1994 I had my first gallery exhibition of encaustic paintings at the Roberta Wood Gallery in Dewitt, NY. The show was favorably reviewed by Sherry Chayatt, then art critic for the Post Standard.
I have continued to explore the medium off and on in the subsequent years and have had several gallery shows, participated in numerous group shows and been fortunate to win some awards for the work along the way.
I have been happy to see other artists jump into the medium. It’s always interesting to see what other artists are doing with encaustics. This past winter the Delevan Gallery in Syracuse featured a fabulous exhibition of encaustic paintings by Lew Graham.
There is no question that encaustic is being widely embraced by many contemporary artists. I believe, that aside from it’s inherent characteristics, versatility and permanence, the fact that it is now commercially available, and that there is reference material out there, explains in my view the recent surge in popularity of this obscure medium.
To learn more about encaustic, I recommend, The Art of Encaustic Painting, contemporary expression in the ancient medium of pigmented wax, by Joanne Mattera. This is the first book I am aware of dedicated to the medium.