Shop talk, answers to your FAQs, and a peek behind the scenes of an artist-run fine art gallery in Park Slope
by Amy Weil
When I was in art school, I was aware of only a couple of artists who were working with encaustic paint and I dismissed the medium as being overly restrictive and precious. I preferred oil painting because I could work large and create sweeping gestural brush strokes à la abstract expressionism. I always loved Jasper Johns’ iconic flag paintings—the way Johns applied the wax resonated with me, so I eventually decided to give encaustic a try. After producing a lot of bad paintings, I finally created some interesting abstract work and realized that with practice, the medium actually allowed me to be more open-ended and playful than oil painting.
Many people are confused about what encaustic wax is and assume it is the same wax used for crayons or candles. It is not. Encaustic medium is beeswax mixed with damar resin to which the artist can add pigments or use ready-made pigmented beeswax. The resin allows the beeswax to harden and become more durable. Historically, encaustic is an extremely resilient and stable medium for paintings. Second century Egyptian Coptic portraits, such as those displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are arresting in their freshness and color retention due to the use of encaustic wax.
Encaustic literally means “to burn into.” When heated, the wax becomes fluid and can be applied in many different ways depending upon one’s intentions. It can appear both transparent and opaque, and can be manipulated to create three-dimensional and even textural effects. If polished, the wax takes on an enamel-like surface. There are endless possibilities with this medium, although certain guidelines need to be followed. Each layer of wax that is applied on to a surface must be fused onto the previous layer using a hot heat? gun or a torch. I prefer the torch because it is faster and I have more control over the results.
The process is very intuitive and direct and is well suited to process-based abstraction. For me, the wax becomes a metaphor for skin, in that it is vulnerable but can be very tough at the same time. I often incise into the wax, which feels as if I am creating wounds, but when the wax is heated the scars often disappear and the surface is regenerated. I will build up layers of wax and simultaneously scrape away layers to reveal what is hidden beneath the surface. I also add collaged paper and allow the process to reveal those papers as they become embedded in wax and buried beneath the surface.
I have been painting with wax for over seven years now and the encaustic process continues to fascinate me. I am always discovering something new about the nature of wax and no matter how much I want a painting to go a certain way, the end result is always a surprise.