project – encaustic on framed mirrors

so i found a bunch of ikea mirrors that somebody was tired of and carefully left atop the trashcan lid for someone just like me to come and collect for art supplies.  and they sat in my art supply stash for a minute, but then i had to go to a family thing far far away, and needed a bunch of presents.  being all out of silk scarves (and (american) guys are too cool to wear scarves), i quickly resorted to a short series of nine 10″square framed mirrors.  they’re 4″ mirrors surrounded by 4″ flat frame, just wide stretchers, really.  they were painted dark gray, and had a screw-eye in the middle to hang it from a nail.  cheap and dirty.  but wait.


the last time i did an encaustic painting was about six months ago, at the beach, absently while other stuff happened.  and i left all my wax in individual cups or on the insides of those wind glasses and upturned cups you can see on the palette.  so the first thing i had to do was organize and revitalize my dried-up wax.


this is all beeswax and pigment with orange oil solvent, and these are all my old bits of wax that are beach colored, mostly.  i’ve separated them into little plastic cups that came with baby applesauce.  i’ve also added lots of orange solvent – oh maybe 3 or 4 palette knife blades full, so maybe 10 drops, and basically covered the cups with the glass at first, and then turned the cups upside down on the glass as the wax softened and adhered better.

i explain it other places, but basically i’m a big fan of orange oil solvent.  it’s my only studio solvent, i clean my oil brushes with it, and use it as a perfect alternative to turpentine (toxic to breathe) or mineral spirits (toxic petroleum product) because it’s mainly nontoxic, and you only really have to worry about ventilation, as you would for any strong odor.

in the case of encaustic, i’m making a cold wax preparation, meaning i’m working with wax that is spreadable with palette knives or brushes, depending on how thin a paint i make of it.  i never have to deal with applying molten wax or keeping everything cooking on hot plates.  i can work with my fingers.


now it’s been a few days of soaking in orange oil, and i’m going thru each pot of color and working orange oil into it until it is nice and buttery.  i’m cutting the still resistant orange wax into small dices in this picture.  the open jar of clear liquid right behind the cups is my orange oil, which i capped right after i took the picture because it’s extremely volatile and i don’t want to waste it.


this is a little bit further on, and with another pigment, but never mind.  after dicing, i mix in more orange oil, which you can see gleaming just beyond the cut wax.  i’m cutting the solvent into the wax, in fact, with the side of the knife, making it ever smaller.


and then i’m mixing in more orange oil, and using the flat of the knife to mush the wax smooth.  it gets buttery.  the lump of multicolored wax is very hard, will break into individual colors, and get treated the same.


my wrists and fingers hurt after doing all this.  but all this wax is now re(not)hydrated, and is like stiff butter, ready to be applied.

so, the first thing to do is to slap some paint down on the mirror and burn it in.  for this operation i would normally use a grow light bulb (for its easiness on my eyes) or an infrared lamp (same), but i’m in a hurry and have nine squares.  my next bet would be a high-intensity floodlight, which is much hotter, so much quicker.  but i’ve just gotten myself a new heat gun, so i’m going to use the lowest setting to melt the wax.  this is why it’s called encaustic.  no matter how the wax gets onto the surface, it has to be fused, melted, with some heat source, or it’ll crack and fall off, just like the runs on a candle will crack and fall off, because the molecules of the wax have to become one before it will hold together reliably.  it’s a kind of mystical thing, like making bread.  that’s why i love encaustic.


here’s a little dab of a few colors, slathered right on to the glass with a palette knife.


and here’s partway thru the fusing with a heat gun, which you can just see the nozzle to the top right.  white always takes longest to melt, because it’s reflective, while dark colors are the first ones to melt.  so the order in which you fuse your colors will make a difference to the kind of result you’ll get.  if you melt the white first and then the darks later, you get fewer runs and mixes.  if you melt the dark colors first and then the lighter ones, then you can burn out the dark colors, which is bad, and leave incompletely fused lumps of the whites, which will then have to cure (when the orange oil evaporates off and the wax hardens).


and this was my result.  very nice, dramatic, even.  reminiscent of the ocean in a storm.

however, now i’m going to switch to one of the squares that i actually have pictures of all the way thru.


it was mostly orange, which was probably cadmium orange, with a dab of cadmium yellow to the lower right, and probably quinacridone gold on top.  it got really thin ot the upper right, and you can see bare mirror all around, and in the eyelike holes in the middle.  this is fused, of course.


time to do the frame.  i took a light gray and smeared it on the bottom and top with my palette knife, then took the darkest color, purple, and put it in the middle.  this is raw wax.


and this is what it looked like once it was burned in.


then i took a liberal amount of white and smeared it over the whole frame.  it scumbled over the existing wax, leaving big gaps.


i burned that in, and then added a gunge layer around the edges, using my bottle of gunge wax collected over the years.  the gunge edge is still raw, but the white over the first layer is burned in.


i burned in the gunge edge, and then went back in with a white line to reinforce the white i’d put on earlier, as well as a line of orange, and a line of blue.  they are raw colors, while the gunge edge is burned in.


and sorry for the shaky picture, but everything is burned in now.


and here i added a layer of clear wax – just beeswax and orange oil – and rubbed it into all the nooks and crannies with my hand, to make sure there was no bare wood left.


and then i burned it in over all the other layers i had already burned in.

the difference between using a light bulb of whatever strength and using a heat gun or blowtorch, is that the airflow from the guns and torches will guaranteed move your wax around and around, while it is a much lesser problem using a lightbulb.  the wax will flow according to temperature gradients when it is molten, that and gravity.  but the light doesn’t push it around nearly as much as a hot stream of air will.  i prefer the light.

but there’s no denying the speed with which you can melt wax with a heat gun on the low setting.  i finished this entire project in about eight hours, and then i went to bed, because i was very exhausted, and on my feet the entire time.  i kind of forgot to eat and things like that, too, and then 4 hours later i had to get up and drive for 14 hours in the rain.  that’s another story.


so here’s the bare mirrors, with just the first experiment at the top left.


and here’re all the mirrors filled in with their first coat of wax.


and here is the first attempt at surface decoration on the frames.  in fact, almost none of this ended up being visible in the end.  you can see where i’m just putting white on the one on the top right.


i’ve put white on all of them and burned them in.  you’ll notice the squares don’t stay in the same place, but move around according to which one i am burning in at the time.  the cord was short.


here i’ve put the gunge layer around the edges, and burned that in.


and now i’m going back in with accent colors, and it doesn’t look like i’ve burned them in yet, but i might be right in the middle somewhere.


here they are all coated with clear wax.


and here’s the wax all burned in, and everything ready for finalization.  which i don’t have any pictures of.

to finish them, i stacked up everything with paper between the wax and the frame above, and put them into a plastic garbage bag (the smell was very intense), took the screw eyes and a set of carving tools along, and finished them right before i handed them out.  this consisted of figuring out which side was up, measuring center and inserting the screw eye, and carving my name and any remarques or figures into the mirror.  i would have cut back more wax in the mirror, for a nice depth, but my tools were for gouging, not planing, so i couldn’t get the precision and sweep i wanted.  that’s an experiment for another day.

the recipients all declared they loved them (especially the smell), even tho i had a dream where i was advised not to give them out because they were so inferior to the portraits i also gave at this gathering.  i was sure it was my brother who so advised me, but evidently i was dreaming.

and that’s probably the last project i’ll post for awhile.  i’m actually spending most of my time writing fiction these days, but always love coming back to the visual arts.

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