encaustic – refining the lines

today i actually got down to the studio.  my last ballpoint needle broke, so i couldn’t sew on the baby quilt upstairs, and my kid had the baby out with her for the afternoon (he’s old enough to open all the jars in the studio, and too young to  not open all the jars).

the only thing that isn’t pastel underpainting at this point is the surface of the microwave.  i’m following the general principle – get all your whites down first.  the rest, the unfixed pastel, is gradually coming up on my hands and forearms, which look all smoke-stained.  a little inconvenient.  perhaps that’s why they fix pastels.

the purplish part to the left is the first coat of white, over a basically shadow-purple underpainting of all the planes on the microwave.  the wax naturally picked up and mixed the pastel in when i put it on, and churned into it once i melted it in.  the layer i put on today is just another layer of mixed white – a bunch of beeswax, a bunch of orange oil to thin it to a buttery consistency, a bunch of titanium white dry pigment, and a palette knife.

i love painting with a palette knife.  i hate painting in wax with brushes.  i tried it tonight when i made the thin lines of the top edge, and the damned brush gummed right up and put down glops of wax.  it was awful.  i’d rather use my fingers.  as badly as i use a palette knife, it’s my only real option for laying down a line.  i just have to get good with a palette knife, which of course takes years, and here i am in only my second year of learning how to use this particular tool.  only my second year of learning how to paint with wax.

the layer i put on today went a long way toward evening out the appearance of the surface, especially after i smoothed it in with my fingers and burned it in with my heat lamp.  what i’m trying to do is to build up the white first, and then use a series of glazes to put shadows and contours into the white.  even tho the beeswax i’m using is the unfiltered kind with plenty of gunge in it, and very yellow, i mix enough white into it to make the color read as white.  a creamy white.  it doesn’t show well on camera, of course.  the beauty of encaustic painting is in seeing it up close, being able to smell it, to see into it, to peer closely at the wonderful things wax does when molten.

i went around with a ruler and made sure all four edges of the box were level, because if it’s only off a little bit, it’s grating.  jim, on the other hand, regularly makes his paintings way unlevel, and it’s dizzying.  but a little is just bad drawing.

then i tried taking a brush to put in the upper contours, but it gummed up and i put it aside.  it just couldn’t smear enough paint onto the surface to make any difference.  so i picked up my palette knife and put the lines in.  these got burned in rather lightly (because if you burn in white heavily, the whole thing liquifies and starts to find its way to the ocean).

and then my painting day was over.  my kid went off to work, jim made dinner, it got dark.  so maybe tomorrow.

encaustic – microwave w/apples

it’s been a few weeks since i was able to devote any attention to my painting.  i’ve been watching the grandson and everyone’s been sickish, so i’ve been distracted.  and then there’s the recent full moon, which was a very significant amount of change to deal with.

anyway, this is what i left last time, just the underpainting in pastel.  i didn’t bother fixing the pastel, because the first layer of wax will just pick it up.

i took a huge big dollop of wax that had been pre-softened with the addition of orange oil.  the oil is a solvent, and will dissolve the wax without heating it, but it’s a slow process.  i like to mix in enough orange oil to make a stiff but not unworkable paste – beeswax and orange oil – to which i add dry pigments.  in this case, i added a bunch of titanium white dry pigment, and worked it in with a little more orange oil.

and then i took my largest palette knife – i’d call it a palette trowel – and smeared white paint all over the microwave surface.  the knife only smeared the paint on, but it was sure faster than using a small palette knife.

the second stage had me smearing the paint more evenly using my fingers.  there’s nothing to replace fingers in this kind of painting.  you can easily tell, using your fingers, when the wax is evenly distributed, and there’s something so very satisfying about moving things around by hand.  you can’t do that with traditional encaustic (try smoothing molten wax with your fingers).

then i hit it with the heat lamp, and melted all the wax i’d just laid down.  this took some time.  it would be faster if i used a hotter heating method.  if i used a torch, say.  but i frankly don’t even like the high intensity flood lamps i started out using – even with sunglasses they blinded me for ten minutes afterwards.  i use a daylight spectrum bulb, which is a poor use of an expensive object, but it was all i had, so i used it.  but it heats up a several-square-inch area of wax in under two minutes.  the whole white area of the microwave probably took an hour to fuse, but time doesn’t run the same way when you’re doing art, so it’s really hard to tell.

so now i have the first layer of white, all burned in.  the paint picked up a good deal of the pigment underneath, but i don’t mind that, as it’s a first layer.  there will be many more layers.

i’m going to do the white microwave first, and then the yellow inside of the microwave, and then i’ll do the apples and cup, and then the background.  or so it seems right now.  tomorrow i’m going to even up the straight lines and make sure everything looks like the right shape in the right position.  it’ll be more white first, and i’ll figure out how to do the shadows as i go along.

encaustic – apples with microwave

i was heating up a cup of coffee the other day, and noticed that jim had put the apples up out of hte way of the grandson, who likes to take one bite of each and put them back.

they looked so old masterish, glowing in the gloom of the microwave alcove.  i just had to paint them.  and then there was the face of the microwave itself, which was crusted with stains.  i really liked the juxtaposition of the green apples in the inky darkness with the grime of the ‘table’ they were on.  old and new.  sublime and filthy.  it’s a metaphor.

so this is the first try at an underpainting.  i’m using pastels, and not bothering to fixt them because i’m just going to spread cold wax on the board.  it’s a masonite board, and it’s 30×40, a size i like to work with.  i didn’t want to make a small painting, i wanted more than lifesize so i could show all the grime.

when i looked at it upside down, i realized that the apples weren’t large enough, and the rotating cup was too big and out of position.  there are still some ellipse problems with the cup, but i’ll fix that.

the underpainting shows the tones i can see in the photo i took.  the various shades of red-purple and blue-purple are the shadows and contours of the microwave, rather than the actual colors.  the whole thing is white, of course, but if you look closely at white, you can see all the colors. 

this is good enough to start painting over, so i’m going to start with white.  i’m actually thinking ahead at this moment, because white is the hardest pigment to handle in encaustic – it has to heat up  much more than darker colors in order to fuse, which means that if you’ve already got darker colors on your painting, they’re going to run by the time you soften up the white.  you can solve this by masking, which works well, or by choosing what order you put the paints on.  in this case, i’m going for white everywhere white is, and then i’ll think about modifying the colors with shadows and things. 

i’ll do that next.

my year of art

i decided to collect all the art i worked on during 2009 into one post, so that you can see what i’ve been up to in between other things, mainly family, especially at this end of the year.  i thought i worked on some other art projects during the year, but i can’t remember them, and don’t have any photo documentation of them.  this doesn’t mean i didn’t do it.

some of the things i started and never got far on were my artist smock for my residency in the west of ireland that didn’t happen this year.  for more on that, see here.  there’s my mom’s quilt, made out of old clothes we used to wear.  i haven’t even finished ripping the seams out of all the fabric, so i’m nothing like properly started on it.  also, i should have been thru transplanting a whole bunch of dogwoods from around the neighborhood (i have permission, yes), and moving other things, and readying the place for next year (unlike the frozen north, i can dig in the ground all year round, and do most of my heavy gardening during the winter, yay).  and there’s the complete inventory of jim’s work(in the attic, in the basement studio, around the house, in friends’ houses) i can only do in the winter because of the temperatures in the attic starting around mid march.

anyway, this is what i accomplished last year:

koi, 9×12, encaustic.  to davie

this is one of the first encaustics i painted, of swarming koi in a feeding frenzy.  it’s abstract and yet photorealistic and i just love that.  my first encaustics were done in december, so they don’t count.

dragon, 8×10, encaustic, to mike

i played with this one, using a design jim did for my silk scarves, and really playing with the wax.  note the blooms between blue and red between the teeth.  look at the mane and how the blue disintegrates.  it looks so much nicer in person.  buff that painting, mikie.

encaustic palette, 6×8, encaustic, to lisa

this was done on a raw wood plank, and the texture is rich especially in the paint blobs.  my sister the mfa will love it.

nebula, 8×10, encaustic, inventory

in person you can see right into the wax, just like you can see right into nebula clouds.  on camera it looks like i did it with crayons.  i would apologize for my ignorance of camera techniques but oh well.

demetrios icon, 7×9, encaustic, to brother martin

my monk friend brother martin got this one, a faithful copy of an eastern orthodox icon.  testing what i can and can’t do with encaustic.  faithful copies of egg tempera paintings, check.

jupiter, 36×48, encaustic, inventory

this is hanging in the spare bedroom.  up close it’s really cool.  faithful renditions of planets, check.

cheshire cat, 11×60, silk, inventory

it started out as a color chart for my students, but i made a batch for people last winter.

my sewing room, 17×22, encaustic, inventory

in the quest to see what i can and can’t do in encaustic, my new main medium, i try a still life, one of my famous interior scenes, using way dilute wax paste and tiny brushes.  it works, another check.

earth and moon, 56×64, encaustic, inventory

you just can’t see how nice this turned out in a photo.  the glare sucks, for one thing.  and you can’t get close to see what the wax does, which is all its own thing and very beautiful indeed.

earth, 24×36, encaustic, inventory

it’s hanging opposite our bed and we watch it light up as each morning progresses.  wax is especially well suited for depicting planets, and i have a whole more series planned, as soon as i get back to painting.

sunflowers in north georgia, 8×10, to susie

she never once came down to the studio when she was visiting here for two weeks.  so she never experienced my encaustic paintings.  my daughter hates everything but my old, tight, style, and my sister may be the same.  but she’s getting this for xmas, just as soon as i can mail it off to her.

venus, 36×48, encaustic, inventory

the radar view of venus, showing height.  the white rings are volcanic flows, the blue is the very lowest land.

mammogram, 24×36, encaustic, inventory

i did this one out of cotton fiber and string, and painted it just as i would a planet.  it’s hanging behind me on the wall of my computer room.

isla holbox house, 9×12, encaustic, to tia mercedes

altho the tropical sun would melt it on the walk from the ferry, i decided to do my thank you painting in wax, after we went for a visit with relatives.  tho not the most beautiful of my paintings, it has its own charm.

trout stream, north georgia, 24×36, encaustic, inventory

the broken water, the reflections, the exposed rocks, the illusory fish.  at once abstract and realistic.

sugar hollow, virginia, 24×36, encaustic, inventory

the invisibility of the water, the clarity of the rocks on the bottom, the really neat way you can do this in wax.

+ + + +

so this is what i accomplished this year.

plus the 9/10s of a novel i wrote over here.

plus a lot of time wasted on swine flu early on.

maybe i can be less anxious this coming year, and produce more.

oh yeah.  anxiety is the energy that creativity feeds off of.  so the more anxious i am, within limits…

no, that’s not it.  the better i can productively use the energy my anxiety gives me, without actually going over into obsession with the objects of my anxiety, the more i can channel that energy into making art.

encaustic – sugar hollow 11

it’s not over yet.  i actually signed it last night, but then i sat back and looked at it, and it still needs more work.  i managed to put a veil of white over the dry rocks in the foreground, and took another photo.


most of what i did yesterday involved burning the hell out of the painting.  i took a really long time on the blue reflections, making fist-sized pools of absolutely molten wax, trying to move the white particles out of the way and let the underlying darks come thru.  it’s an act of patience and faith to leave a heat lamp over a molten pool of wax.  it starts moving and you don’t even see it.  i had dreams about it later.

and this was effective.  but then i had to go back in with some light gray/brown (white and raw umber, makes a bluish gray until i added more umber, and then it was brown).  i put it on the rocks that aren’t covered by reflections.  and then i put it on some of the rocks that are covered by reflections.  i put a thin wash of raw unber over the yellow reflection of the tree trunk on the right, because it was just too stark before.

after i stuck the veil over the dry rocks the composition looked better, because those rocks are markedly different from all the other rocks simply because they’re dry.  in this photo the contrast still isn’t good enough, and i may have to put on another veil.  what i still have to do in the water is to coat out the bottom (the part that isn’t huge giant rocks but sort of sandy bottom) with a blue gray and burn it again.  the area in the middle of the darkness on the right, and the area beneath the enormous rock ledge at the top left of the painting need this.

but this is an entire day’s work, so it looks like there’ll be an 11th or even 12th post.

and then, it’s getting on for november and i’ll be starting my novel for national novel writing month, so it may be that i wont be starting on another painting for awhile.  on the other hand, i’ll be making headway on my mom’s quilt.  at any rate, i’ll report it here, and you can check out my fiction if you want to.

making cold wax encaustic medium


this is the wax cabinet in my studio.  from left to right on the top – bleached food-grade microcrystalline wax in mineral spirits and/or orange solvent; unbleached microcrystalline was in mineral spirits and/or orange solvent; some unidentified concoction of microcrystalline and solvent.

on the middle shelf, a couple of empty jars, and behind them an old jar of bleached beeswax and turpentine, which i am now loathe to use; three jars of beeswax and orange oil, and my latest batch of unfiltered beeswax with orange oil.

on the bottom shelf, from top to bottom, i have what’s left of a ten point slab of beeswax in the mailing box; sitting at the edge of the mailing box to the right is a 2.5 lb chunk of unfiltered beeswax by ebert honey out in iowa ($3.75/lb).  under the mailing box is a slab of microcrystalline wax, the cheapo dark stuff, and next to it is a chunk of bleached microcrystalline wax.  under that, still in its bag, is another huge block of dark microcrystalline.

it’s so nice to have a full pantry.

Making Encaustic Medium

since i just got 5 lbs of unfiltered beeswax, i thought i’d make up a batch of encaustic medium myself.  i’d let jim do all the previous batches.  how hard could it be?  we got a used electric skillet some time ago, so i just plopped half of the block into the skillet and turned the temperature on low.  less than 200F, which was the first number on the dial.  the wax melted quickly, turning brown in the pan (because of all the debris).  i kept lifting and turning it, which was foolish, because every time i did i splashed liquid wax all over the place and had to scrape it off once it had cooled.

figuring out how much citrus solvent to use was the tricky part.  jim didn’t remember the proportions he used last time, and discovered that the proportions differed according to what kind of wax he was using.  so i did some quick figuring.  2.5 lb translates to 5 quart jars of liquid, if wax weighed what water weighs, which i have no idea.  but i figured if i put in a quart of orange oil to 5 quarts of melted beeswax, i wouldn’t be going far wrong.  i wasn’t looking to make a thin gel out of the wax and solvent, but i didn’t want it rock hard, either.

when the wax was all the way melted, i took the element out of the skillet just in case, and stirred in a quart of citrus oil.  and then i lifted the skillet and took it over to where i had jars all ready, and poured it in.  well, i dripped it in.  the hot wax wanted to go right over the side of the pan and drip down off the bottom, so i stuck the leg it was dripping off of right into the jar, and let it go.  i ended up with some wax on the paper under the jars, but it wasn’t too bad.  i filled the jars almost to the top, and when i got to the bottom of the skillet there was a whole lot of debris, so i poured all that into another jar, so i could use it deliberately on some project.  then i wiped out the skillet with a paper towel while it was still warm, and put everything away.

don’t put the lid on hot wax until it has melted unless you want a vacuum seal that won’t quit.  i waited until it was all the way cool, on jim’s advice, and it was fine.  if you leave the top on too long, tho, the solvent will begin to evaporate.

and now it’s sitting in my pantry shelf waiting to be used.


encaustic – sugar hollow 10

wow.  ten posts and i’m still not finished.  today i did a bit of an experiment.  i’m starting to not like what i’m doing, because it’s not like what i wanted, or what the reference photo looks like.  but i haven’t gotten tired of messing with it yet.

today i got out the really thin black paint and put the dark lines back in with a finger.  i love painting with my hands.  i kept leaving fingerprints, which melt differently than just random blobs of paint.  how chuck close.  how da vinci.

after burning in the darks, i looked at it and could see nothing else to do, so i prepared to put on a layer of clear wax.  that is, wax with no pigment.  first i took my big jar of yellow beeswax and citrus solvent, thinned it out with more citrus oil, and then slapped it on a corner of the painting.  i burned it in immediately, because it really burns in faster and easier if you do it while it’s still wet.  here’s the before and after on this:

423 fresh wax paste

428 burned in wax

i’m struggling with the chemistry of the wax.  when wax is melted and mixed with solvent, when cooled, what state is the wax in?  is it a solid?  is it a liquid?  technically you could call my encaustic medium “paste wax.”  what state is paste wax?  solid?  liquid?  slush?  is it tiny little pieces of beeswax in a solid state suspended in solvent?  does the solvent melt the wax and hold it in a liquid state?  these nitpicky little determinations are important.  if it’s a liquid, then the job of melting it is easier.  if it’s a liquid, then the bonding problems that exist with poorly-burned-in was aren’t as pressing.  if the solvent acts to dissolve the layer beneath the newly laid-on wax, then it creates a bond, and burning in becomes less important.

jim was taught encaustic back in the 60s using cold wax (wax mixed with turpentine).  jasper johns and others experimented with it.  they didn’t like using turpentine as a solvent, because it offgasses toxicity.  but they didn’t have orange oil back then.  orange oil – d-limonene – is so nontoxic that i can sit in offgassing citrus fumes all day long and not even get a scratchy throat.  the jar of white wax i ended up using today was originally mixed up with odorless mineral spirits and citrus oil, and i could really tell the difference.  i came away from my painting session, after having burned in a layer of clear wax over the entire 700+ square inches, with a raw throat and mild asthma.  this was due to the odorless mineral spirits, used in making early batches of encaustic medium due to jim’s mistaken belief that just because it’s odorless, it’s harmless.  which isn’t true.  odorless mineral spirits is merely petroleum solvent.  it’s like inhaling gasoline.

so.  i had a corner of the painting covered with yellow beeswax, and when i burned it in, it stayed yellow and not very translucent at all.  i sat there looking at it, dismayed, and finally went up and scraped it all off with a palette knife.  it was still warm, so i could do this.  the layers beneath hadn’t warmed up enough to stay warm after taking the lights off, but the top layer of clear wax was still warm to the touch and wet feeling in my hand once i’d scraped it off.

okay, start over.  i got out a jar of bleached beeswax that jim had done up months ago.  it was the only jar left of bleached white and citrus oil, with some mineral spirits because jim was trying to save a buck before i educated him about petroleum spirits.  we have other jars of white wax, but they’re jim’s, because he’s very fond of using bleached (food grade) microcrystalline wax, which is a petroleum product.  i won’t use it.  it doesn’t smell like beeswax.

so.  jar of bleached beeswax.  i thinned it with citrus oil, and then slapped it down on the board and burned it in.  for this burning in, i actually wanted the paint to move, so i took my time and heated it up slowly with my hand-held heat lamp (flood light, really, only i’m using a grow light because it’s less intense than a floodlight and i don’t need to wear sunglasses).  i held the lamp farther away from the surface than i usually do – about 3″, and moved it over a wider area.  i was trying to heat the wax at depth, in order to get the dark outlines of the rocks to reassert themselves.

for some reason, perhaps the thickness of the wax, the lower layers didn’t want to move.  the clear wax flowed and ran, but the colors underneath didn’t budge.  which was not what i was expecting or hoping for.  only when the entire area became molten at a deep level did the wax start to move.  and then it was like a stream, the whole fist-sized area began to flow gently toward the edge of the board.  usually when wax starts to move, all i have to do is raise the heat lamp and blow on it, and the wax snaps back and freezes.  but when it’s all melted like this, blowing on it just moves it more, and i have to wait for the wax at depth to cool, which takes a long time.  i can visualize  a small painting with its entire surface molten and beginning to shift.  perhaps i’ll play with that soon.

i didn’t want to put the clear wax on the entire painting at the time, so i did it in sections, melting each edge together as i joined sections.  when i got done with melting this fairly thick layer of wax, some areas felt soapy and wet to the touch, even when cooled.  i knew these weren’t melted enough.  the area was more translucent than well-melted (and cooled) wax, stickier, with little bubbles in it.  so i went back over it until i saw the wax move.  interestingly, i saw little tiny bubbles moving around inside the molten wax, like little tiny pearls.  they didn’t pop or come to the surface, they just rolled around in the liquid wax.


so now i’ve got clear wax over the entire painting, except for the dry rocks.  i still have to do something to make them look more lifelike (probably a veil, meaning a coat of really thin white, to obscure the details and garishness of the color).  and then maybe i’m done.  it’s still different than i had in mind, but that’s art for you.  all the happy surprises.


encaustic – sugar hollow 9

my, this is taking a long time.


and it’s getting further and further from what i wanted.

today we had a visitor, and then i had a fight with my kid, and didn’t get to the studio until after 5, so only had enough time to put on a layer of raw sienna over the water without reflections.  i was hoping to lighten the bottom.  and now what i’m missing is the dark of the lines around the rocks.  so i’m going to put that in tomorrow, and perhaps then can i put on a layer or two of clear wax and start making some of those blue reflections get more transparent so that you can see the bottom thru the reflection.

that’s perhaps going to be difficult, but i don’t know yet, because i’m still unsure about how white acts when heated.  i’m expecting the parts overlaying the dark lines to break up and boil first, because the black underneath is quicker to heat than the lighter colors.  again, i don’t know.  and like i said yesterday, if it comes to that, i’m willing to scrape back some of the paint.  but i’m hoping i can burn thru it instead.