encaustic painting – water 2

i’m continuing with my series of encaustic painting of the seascape in kerry.  i was there last fall, at cill rialaig, on the edge of nowhere, studying the sea, the clouds and the rain for a better understanding of the elements.  six months later, i’m working on a way of imaging the very subtle things i’ve been thinking about.

for the record, i’m using a homemade cold wax application on gessoed board, using citrus oil as a solvent, and burning it in with a heat lamp. we’ll call this unorthodox encaustic painting, but since it’s being burned in, it’s actual real encaustic, even tho some fundamentalist artists insist it’s not.  that’s another issue.

here’s the reference photo first, so you know what you’re looking at.

view from cill rialaig

i was using a digital camera that made all the decisions for me when i took all my photos in kerry, so most of my photos of clouds are unfocused.  the camera didn’t know how to focus on soft clouds, and did some funny compromise, and in most of my reference photos, i’ve got a blurry picture of grays doing rain and lowering type things.  consequently, these pictures of clouds, rain, and sea are way atmospheric.  i mean some of them fucking blurry.

so i got out one of my larger panels (i’ve got ten stacked up and ready to go) and cut it into three, grabbed a resulting 12×24 gessoed panel, and started with dark blue on the sea, and light gray on the sky.  pretty simple, eh?  the variations you can see in the sky are the patterns made by the heat lamp as i burned in the wax.  it’s all one color, tho.  as is the water, which is transparent in this first layer, and shows the board very well.

a layer of the darkest gray over the ocean, and then i used the three (or four) midrange grays i had left over from the first painting, and delineated the basic colors.  not at all subtle; almost cartoonish, especially on the lower right, where the rain hits the ocean.

then the darkest gray over the nearest (topmost) cloud, left.  and the three grays in the middle again, restating the few value changes.  note how i’m dipping the light gray over top of the dark gray of the sea and letting it blend in.

and now some darker purple gray.  i might have just mixed this up special, and not enough, because i’ve just mixed a big batch of purple gray for the third painting in this series.  at this point i’m using the very bottom of the grays i’ve been saving in little plastic cups for weeks and months.  some of the grays are very hard and dried out, and they don’t blend very well until they’re flat melted.  and even then they don’t respond to heat very easily.

at this point i got tired of all the darkness, and started in with my lightest grays.  these are green grays, but nobody’s going to notice.  they were left over from another painting, the origin of which is now lost in time.  it doesn’t really look like the same painting, but there’s enough left of the layer underneath that i can tell it’s the next photo in the sequence.  only one coat of wax between these two photos.

and now this is too white, and there’s too much contrast, so i hit the entire rest of the sky with a darker light gray, and melted it all in for a much softer and more subtle appearance.

and now, of course, it’s too much the same all over, so i’m going to lose my patience now and hit it with bold strokes of really white white, the white i started with bleached beeswax for.

beneath the painting below is the reference photo.  you can see how little i have to work with.  and slashing all this white on top of the carefully homogenized board takes a little courage.

the wax on the board below is unmelted, by the way.  the marks are made by palette knife, and often i’m grinding the paint around with the knife, trying to put it on the wavy and pocked surface smoothly.  hahahahaha.

but once burned in, below, it’s not so bad.  it’s starting to get very textural here.  when these paintings come on, they work fast.  the first half, however, is excruciatingly ugly.  all paintings are ugly in the middle of painting them, but it’s particularly bad with wax paintings.

after this stage, there’s not much left.  i restated the dark cloud on the upper left, and burned the white in a bit better.  some of the whiteness is too opaque and still hasn’t melded with its surroundings.

when you look up advice on how far to melt your painting to get it properly burned in, you get a lot of different advice.  a lot of this advice is based on heating your painting with a blow torch, or some other very fast heating device.  i use a lightbulb, so the heating process is slower and more controlled.

sometimes i’ve seen people advising others to fuse their wax until the top layer is shiny; that’s enough.  when it is left merely shiny, then okay it’s a safe bet that the layers of wax are melted to each other, at least the whole body of wax has gotten to that slushy stage where it’s not really solid and it’s not really liquid.  when it’s left shiny and then you take the heat source away and stop melting it,  then there’s lots of texture left in the wax.  there are lumps and bumps, and the really thick lumps of wax aren’t melted all the way.  they’re still solid enough to stick together and make lumps; that’s how you tell.

i tend to melt my wax until the entire field is molten, which is mainly what they recommend, or even insist on, depending.  that means a large shiny lake around the lightbulb, of absolutely even, bumpless liquid wax that is transparent down to the gesso when it’s molten.  there are stages of melted.  depending on the pigment, the wax runs when melted.  if it’s a dark pigment, then it melts readily and flows all over the place in a spreading pool.  if it’s a light pigment, then it melts only after awhile shining the light on it.  if there’s a light patch of wax next to a dark patch of wax, then the dark stuff will melt first, and the light stuff will all at once break down and flow into the dark stuff, or else the dark stuff will spread over the light stuff like a flood.  if it’s light pigment over a previously burned in dark layer, then the dark layer melts before the light one on top, and the light layer breaks up into tiny fragments as it floats away on top of the dark wax, and finally melts and starts churning into the dark wax, so that you get a dull gray, homogenous section of wax if you let it get to this.

and, just as you’re getting used to constant flow, after a while of adding new wax and melting it in, and adding more wax and melting it in, the older pigment stops moving.  what flowed alarmingly when first melted is no longer even moving, never mind blending with the newer stuff, and if something’s really stubborn and just won’t break up, i have to put a fingertip in there and remove it.  owie.

the main trick is to move the heat/light away the moment the wax starts flowing.  that’s if you want a sharpish edge.  if you want a thoroughly blended edge, you have to sit there with the light until it starts to flow, and then hover over it until the edge completely breaks down and floods over the wax next to it.

and the more layers you do this, the more interesting the wax surface becomes, building up such a rich texture, with such depth, that you wonder how you could ever have loved flat acrylic paint.

the painting is almost done.  after looking at it for some time, i brought it back to the studio this morning and added a smear of light gray on the dark water in the  middle, some lighter gray over the darkest part of the cloud, and i think that’s it.  next, yet another painting of rainclouds over the ocean.

elements – water 2


new project – encaustic painting series

okay, i’m doing another encaustic demo.  this blog is full of encaustic painting demos.  and i never get tired of doing them, either.  so here’s yet another one.

while i was on residency in the west of ireland last year, at cill rialaig, i was very taken with the idea of a series of paintings exploring the elements.  things like paintings of only rocks, paintings of only skies, only water.  i dreamed of painting the air, but that’s just about as difficult a thing to paint as you can think of.  painting nothing would be harder, but only just.

i spent my studio time a lot more prosaically, painting tourist pictures and gifts for people who don’t like my more experimental experiments with art.  there was one artist there who liked me right up until the moment she saw the paintings i was working on.  this was an artist whose name is being made right this second by inscrutable museum-quality art involving springs and piano wires.  she was so upset that she told me about her disappointment as if she was talking about another artist altogether, but her heartfelt looks when she confessed that this artist’s work was awful gave her away.  and i’ve never heard from her again, of course, but this is the way it goes on residency; you make instant friends that you never hear from afterwards.  artists pissing in the night.

anyway, on to the work.  you can see the reference photo on the left of the pastel outline.  it was one of those cloudy days were all the color is in the sky.  the light comes peering thru the cloud in vast beams, and there’s nothing as bright as that silvery gleam where the light is hitting the water.  you can only barely see the peninsula just a mile or two across the bay, and there are places were the water comes out of the clouds and fogs the space between cloud and ocean with rain that’s more like thick smoke.

so i’m into the elements.  in this case, it’s water.  i guess water and air.  but the clouds are water, and the sea is water, and the rain is water, and the air blocking the view of the peninsula is water.

the trouble with water being the entire picture is that there’s no real difference between water in its various states.  just varying shades of visibility, really.

there happened to be a roughly 1:2 board all ready to go, so i took it off the stack and started in.  there’s a stack of boards all gessoed up, all sorts of sizes.  this one is 12″x24″ gessoed masonite (or whatever they’re calling it now) and i’ve dragged pastel all over it as merely placemarks.  my method for transferring the image from the reference photo to the board is to stand about 5′ back and hold the photo up in front of my face, covering the board as much as possible.  then i focus my eyes on a detail and whip the paper aside, noting where it falls on the board.  then i rush to the board and swipe a line right there with my pastel, and go back to my position and pick another spot to focus on.  easy.

there are good points and bad about this method.  using a projector also has its good and bad points.  in general, i prefer the distortions of my own eyes to the distortions of a projection lens, so i usually go with that.  and abstracting my marks to only the most obvious and important ones is usually the best way for me to go, lest i get caught up in the details before i’ve even established the general marks.

in sketching out the painting, i’ve used only black, or dark gray, pastel.  and a touch of blue for the sky.  the light gray stuff is the first layer of wax.  i thought i’d get a picture before going too far.  it looks to me as if i’ve already burned in this first layer.  you can tell that i’m not fixing the pastel before starting in on the underpainting.  i don’t really care if i get pastel all over my underpainting.  there’s going to be so many layers of wax that nobody’s going to know much about the first layers.

here’s a closeup of the next layer (inverted), a darker gray filling in the areas around the light gray.  the blue is still pastel.  ad the black you can see, that’s also pastel.  again, i’m pretty sure i’ve burned this in.  but i’ll let you know if i have some ‘raw’ wax in any of the shots.

this is the far shot.  i’ve got dark gray in the ocean and the peninsula, and a little in the top part of the clouds.

and at this point i’ve started taking the painting outside to shoot progress photos, so it’s a little better picture.  sorry about the quality before.  i’ve added a little more black to the clouds, and more white to the sky and water.  you can only tell i’m doing anything to the water by the progressive breaking up of the thin black line in the middle of the white part of the sea.  i really shouldn’t have bothered putting in that detail so soon, and it will haunt me.

for this one i’ve finally put in some blue paint, but it’s old blue dug out from a hardened lump in cup, and there’s green in it.  oops, so what.  i took the same gray i was using in the clouds, which has a bunch of purple and blue in it, and put it over the peninsula, where it’s now way dark.

so i took a bunch more of the gray with the purple, and slathered it all over the clouds.  i’m burning everything in before shooting it at this stage, just so you know, and in many cases there’s more than one layer being put on and burned in before i take the next process shot.  else i’d be running outside every half hour with the board and the camera.

now i’ve gone in and put the same gray in the sea and the shiny area.  and come in with some dark gray and emphasized the peninsula and the darkest of the waves in the foreground.

now there’s more darker gray on top of the clouds.  i’ve added some raw umber into the gray mix.  basically my grays are black and white, dioxazine purple, ultramarine blue, raw sienna, a little green, and whatever else i think of.

now there’s darker grays over the lowest clouds.  and i’ve begun to come back in with lighter gray underneath that cloud, partially obscuring the peninsula.

and now some less-than-terribly dark grays over the sea.  at this point i have white, made with bleached beeswax and titanium white pigment, and i have cream, made with regular beeswax and titanium.  and then i have four or five grays, going from very nice bluish dove gray to angry greasy looking toxic sludgy gray and mostly running along the purple edge.

and now the whole thing looks too dark and brooding, so i basically go over the entire thing with light purply gray, and lighten the whole thing up.  the light ocean is gotten a bit polluted by the dark gray thin line, so i add more white and burn the hell out of it.

and then it was getting dark, and i stopped work, brought the painting up to the front porch, and sat out and looked at it while the light went.  it was painfully purple, but almost done.  a funny thing happened.  as the natural light faded and the incandescent porch light took over, the painting got less and less purple, and finally less and less detailed, and flatter, and finally it looked very photographic, almost like the reference photo, which my paintings never turn out looking like the photos.

i was intrigued by this, and wondered what i’d have to do to the painting under natural light in order to get it to look like it did at night under a 40 watt bulb.

this led to a conversation about george beattie, who painted some of his paintings with that would show up when someone flicked on the paintsblacklight that was installed to provide alternate lighting.  seems a little tacky now, maybe, but i’ll bet now people are coming up with high tech ways to do the same thing.


now the white of the ocean is blue, because of that dark line finally disappearing into a churn of white wax.  so i  am going to have to add more white and start again.

and now i add more black.  i’m messing a little with the cream in the clouds, also.

and now the peninsula was too dark, so i’ve obscured that with some more medium gray atmosphere, and added little dark touches to the upper clouds.

and i guess i’m done.  it needs a thin black frame, an some nice buffing to bring out the shine of the wax, and i’m ready to move on to my next painting.  the series will be called elements – water, or maybe kerry water, tho that sounds like a brand.  or maybe just water and air.  anyway, this is number 1.  now i just need a place to show it.

next painting – clouds raining on the ocean, with a barely visible peninsula in the background.  part 2.

a couple of silk scarves

i need to make a present for the woman who administers the residency.  she’s been so kind to me, and put up with all my fool questions, and she deserves something for herself.  and since i have no money – duh – i must make her some art.

jim designed me a couple of scarf patterns with puffins, and a couple with fairies, and they’re so complex that i’ve never made scarves of them.  the puffin scarf is simpler than the fairies, so i started on it first.

you can’t see much in the photo above, but it shows the setup.  80″ stretchers and 18″ stretchers, fabric clips and rubber bands.  i’ve already inked in the lines with the resist.  this was difficult because jim’s lines are delicate, and you’ve got to have very dark lines to see thru the silk.  in fact, i couldn’t see thru the silk, and had to keep lifting the scarf off the pattern in order to see it.  consequently my drawing isn’t the best.  i’ll use a different technique with the fairies.

here’s a closeup.  you can see two birds, with an island behind their heads, and the top of a rocky hill at their feet.  there’s the line of the ocean, an another line for the cloud base.

since i’m practicing for my art residency in cill rialaig, i’m using all the same materials i’ll be using out in the back of beyond, so the resist is made of sodium alginate, mixed up by hand and squeezed out thru a plastic bottle.

the moment i started on this scarf i decided to take all my silk supplies.  i had decided against it because silk is kind of equipment-heavy.  namely, you need a steamer pot at the very least.  but if i keep my silks dry and wrapped in paper i should be able to keep them until i bring them home at the end of my residency and steam them once i’m back.  i can do it.

so that’s more i have to pack into an already stuffed bag.  not the steamer, fine, but 4 little bottles of fabric dye, and i’d sure as shit better wrap them up tightly in case they burst in the luggage.

here’s the first stage.  i’ve taken three shots of the scarf at each stage, and overlapped them to make a single image.  you can see the acid green base i put down over all the land features, the first of many applications of black on the birds, a blue-black on the sea and in the clouds, and a nice sunset orange for the bit of sky you can see in the distance.  the same red adds texture in the hillside.  it looks pretty bad at this stage.  unfortunately, it continued to look bad all the way up to the end.

altho it doesn’t look like i did much, i worked on the landscape a bit, indicating the landforms.  and deepened the ocean and sky colors some, too.

here’s where you can see some changes.  i haven’t been happy with the dirt/rock part of the landscape yet.  it’s too unformed, too stiff.  the birds suck, too, because of the awkwardness drawing them in.  the island in the background isn’t looking too bad, but that green is really awful.  american tourist green.  this is the place where i complained to jim that i was struggling constantly with it, and his recommendation was that i start on the fairy scarf instead.

which whipped up my desire to finish it.  so i darkened everything even more.  blue went over the green until it stopped glowing.  black went over the sea until it had some movement.  black and more blue went over the clouds, and i muddied the area above and below the sunset band of light.

this is the place, where if it were a watercolor, i would start splashing paint everywhere in an attempt to hit the end point by an overwhelming margin.  it works much the same way in silk, except that you can’t make mud.  if you add too much color, it simply gets richer.

so this is where i took it off the stretchers and let it hang over the back of a door to cure for a day or two while i start on the fairy scarf.  we’ll see which of the two of them i’m not ashamed of.  because it’s really difficult to know what to give an irish arts professional.  the subjects i’ve chosen – puffins, fairies – are cliches, irish tourist themes, and it could be considered insulting to try to make a picture of something thousands of miles away and then pass it off as serious art and not just a kitchy picture postcard ripoff.

experimenting with dyes

i’m preparing for a residency in the west of ireland in october, see here. at the moment i’m chronicling airfares, but earlier on i have loads of considerations about what to take with me in order to make as much art as possible in 3 weeks. the lists are entertaining, to me. and i’ll pull them up when the time comes to pack and most of my work will have been done for me.

the reason i’m preparing so far ahead of time is that there are several new techniques and methods i want to explore while i’m there, and i need to learn the basics now so i won’t waste time once i’m on site.

the thing i’m doing new is to go completely back to basics, which is the same thing as saying doing it on the way cheap.

i have a weight requirement for my luggage, and i’m only bringing one bag, tho as big a one as they allow. so everything i need for three weeks of art has to fit inside it.

so i have to rethink tubed oil paints, tubed watercolors, tubed acrylics. what a lot of lead-lined tubes for the guys in security to tut-tut over.

i’m bringing pigments in little plastic containers. and i’m bringing most of my mediums and will mix them as needed. some of the media i want to bring they won’t let me. beeswax, turpentine, alcohol. i might be able to slip orange oil past them.

this is revolutionary, for me. i no longer need rely on buying something in order to paint. hell, i can paint something everlasting with a brick and some grease.

and that’s easily 20 pounds of luggage just in the tubes i’d have to bring.

why duplicate things when i can bring the raw ingredients and make my own?

thus said, i have a lot of raw ingredients where until now i had a lot of proprietary mixtures with no ingredient labels. so i’m laving to reinvent the wheel in a lot of ways.

for instance, how to make my own resist. i want a water based resist, but i don’t want one that costs $8 for 4.ounces. it sets me off; let’s not go there.

but the old traditional japanese resist is a big pain in the ass to make. so i’m looking for substitutes.

a few weeks ago i experimented with tapioca starch resist, and thankfully didn’t write any of it down for your delectation. i did, however, make a gooey mess and never did get all the tapioca out of my silk. didn’t resist worth a damn, either.

today my subject is sodium alginate. not exactly algae, but really slimy and thick. you use it to thicken your dye so that you can paint it on as if it was watercolor, and it won’t run and bleed as much as it would if it weren’t thickened. i’ve never actually used it before, because i mostly have used low-immersion scrunch dyeing. but i have a project in mind for a set of placemats that are paintings of the landscape around cill rialaig, which is the name of the place where i’ll be staying.

so i made up a batch of so-called paste, which was goopy but thinner than i can use for resist lines. i’ll have to make it twice as thick to put it in a tube and squirt out straight lines. so i mixed it with red, yellow and blue instead, and used all the chemicals – soda ash, urea, calgon, salt, alcohol, and dye powder, and used three different brushes to dip out of three different bowls, and made an abstract design on a piece of linen i’d cut off the 6-yard roll i’m taking with me to ireland.

having done that, and seeing that the fabric was sort of wet thru, i rolled it up in a plastic garbage bag and sat it out in the sun on top of the plastic trash can, where it will sizzle and steam.

it’s 80 in the house – atlanta at the end of may – so i uncovered four high-count cotton pillow cases i’d been saving, and planned to use up the rest of the dye.

i couldn’t throw away all that leftover dye, and because it had soda ash in it, i couldn’t save it, because the ash just eats away at the dye’s dyeing power. something.

so. i scrunched up all the pillow cases from one end to the other, and then folded them in half and stuck them in the corners of a plastic tub, all folded and facing the same way. i’m not very neat at this. there’s no point.

then i added more water to the yellow and poured it into the middle of the tub where all four points meet. it was very grainy at the bottom (i don’t mix very well, and i don’t use exact amounts of anything) so i made sure to put that in the very middle on the theory that it was concentrated dye that hadn’t broken up and dissolved. or else it was urea. or soda ash.

then i poured the red in around the yellow. i kind of forgot to put any extra water in to the red, but it went around twice. then i did put water into the blue, and put that around the outside.

at that point, it looked colorful, but i knew it was only mostly on the surface, and i needed to add plenty of clear water to make it spread and do wonderful color things.

so cup after cup of water from the sink (chlorine from the water plus iodine from the salt, what chemistry there is in dyeing) until the pillow cases started to float. then a grocery bag on top of the fabric, and bricks on top of that, squeeze all the air out maybe, and let it sit for 24 hours. at above 70. which it’s been for a month now.

you should see the weeding i have to do in the back yard.

on this first day of experimenting, i’m just making sure i’ve got the basics of plant dyeing. later i’ll have to figure out the formula to dye silk, another learning curve among many.

the next thing i have to do is work out whether and how i can use sodium alginate to resist dye.

this linen i’ve got? i bought it on impulse at binders years ago, when i had a day job. i thought it was on sale for $6/yard. i paid $6/square foot and gulped. but i had credit…

and it sat there. it’s always been too expensive to use for the kinds of paintings people were just going to hang on their walls and look at. something.

in the meantime i reused old canvases, and i used up a roll of raw canvas given to me by my brothers.

in the meantime, the cats slept on my roll of linen, sharpened their claws on it, got their fur deeply interwoven in the fabric.

but it’s 6 yards.

and the things i can do with six yards of canvas.


dyed and then painted things

bases for encaustic paintings

oil paintings

pastel paintings

acrylic paintings

art quilts

placemats and napkins

just like using pigments and all the various media you can make paint with, i can use my linen as the material with which i make whatever art appeals to me at the moment.

this is artistic freedom.