playing catch up

catchup. ketchup, catsup. what a strange looking word. and what an ugly word. you can’t ever catch up. not with work, certainly not with sleep, not with bits of life you’ve ignored. ‘too late’ is also an ugly word. so i’ll never retrieve the time wasted obsessing on a disaster that hasn’t happened (yet). this is what i managed to accomplish in all that time.

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i’m going to detail the last three ‘moon’ pictures i’ve done, tho two of these are actually planets. ’round things in space’, perhaps. except one of them is a mammogram painting. so, how about ‘beautiful orbs’ or ‘heavenly bodies’ or some other trite descriptor? i’m not good at marketing.

the first painting was actually the last one i did, in blog fashion – filo – and it’s a painting of my latest mammogram. i was in radiology doing a mammogram, and looked up to where they had it on screen (why do they use films when it’s all digital now?), and was captivated by its  beautiful, planetlike appearance.

so i got a copy of the films and did a painting. it’s kind of small, only about 18×22 or so. working in wax, it’s nice to have a frame already on it so that you have somewhere for the melted wax to go. since you don’t want it pouring off the edges, it’s really nice to have a lip. so jim has been building panels with frames stuck right on them. more like fillets than frames, but even a small edge is good.

the thing that sets this painting apart, apart from the subject matter, is the materials i used. i wanted real texture for this painting, and wasn’t willing to spend a whole lot of wax building up layers. layers melt. i wanted something apart from the wax, something stable. usually what you’d use in this case would be acrylic molding paste. but i felt experimental. so i started out shredding cotton balls, and put them on the contour of the breast. this worked really well. it was white, tho. i didn’t really want white.

problem – how do you render xrays in wax? they’re so spectral. wax does spectral pretty well. they’re so dimensional, you can see the roundness of the breast, the thickness of the tissue. usually in painting you do that with illusions of space, with receding colors to the back and distinctness in the foreground. i can say that i had some technical problems.

so i started laying in the wax. with a palette knife. i love knifework in wax. it’s so expressive. at this point i don’t remember what i did first or second or anything. i know the space background in the upper left is a beautiful dark blue when the wax is hot, but you’ll never see that, and can’t see it in the picture.

melted wax is transparent. you see the particles of pigment embedded in it. the colors are vibrant and clear. once it cools the wax becomes merely translucent, and many of the glorious colors and effects that are so striking when it’s hot disappear once it cools. so the main beauty of an encaustic painting is mine to see, mine alone. it’s my reward from the wax. it’s like walking in the west of ireland when the sun comes out and lights up everything in miraculous colors and you’ve forgotten your camera.

so i might have put on quinacridone gold first, but i remember rubbing it back in to the sea areas near the end of the process. but i remember laying out a bunch of fibers. i had teased apart the threads of a piece of linen at some point, and put them in a ziplock back for future use. ah, the delights of a stash drawer. i put them down to represent the veins that show up in mammograms. for the thickness that shows tissue density, i was stumped. cotton balls only went so far for texture. i had covered the cotton with a coat of wax and burned it in, and in the beginning you could still pull cotton out of it. the wax melted and got in between the cotton fibers and stuck them firmly to the panel (i think), but didn’t build up as fast as i thought it would. it was still mostly cotton for a few layers. but i’d slather on more wax and melt it again, and eventually i had something that felt like wax and not some dead thing.

when it came to the interior of the breast, i needed something softer than cotton, something not as densely packed. so i looked around the house with an eye to art supplies, and came upon a new use for dog and cat hair. we have 3 dogs and 2 cats upstairs in the living area of our house (our studio is on the bottom floor). they shed. it collects. it’s fluffy, light, insubstantial, and loose. so i went around the house and scooped up several dust bunnies, took them downstairs and started laying strands of hair down on the panel. they stuck to the wax very easily, and i mushed them around until i had an increasing ball of texture to the center of the breast.

then some clear wax over all this. and then i rubbed in some blue, and painted on some red onto the fiber lines. then i put some blue into the contour lines. then some white. each time i put even a small bit of pigmented wax on, i would then hit it with an outdoor spotlight to burn in the addition. this means i would spend five minutes painting, and 20 minutes standing there holding a light and squinting thru sunglasses. but i kept liking what i was getting, so i kept doing it. it’s so exciting. you can spend an entire day standing there heating wax up.

i have to apologize for the fuzzy quality of this picture. sometimes i think i’m getting a good photo without using a tripod, and sometimes i’m just fooling myself.

this is venus. it’s not venus as we know it, because that’s a star in the night sky. it’s a false color venus showing height. so the redder, the higher and the blues are lowlands. we’d call them seas, and who knows, they’re calling the blue volcanic plain and the uplands volcanic outflows. none of this is visible to us because of the cloud cover of venus, but if we could see thru the atmosphere, this is what we’d see, wildly colored tho it is. this was a fun painting because of all the colors. normally pink is not in my palette, but the reference photo demanded it.

you can see the planetary gunge around venus. it’s all sorts of colors. represents the atmosphere, but really it’s because i love the image of earth surrounded by space junk. pick up your trash!

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the painting before that was of the earth from an angle where you can’t see any land. antarctica is actually there on the lower right, but it’s only a different shade of white, harder, with turquoise blue ice. i love how the clouds make a figure to the lower left. a space dude with a helmet. for this one i believe i did the sky first simply to outline the thing. i believe i used a lot of black for this, not just some black and mostly blue. on the mammogram painting i remember i didn’t use any black, but put something warm down first, and covered it with ultramarine, which made a visual black once it cooled to translucent.

i used the same gunge to go around the earth that i’ve been using to go around all the planets. i’ve got this little jar full of scrapings from the palette. old colors removed with some effort from my glass palette, stuck into a jar, and a little solvent added to keep it soft. if mixed up, it would be a dark brown mess o’gunk. but used unmixed it’s a rich blend of colors that smear nicely around the edge of a planet. you can see it more clearly on the venus painting, but that’s just a trick of the light. unfortunately, these photos don’t half do the paintings justice. the beauty of the wax is such that you have to be right there in three dimensions in front of it (and don’t forget the dimension of smell, wax is really good for that special sense). i’d invite you over to my studio, but i won’t.

the clouds were easy to build up but also difficult because it actually required loads of colors and lots of buildup before they started to look like clouds. there’s white in there, and purple, and a mixed gray and even some green and red. and more white.

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it was a slow process. but the more i did, the better i liked it. unfortunately the final photo was smirched by a dab of wax on the camera lens, but since it’s hanging in the bedroom where we can see it, i can’t get a better photo at the moment. so oh well.

encaustic: blue marble

ocean261 pastel underpainting

ocean275 1st layers of wax, burned in

ocean291 2nd layers of wax, to be burned

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detail showing thick impasto of whites, striving for texture but not yet melted

i’m having a funny moment. im sitting here at 2 in the morning typing in the dark, and for the longest time i could only sit here with hands poised above the keyboard and staring into space, because i couldn’t think of anything to say.

not like i haven’t been planning what to say on my blog while i’m standingi around doing my art work. i do that a whole lot, having always had a camera and mike in my head. but i couldn’t figure out what impulse to follow into a blog entry, and couldn’t figure out which of my many blogs to post to, and then got lost in wondering which of the many blogs is more me? is it the cancer blog? is it doing art? right now it’s alot about traveling.

i guess what i’m trying to do is write missives, like i used to do when i’d go travelling. originally it started as 25 page letters to a friend. i knew a girl who wrote home on carbon paper, keeping a copy for herself as her journal. once the internet got here my letters turned into emails, and spammed emails at that. i sent them to anyone i had in my address book, and didn’t really care if i was burdening them with an hour and a half of reading. nobody let me know they didn’t read my emails. and now i don’t have to offend anyone with another wave of revulsion at seeing an email from me, because you have to search for my blog entries to find them, and that means you’re asking for it.

but my train of thought has been interrupted again by a funny moment, a pre-epileptic-like frozen gaze where my mind is active but my body is drooling. odd.

i’m working up a whole set of planet paintings. i want to do a long thin panel of moons in their phases, and not necessarily the moon we look at. i’ve been getting interested in parts of our planet that don’t look familiar. antarctica without ice. the arctic as an inland sea. i’ve been spending a lot of time on websites about the poles. fascinating stuff. antarctica without ice is like some fantasy novel’s map. i want to name the bits and pieces things like dragon ridge and silent wood. i want to do mars, tho the color scheme is challenging – red. red is challenging. blue and green are not. gray is not.  but i guess i lie. gray is every bit as challenging as red. blue and green are not. white and blue are not. and black.

i’ve noticed a very strange effect in melting my white wax paint. i’m using titanium white in beeswax, softened with orange oil instead of melted on a hotplate, and fused with a heatlamp.


note the bubbling of the whites and grays, and how the white has pulled away from the blue

i don’t put white on until i have to. white takes the longest to melt, and melts at a higher temperature, so everything around it is already molten and flowing  by the time white looses its structure. white is trouble. even a little white mixed in with some other color.

what happens is this. when i heat up the layers of wax i’ve been laying down for awhile, and there’s white in the paint layer, it’s as if the wax underneath the white layer (or two) was liquid and the white was slowly melting on top of an already melted mess of wax with some other pigment in it, and when it gets to a point of moltenness the fabric of the white suddenly tears, gets holes in it that spread. kind of like crawling, when a glaze beads up on the surface underneath. it’s a crawl in the direction of the heat source, and if not noticed, which is easy because it’s very glary, the crawl can become a flow and then a churn and then you have uniformly mixed color and that’s bad.

the crawl is interesting. i can’t control it. not that it can’t be controlled, but it seems to be because the white was heated maybe too fast. if it’s deliberately heated fast, the wax surges away from the heat, swelling into rings, and the white just bursts apart. if i back away the moment the white starts to split then it’s not too bad, but that part tends to stay liquid longer because it’s white and the wax retains the extra heat needed to melt it.

i have no idea why i’m getting a crawl with white. i see no mention of this problem on the encaustic forum, so i’ve got to think that it’s my method. which means, working with solvents. which is universally frowned upon, even tho it means you can paint with brushes just like you would with oil paint, with ample time to do all the brushwork things that makes oil paint so satisfying, but with the magical texture of wax.

so i’m thinking that my orange oil might be the problem. i’m going to experiment some more.

once i figured out it was me, i whipped out my experimental painting and did some samples. curiously, i couldn’t duplicate the results. so i launched into the next painting, and when it came time to add the white, i started getting the effect again even in very low concentrations of white.


more detail showing texture, this made either with a patted brush or my finger – you won’t see the tearing of the white until i burn in this layer, tomorrow.

i was trying to document this problem so that maybe someone could tell me what’s going on. so i tried to take movies i could put up on you tube, but all they showed was the heatlamp glaring into the surface of the painting. i want to show the liquifying of the wax and the point at which the white starts tearing like ripe pantyhose. but i can’t do that very well, apparently, and i can’t describe it. and since this last layer of white was mixed with mineral spirits instead of orange oil, and since i already released and burned off any remaining orange oil when i burned the first layer in, i will, i feel sure, be able to figure out if i’ve got a d-limonene problem, or does white separate with any solvent.

my d-limonene problem. i made myself sick using turpentine as a solvent already. nausea, vomiting, ill for a night and queasy thereafter for awhile. so i switched to orange oil. because mineral spirits are petroleum products, thus they cause cancer. d-limonene is gras – generally recognized as safe, which means non-toxic. there was some concern about effects to the kidneys in mice, but later studies indicated cancer-fighting properties of orange oil, and it’s being investigated as a prophylactic supplement to prevent recurrence.

i’m breathing in small quantities of a cancer fighter, how’s that for cool? because yeah i’ve already had cancer and so it’s kind of reassuring to know i’m not deliberately courting it after the disastrous first date but rather running with the antidote.

i’ve been up for awhile. jim’s asleep, allison’s still at work. did i mention i have a full house at the moment? my kid’s here, part time, and her kid’s here sometime, and so i don’t have three minutes to myself, so i’m up writing while jim sleeps. it’s spring, so my days are spent at least thinking about outside, and i’m furiously finishing this encaustic and maybe one more before perhaps turning my attention to showing them, which means work, but maybe someone else’s work. i need to turn my attention to fabric for awhile. i have to figure out how to dye silk using mx fiber reactive dyes, which is just a vinegar recipe rather than a soda ash recipe, but i still have to figure it out and get my learning curve down before i go off to the back of beyond and not know what i’m doing and make a balls of it.

pair of beauties 2

a word on encaustic painting. a word on painting with wax. a word on the cold wax method of encaustic. i have found that i have a really hard time applying wax paint if it’s at all waxy. but once i cut it enough it becomes like oil paint, like butter. come to think of it, i can’t handle spreading butter cold, either. there’s got to be spreadability before i’m happy. and correct me if i’m wrong, because i haven’t tried encaustic the regular way yet, but you can’t get a buttery application with molten wax. whereas i can paint with it. with brushes, and go back, and blend. i have maybe ten minutes before enough citrus oil  has evaporated that the wax becomes tacky.

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indeed, you can see the reference photos tacked up onto the background right there. just like old fashioned paste-up mechanicals that nobody uses anymore. anyway, ten minutes of working time is as good as or better than acrylic and watercolor, tho nothing to the hours of working time when you’re working in oil paint.

i love to paint. it’s a physical thing. well-being floods thru me when i’ve got a brush in my hand. i know, it’s sexist. but the charge is there. but i really LOVE to paint with wax. it’s light and fluffy, it’s smooth, it stays where you put it, it has texture.

texture. this is why i dare to include wax encaustic on panel in among my fabric art blog entries, because it’s so tactile. and the thing about fabric is that it’s tactile. it’s something you just have to go up and feel. and wax is exactly the same. it’s three dimensional, and there’s a surface that feels marvelous next to your skin. and god the colors. wax holds pigment unlike other media. watercolor doesn’t have depth. acrylic smells bad so i never use it, oil takes forever to dry but smells great, pastels ah that’s a different paragraph. oil has the translucency as well as the impasto and so does acrylic, but there’s that dimensional thing. you can make wax thick, and it looks thick. you can see down into it. you can get lost in it.

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detail of the moon

maybe later on you can see down into it. i’m actually painting rather thickly on this. with a palette knife. and now that i’m using white in the colors, it’s opaque. i’ve been using up whatever color is left on the palette by mixing in the next color, so i’ll have a batch of paint that goes progressively brown or blue or white.

i’m going back and forth between palette knife and paintbrush. wax scumbles really well, and a palette knife is great for scraping and smudging, tho lousy for detail, at least at my skill level, which is only practiced beginner.

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i worked out the details with pastel in the earlier stage of this painting, which is 48×54 on panel. i’ve never had any luck with pastels, but as a way to block in the color it can’t be beat, except it didn’t like my surface very much. too hard, and too smooth.  i didn’t use any pastel on the background, which was mid gray. i changed the position of the moon from lower to higher. you can see antarctica at the bottom of the painting.

starting with ultramarine blue, i used the palette knife to lay in the large areas. then i put in the green. then the earth color. but all of this in several stages. i’d put in the blue, which is the negative space, then try to put down the brown objects then sliced back into it with the ocean again, then back to the land with different colors. at this point the only white is the underlying pastel.

somewhere in the middle of the back and forth process i decided i needed to see the background now. so i mixed up some dark microcrystalline wax and put black and ultramarine and burnt umber, and slathered it on with a palette knife.

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i’ve been messing around. i ended up putting blue in the shadows of the moon and several different layers of browns on the landforms. i went over the oceans with cobalt and prussian and a little white. and i’ve brushed on a layer of microcrystalline wax, more black and prussian blue.

it’s funny, but every layer of paint outlines a different contour for the various landforms. i’m constantly revising what i’ve drawn, even at what you would think was a late stage. but it doesn’t matter with wax; i could come in at the end and decide i wanted the moon back down at the bottom, and just excise it and paint a new one in.

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now i’ve started in with the clouds. i’m painting just like i paint in oils, cold wax is a substance with a lot of body.

i’m waiting to the end, i think, before torching the planets. how apocalyptic that sounds. on the jupiter painting i just finished, i burned the wax in with every layer. i was constantly pulling down the eyeglasses and pressing the switch on my heatlamp, feeling like the welder in flashdance.  for this painting i’m too in love with the way the wax is going down just like it is, and wondering if i let it dry long enough will i be able to buff it up and call it done? plenty of wax paintings have been done that never came near a heat lamp or any other source of heat.

i’m very pleased with my progress on this. i like doing planets. i’m wondering if i can get images off google earth that i could use, because i could do closeups. i could do the fiddly bits. a little research says i can, clouds and all. how delicious. i can spend hours looking for source images, cruising around examining features of the planet. i can do this, wasting entire days or nights, depending.

but not tonight.

a pair of beauties

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i wanted to do another planet in encaustic. the last one i did was jupiter, and it turned out so well that i thought i would to ahead and do another. but which planet? mars is monotone, venus is too much like the sun. i could try doing the sun, but it somehow didn’t occur to me. i could do a moon, one of jupiter’s, perhaps, with loads of radiating lines and fractures. but they were all too much the same color.

so the earth. but which view? i didn’t want to be chauvenistic about it. there are too many views of the north american continent. neither did i want to pick a  hackneyed european view. what i wanted was the poles. what i wanted was the clouds. what i wanted was the circulation of the clouds against the blue. what i wanted was a hurricane.

but alas, what i found was this neat view of both the earth and the moon, shot by some orbiting spacecraft out to make a survey of the planets. it’s a real shot, not a composite,  and it shows the moon at a slightly different angle than we’re used to seeing it.

then i picked a panel. jim had already gessoed and set aside a number of panels for both of us to use in our encaustic journeys. this one was the twin of one he’d just put a carnival scene in egg tempera on, and it was nearly square – 54×48, and i snatched it up.

one thing i’m going to do this time, i’m going to weigh the panel before i put any wax on it, because i want to find out how many pounds i’m going to use on a panel of this size. encaustic is traditionally done on small panels, mainly because i don’t know. but at this size, 4 feet square and a bit, it’s already heavy, being masonite backed by 1×2 bracing. i’ll weigh it tomorrow.

i’ve been talking with jim about the way we’re into doing things the old fashioned (cheap) way, and my recent conversion to it. previously, i’ve gone to a lot of trouble and expense to collect all the colors i could ever want to paint with in both oil and watercolor. i’ve got a complete set of watercolors that take up several not so small boxes. i’ve got a much larger set of oil paints that take up an orange box and spill out over the sides. this represents hundreds if not thousands dollars of paint, albeit collected over the past 30 years but hey.

now, after being exposed to jim’s style of studio work, which he’s honed over the last 50 years, i’ve decided that i might as well learn to mix paints from the raw materials and free myself from the tyranny of art supply stores who would treat me as an end user of their products. and i’ve got a thing in cooking against using processed foods, because not only are the manufacturers using the cheapest ingredients possible, but they’re doctoring them to look and taste more nutritious than they are, and often they’re poisoning me with the chemicals they add. the same with paints.

so, i’ll do it myself and avoid all the snake oil and pitchblende.

now i have a whole set of pigments in a conveniently arranged series of tiny little containers that will last me for years. i can take a little bit of pigment, and mix it with any binder i choose, and make paint that is nothing but pigment and binder (no fillers or extenders or imitation ingredients). watercolor – add gum arabic. oil – add linseed oil. acrylic – add acrylic medium. encaustic – add wax. et voila. so i’m a new convert, and very fundamentalist about it. everyone should throw away their tubes and make their own paint. yarrr.

anyway. the one medium i haven’t mastered is pastels. my friend jim bianchi in charlottesville has been trying to teach me how to use pastel for years, and i’ve never gotten it. but what he’s really doing is trying to teach me to paint, all wrapped up in pastel technique, and so i have of course not understood what he was trying to teach me. i can only, it seems, understand painting my way, and don’t tend to learn from the experience of others. i remember telling my mo that many times while i was growing up, much to my later chagrin (sorry mom).

anyway. since i’ve always been really frustrated by my lack of technique in pastel, i decided that i might as well do the underpainting that way. pastel on gesso on board? it’s not recommended, exactly. but that’s enough to interest me, so fine.

the way i use pastel, it turns out, is directly, stick to panel, and smooshed in with a finger when i’m done applying it. pastel doesn’t take really well to board, it’s too hard and in this case too smooth, but i started with raw umber, which in pastel is a warm light gray, outlining my objects. when i had everything indicated (here’s how i draw my first marks – i stand far back from the board and hold the reference photo in front of my eyes. then i wisk it away and note the position on the board, walk to it with one eye still closed, and swipe a mark, then step back and start with another feature. then i used the raw umber for the darker white of the clouds,  and progressed to burnt umber for the dark earth and white for the clouds. then some mid gray for the low clouds, green for the andes mountains, a light purple for the cloudy parts of the amazon basin, and ultramarine blue for the ocean.

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you can just see the first moon i drew, on teh lower right hand corner. i didn’t like it there when i got it there, because it gave the picture too much weight, so i floated it up to the other corner, and liked it there. i noticed when doing the drawing of the moon, upside down becuase i often draw things at different angles to the proper viewing position, that there’s not only a man in the moon, but when seen upside down the moon looks rather lke a skull. which is cool. how metaphorical. dead moon, skull. man in the moon reversed to be skeleton in the moon. fecund earth, dessicated moon. well, it tickles me.

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then i started on another one. this is on a 30×40 panel, which i had whipped out at first thinking it was big enough, but when jim offered me the 4×4 one i jumped at it, and then had this nice smaller panel all set up. and then i found a picture of the earth with no identifiable land masses. too fucking cool. it has what i think is antarctica, but otherwise it’s just ocean and cloud, and that’s exactly what i was looking for. i wish it had been a full earth, but i’ll take what i can get.

so i took pastel and started in. the first time i did this it turned out a little bit different, but the gesso hadn’t been well sanded and it was very rough, and pastel doesn’t like too rough. it’s like chalk on a sidewalk, and pretty much there’s nothing left in your hand except rubbed-off pigment on your palm. didn’t want to do that. so jim sanded my panel for me, before i could get to it. you have to be careful with jim that way. mention something you lack and he gets right on it, neglecting his own work to tend to your needs. the guilt is overwhelming, so i try not to need too much.

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so, drawn in with raw umber, this time on a white ground (the first earth was on a toned ground, mid gray), i turned the board this way and that and drew in the cloud masses. i was taken with how much like continents the clouds work. they follow a lot of the same rules you can construct for land masses in seas of water. fluid dynamics. i studied it in college. would have gone on to be a climatologist if i’d finished school. but that was in the late 70s, and i don’t think i’m going to go back now. tho you never know. i might get bored with painting and writing fiction. as if.

it’s funny how differently i  draw when i’m  putting in the blue. when i’m drawing the edges of the clouds i draw one line, when i’m drawing in the edges of the ocean, i draw another line, even tho these are the same edge. it’s the difference between drawing an object and drawing the space around the object, another trick in seeing like an artist. first i drew the positive clouds, and then i went back over my lines and drew the negative ocean, and got more accurate with every pass. tomorrow i go back and refine my masses and shapes. i won’t do anything to correct the colors, i’m just worried about getting the contours, the lines, as accurate as i can, always keeping in mind the fact that i will be the only one to ever notice.

so, an exciting couple of paintings. because i have this opportunity, i’m going to try to approach the encaustic part of this painting differently. on one painting i’ll put on wax and then fuse it, put on wax and fuse it. i’ll constantly be whipping the sunglasses on and off, feeling like a welder as i reach for the heat lamp switch. with the other one, i’m going to put wax on and put wax on, and never heat it until the final fusing at the end, when i plan to melt the whole thing to molten liquid. insert crazy laugh. mwahahaha.