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.
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.