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

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woah, inspiration strikes

i was lying in bed the other morning, drinking coffee and talking to jim and watching the light coming thru the window.  typical morning.

suddenly it hit me.

i was thinking about the dragon jim is fixing to paint onto a piece of plexiglass for his son michael’s front door transom in his newly bought house just around the corner from us.

it’s to be a sort of copy of the very header image of this blog, which comes off a quilt i made for my sister, with jim drawing the dragon in the first place.  he draws all my dragons; we collaborate on fabric art that way.

it’s a bit of a challenge trying to duplicate the blend of dyes on silk, using glass paint on plastic.  i was sitting there thinking how it would look done in stained glass, whether you could approach the subtleties of dye on silk.

i thought about how you’d render stained-glass leading in the medium of silk painting.  you could use a permanent resist if you wanted it to remain.  you could use sugar syrup that dissolves readily with water, like i do, or you can take the middle path and use water-based gutta like most people do.

i thought about doing a dragon painting in my new favorite medium – encaustic.  the way i did it in silk is to resist the outlines of the scales, and then apply a drop of yellow, red and blue in turn inside the scale, blending them all later with a coat of clear water.

in wax, i could outline the scales in white and fill them with colored wax, and fuse the whole thing at once, to molten wax.  or i could trace in the white and fuse that, and then put the colors in and fuse them.  wax is generally harder to melt the second time around, especially wax paste, which retains a bit of the orange oil until its been heated a few times, and so i guess the melting point goes up every time.  i don’t have the equipment to test it.

so okay, here’s my breakthru genius thought that just came to me.  i was sitting there thinking of how tedious it would be to draw in all those scales with a  palette knife, or worse, a brush.

and suddenly i saw it.

a pastry bag.

simply put the wax into the bag and squeeze it out wherever i want it, as thick or thin a line as i like. ooooooooh.

now, you can’t do this with neoorthodox encaustic methods, because they don’t work with solvents.  they work with molten wax, applying molten wax to a surface while it’s drying, which is a skillset i hope never to have to acquire.

we work with solvents.  it’s a bad thing, surely, and we’ll be punished etc.  but the thing is we’re using orange oil, and it’s much less toxic all the way around, and easy to ventilate away.  the reason we do this is because it’s really easy and fun to paint with wax paste.  paste wax.  like taking car polish out of the can and smearing it on with your hands.  that kind of fun.  personally i like painting with palette knives and wax, but on big paintings i’ll use my hands.  i used to love finger painting because i could feel it.  there’s nothing like using your fingers.

anyway, with beeswax mixed with orange oil (and you don’t have to melt the beeswax to do this, either, because the oil melts it in just a day or two), you can just load up a pastry bag with a lump of wax medium, put on a tip, and excrete lines of any size, shape, or direction that you want.

i can’t wait to try it out.  it’s sure to work, the only issue would be cleaning the bag, but sticking it in a jar of orange oil for awhile would do the trick.  i won’t get to trying it out until well after xmas, considering all the things i am currently working on and have yet to get around to.  but i’m very excited by the idea at all, and wanted to get it out there for anyone who’s interested to try.

more different progress

i consider this finished.  in addition to the blue, i stuck on some more burnt umber on the trees, made the stripes on the palms by scraping some paint away, and took some of the light greens i used on the barn painting and put highlights on the plants.  then i made some van gogh stars to show how full of humidity the horizon was, and put in a couple of vague breaking waves, darkened the porch railing, and that’s it.  i’ll sign the back, and give it to the little kid who suggested it as a painting.

this is the amsterdam boat pastel underpainting, covered in wax paste prior to burning in.  the wax is very goopy because of the orange oil, more than i usually put in so that it would be goopy.  jim makes it up a lot stiffer than i need, so i just add orange oil on the top and come back in a few days to stir it all up as it dissolves.  the reason the wax is so damned opaque is that it hasn’t been burned in yet.

you can see how much clearer the wax is once it’s been melted and allowed to cool once more.  the idea behind the melting is to fuse all the layers of wax together.  this is partly unnecessary when you’re working with wax and citrus solvent mixed together to form a wax paste, because it’s not in layers when you do that, it’s got a solvent in it so the layers dissolve together.  or would, if i didn’t burn them in.  i like the burning in.

some painters use wax paste instead of molten wax (which they call ‘real encaustic TM’).  these soft wax painters come from an artist name of joel reeves who taught this in the late ’50s and early ’60s.  back then, everyone, from karl zerbe to jasper johns used solvents in their wax, but the solvent was turpentine, which is horribly toxic when inhaled as a heated fume.  so nobody does this anymore.  the proponents of ‘real encaustic TM‘ insist that all solvents are bad bad bad, and concentrate on using molten wax.  this means that the wax is heated constantly, and repeatedly, which does bad things to the wax (shortens the molecule chain every time) and puts beeswax and damar fumes into the air.  so the ‘real TM’ crowd hyperventilate their studios using industrial strength fume hoods and osha face masks.  this is a ridiculous overreaction to fumes, you can ask any oil painter who uses solvents.

anyway, we don’t take the safe-at-all-costs stance, and think the ‘real encaustic TM’ crowd are a little off the deep end.  we were taught to use solvents and paste wax, and avoid overheating the beeswax, and so when we discovered orange oil, we were delighted.  it’s mostly nontoxic.  you can eat it.  it makes me hungry to work with it.  the smell is highly pleasant, and i’ve got asthma and so should know if it’s harmful when inhaled.  and it’s not harmful to me.  the msds says it’s gras – generally recognized as safe, but others warn of liver toxicity, so it’s a good idea to have a fan going so the fumes don’t concentrate.  but it’s not going to kill either of us, and the effects you can get with paste wax burned in are tremendous – i can do details.

i’m not sure if i’ll be continuing with the boat and reflections painting, as i’m running out of time to experiment, and this painting isn’t an experiment but a real painting.

note on the luan panels.  i’ve been trying to cut the sheet down into boards, and am having trouble.  the circular saw is too rough and will tear the delicate wood up, so we’re not even trying that.  we tried the hand saw, but it was slow.  i tried a mat knife and it took for fucking ever, and i went out and got cutting blades for my dremel tool, but it would only cut halfway thru, and when i tried to score and snap it, the plywood broke at different places.  so we asked jim’s son michael, a professional woodworker, to cut it for me.  that way i don’t ruin all my panels, just the first four i tried to cut myself.

end of one phase, start of another

i’ve been attempting to make an encaustic painting on top of pelon fastened to foamcore.  pelon is a nonwoven interfacing fabric used in sewing.  foamcore is a lightweight plastic backing material used in picture framing.  neither is recommended for encaustic, but the idea was to use some sort of very lightweight substrate so that i wouldn’t have to haul masonite around in my luggage, which weighs a ton.  the idea was to make encaustic paintings by the bundle, using temporary backing, then peel it off and stack it interleaved with wax paper in order to bring it back home.

in this photo, you’re looking at a half-burned in layer of wax.  on the left, it’s still white and pasty-looking (this is a layer of mostly clear wax with a little bit of titanium white to make a veil).  this is mainly because the wax sort of foams, or whitens, as it’s spread onto the board with a palette knife.  once it’s hit with a grow light (which is the tool i use to burn in, while many others use a heat gun or blowtorch), and the wax melts, it unfortunately absorbs right into the pelon, which is not what i want.

lesson one:  pelon needs to be sized if i don’t want to lose a pound of wax into the fabric.  if i had sealed it with acrylic, i wouldn’t have such an absorbent surface, and i could have started making a waxy surface immediately.

what i’m trying to do here is to build up enough wax so that i have an actual waxy surface, and so far, as i wrote in my last post, it’s taken 6 layers, which is too much.  and it’s looking more crappy with every layer.

this layer, which is cobalt blue, is the first layer to even remotely surmount the pelon substrate.  and i’m not elated at all.

lesson two:  pelon needs to be totally stretched onto the substrate because it tends to loosen when wet.  i thought pelon didn’t stretch out when it got wet.  but it’s like any fabric, it seems.  now it has creases and bubbles, which effects how the wax goes down and what it looks like when it’s burned in.  which is not at all smooth.

another layer, this time a thick one of clear beeswax, because i’m tired of waiting for the wax to build up properly and i’m going to shortcut it with a bunch of wax.  but the trouble with this layer is that i’m going rather easy on the burning in process, hoping that by not hanging around with the light after it goes molten, i might not be encouraging the wax to disappear into the pelon.  or is it going under the pelon?  is the pelon just sort of floating on a thicker and thicker bed of wax?  it’s most frustrating.

the layers might be churning when they’re melting.  i find that when i melt a big pool of wax, sometimes the different layers of pigment start to mix mechanically.  this is bad, because it produces a bland gray area.

what’s not happening is smooth layers of color.  the whole thing is blotchy, no doubt influenced by the creases and bubbles, which seem to  be getting bigger, rather than disappearing under a layer of wax and becoming invisible.

this time i put a layer of clear wax with a little white in it, to veil over the sky and make it more vague and grayed out.  and what’s happening is that i’m not burning the wax all the way in, ie. not making it completely molten when i heat it up.  that leaves areas of ‘raw’ wax, wax that can be spread with a finger after the whole thing cools down.  if you have raw wax, then you don’t have a good seal between layers, you don’t have semitransparency, you don’t have anything but a layer of candle dripping on an otherwise ‘attractive’ painting.

the answer would be to go at it with the heat lamp until that yellow buildup melts and levels.  but at this point i’ve got a waxy buildup on my surface, which is what i want.  and by the time i reheat that unmelted wax, it’s going to be running all over the painting instead of staying in place like a nice little painting.

my frustration level is thru the roof.  at this point i’m trying to proceed with the process simply to find out how hard it will be to get what i want, and since this exercise is all about learning how to use lightweight materials to make a painting, i don’t really need to go thru the fine details with black, which is the next big step to be taken once i’ve got a good background, because black and white are the hardest colors to work with in encaustic (black melts first, white melts last, so you’ve got to be strategic about using them.)

okay, i’ve had enough.  the colors you see in this final stage are because i finally put the painting outside to photograph it.  the previous shots are all taken in the studio under artificial light, and often with a flash, and i’m not an expert in photoshop color correction.  so.

like i said, i’ve had enough.  you can see the ‘raw’ beeswax on the left.  it’s still yellow.  at this point i’ve drawn a finger thru it and realized it was still uncured, un-burned-in.  so i grabbed one side of the pelon and peeled the painting away from the substrate.  on the right is the foamcore i had the pelon pinned to.

the foamcore layer is quite interesting.  the wax sure did go right thru the damned pelon and accumulated on the substrate, which is useless because you can’t see it.  it’s got better color, tho, and these little tiny pinprick holes where the wax didn’t go thru.  you can’t see most of these holes in the picture, but they’re very interesting.  they look like a sky full of stars, which is kind of where i was going with this.  the streaks are what was under the creases and bubbles, and the white parts at the top are where the wax stuck to the back of the pelon and lifted from the foamcore.

so really, a complete failure, and a good thing i’m spending this month testing my materials, or i’d be up shit’s creek.  tomorrow i’m going to home depot for a 4’x8′ sheet of luan, which i will cut into 8x10s and 16x20s, which will fit into my suitcase, and i can (hopefully) happily make paintings from this.  so i scraped both surfaces clean and put the wax into a container with a little orange oil to dissolve it.  i’ll use it as gunge when i make another planet painting.

so that’s it for the pelon on foamcore experiment.  it was a failure.  fine.  but i learned a lot.

now i’m going to turn my attention back to my oil painting, which i’m also trying to come up to speed on.  in a prior post i showed my progress painting a beach at night scene in oil on panel, in this case masonite, for a friend.  i got the first layer on two days ago, and i’m still waiting for it to be tacky enough to proceed with, which had me all panicky the other day – how am i supposed to finish a bunch of oil paintings and pack them up wet to take home?

but i thought about it, and amn’t going to be painting oil on panel during my residency.  i’m going to be painting oil on linen, because i’m taking a roll of 6 yards of linen that i bought ten years ago and have never used.  and i’ve never actually painted on linen, so i got two 8×10 stretched and primed canvases out from jim’s stash and started in on them with another material i’ve never used before, conte crayons.

to illustrate the point i made in my last post, where i said that the trouble with pastels is that when you fix them all the chalk turns clear.  pastellists hate this, but that’s why i don’t like pastels – they’re too pastelly, too pasty.  there’s too much chalk in them and they look chalky.  if i were to do pastels, i would fix the shit out of them to get rid of that awful pastel look.  i’m just a rebel.

so here is the preliminary tonal drawing in unfixed conte crayon.  it’s an upstate new york farmhouse and barn in the misty morning, and it’s quite a nice reference photo that i’d been meaning to tackle for some time.  what i’ve done is the usual, indicating the various shades of light and darkness.  it’s rough, but good enough for me to start with.

now when i fix it with a dilute acrylic sprayed on with a mouth atomizer, you can see where i’ve lost a lot of the brightness.  that’s because the chalk is now transparent, as it should be.  the chalk is a filler.  it would be insanely expensive to make pastels using only pigment and gum tragacanth (the binder), so you need to extend the pigment using an inert filler – a filler that bulks out the pastel without changing its working characteristics.  the fact that there’s chalk in the filler, and that this chalk shows in unfixed paintings, is or should be irrelevant.  but pastellists strive to make the painting look good while it’s being painted, and don’t seem to get that it’s supposed to darken when you fix it, and that you’re supposed to fix it.  so there’s a huge tendency in pastel painting to try and avoid fixing, instead of adjusting to the process by making your colors more intense in preparation for fixing.  but never mind.  i don’t paint in pastel because it’s too pastel and i like sharper colors.

here is the first layer of paint on top of the fixed conte drawing.  i started with chrome green and white, thinned with orange oil (the fat over lean rule, start thinning with turpentine, or in this case orange oil solvent and in the next layers add more oil).  i put this into the grayed out treeline in the distance.  then i mixed up some viridian with a tiny bit of white and put it in the middle ground.  at this point i ran right out of my viridian, so i had to mix up some more.

the tip of the palette knife full of viridian dry pigment, a scrape of the mixture of calcium carbonate and sun thickened linseed oil i’m using as filler, mix that together and add a brushfull of orange oil.  i put this second batch of stronger paint into the foreground.  then i mixed just a little ultramarine blue into the viridian and put it in the middle-ground trees.  and then i came back with  more blue and put it in the shadows of the background trees, and in the foreground in the shadows of the plants.

then i took what little tiny bit of raw umber i still had on my palette from two days before when i did the beach scene, and mixed it into the blue shadows in the trees and on the side of the barn.

i mixed up a teeny tiny bit of burnt sienna and put it in the barn, and then took my white and did the house and the sky.  and since i didn’t feel like mixing up any more black yet, i stuck what was left of the white on the roof of the barn.

now i have my first layer of paint, which needs to dry before i can start in on a second layer.  i expect this to be dry tomorrow when i go down to the studio, because this is how i expect oil paint to react.  but then, i know what to expect when i use paints right out of the tube, and this isn’t one of those times.  this time i have mixed up my own paints, and know every ingredient in them, unlike with tubed paints, where you have no fucking clue what the manufacturer has put into the paint.  there could be driers in the paint, which make it tacky quicker.  there could be a bunch of things in there.

progress on the paintings

i’m tired of doing things the commercially approved way.  i don’t like wearing fashionable clothing, i don’t like being a consumer, i don’t like living in air conditioning.  i also don’t like painting the modern way.  i don’t want to squeeze my paints out of a tube that i don’t know what’s in it, i want to mix everything from scratch.  the way the old masters painted.

of course, this comes with its own pricetag.  the learning curve is what i’m talking about.  there’s a big difference in the way paint goes on when you do it the commercially approved way, and when you mix it up yourself.  all the paint manufacturers go on about how buttery the paint is, how little filler they use.  one manufacturer claims to use no fillers at all.  just pigment and linseed oil.

but when i mix up pigment and linseed oil on my palette, i get a gloppy, thin syrup.  that’s why i abandoned the oil painting experiment i started at the beach.  no body whatsoever.  not without fillers.

above is the oil painting i’m working on.  it’s the beach as seen from our screened-in porch, at night.  it’s on a panel, and i’m mixing up my paints from dry pigments, calcium carbonate (chalk or marble dust) and linseed oil.  as you can see within the glare off the flash, it’s not dry yet.  there are drips.  that’s what i noticed first when i looked at it this morning.  it’s still wet, not just tacky.  there was no way i could continue it this morning.  i just have to let it dry.

my question to jim was what made all the difference?  when i was using oil paint that came in tubes and cost big bucks, i got this thick, buttery consistency right out of the tube, and i hated using any thinner on it at all because i just loved the consistency.  i could put it on and it would stay right where i put it and look great.  when i used the stuff i mixed up at the beach, it slopped and ran and bled out all over the place.

the difference is fillers.  a mixture of pigment and oil, unless you use a shitload of pigment, is going to be syrupy.  so you add an inert filler that disappears into the oil.  did you know that chalk turns transparent when you wet it?  it doesn’t just wash away, it disappears.  how’s that for invisible ink?  can you just see kids making use of sidewalk chalk that way?  this is the reason why pastel artists hate to use fixative.  one pass with the spray can and all the light colors just disappear into the paper substrate.

but in oil paints, it’s great.  i can add a bunch of ground chalk (marble, limestone, calcium carbonate) and make the paint as thick and bodyful as i like, and it’s as simple as that.

so to yesterday’s line of little cups of handmixed paint – titanium white, ultramarine blue, raw umber, and carbon black – i added a little pile of chalk to mix into the paint to thicken it.

perhaps tomorrow i can start putting glazes on, and add a bit of color.

this pitiful example of a painting is the encaustic version of the same scene.  yesterday i got a piece of pelon, cut it to the wrong size (too short to fully wrap around), and with a slight rip in it, and mounted it not exactly tightly.  evidently pelon shrinks.  evidently you have to stretch it when you stretch it, because it loosens way up once you start putting wax down.

i’m learning a lot doing this.  all the mistakes i’m making and all the consequences they will have during the making of this painting, these are all very instructive things i’m doing.  it’s painful.

i’m not liking this method.  for one thing, it’s on pelon.  i should probably try muslin tomorrow, that’s jim’s suggestion.  another reason to hate it is because i’m working with foamcore as the substrate.  it’s stiff, and that’s good for a substrate, but it’s light, and i can feel a dent already where i have put the wax of the ocean, that greenish horizontal stripe in the middle-ish of the painting.

pelon seems to be highly absorbent.  i still, after many layers, don’t have the shine of wax.  my layers so far:

1. the original blocking in of color – an old grayed blue from the palette, the greenishness of palette scrapings dissolved into orange oil, and the dark brown of raw umber on the bottom third where all the vegetation is going to be.

2. a layer of beeswax with only a veil of titanium white in it, over the sky and the sea.

3. another veil of white in the middle, over the lower sky and the upper sea, and a layer of brown microcrystalline wax and raw umber over the upper sky and the lower sea.

4. a thin layer of cobalt blue over the sky and sea, making it act as a transparent pigment, which it isn’t when used thickly.

5. another veil of white over the entire sky and sea.

6. and another veil of white.

i burned in each layer, and watched as the wax melted on top of the pelon, turn completely molten, and then sink into the pelon, leaving only the texture of the fabric, which is a mat of small fibers.

so this sucks.  how much wax do i have to use to begin to get a wax buildup that i can buff?

i’ve had that problem before, when i tried to do a very persnickety little encaustic painting of a greek orthodox icon over cotton.  i ended up scorching the fabric, and the fine details of the faces and clothing was very difficult with all that texture to bump over.

i’m sorry, i want a smooth surface to start my encaustic paintings on.  but masonite‘s too damned heavy to carry in my luggage.  i want luan panels, but i don’t want to go to an art supply store and pay retail for the damned things.

i’ll try the muslin next, and go back to home depot to see if they don’t sell luan.

i’m having real trouble representing the night with its most subtle colors, but maybe i can get to that later.  right now i’m tired, and think i’ll try going back to bed.

marie’s fountain – choices

there is in the life of every painting, a time when real, lasting choices have to be made, and there’s no going back from there.  in this case, it’s time to completely ruin its value as a watercolor by gluing it down to a board and putting a coat of varnish over it.

ooh, anathema, you cry.  intense discomfort, anxiety and fear overcome you.  why, it’s just wrong.

yeah, well.  tough.

you may notice that the photos accompanying this blog post aren’t of the marie’s fountain painting.  that’s because i found it necessary to perform a couple of experiments before taking the final steps quite so irrevocably.   bear with me.

i was thinking about it this afternoon – the first time i’d been able to spend any time in the studio for about a week.  jim and i had cut the panel a couple of days ago, and i was standing around downstairs waiting for a couple of coats of black gesso to dry on it.  i was putting on a couple of layers of black, and then i was mixing up some burnt umber and ultramarine blue and put it on over that, to enrich the black.  and then since we didn’t have any green earth acrylic mixed up, i took some matte medium and a couple of knives-full of terre verte pigment (and some chrome green, which is opaque), and mixed it up as a final glaze.  this went on streaky, because i am lousy at mixing, and don’t really care.  i actually liked the streaks, so i made sure to use up all the green acrylic mix painting the edges where it might actually show once the paper was down.

but i hate acrylic.  it’s so dead.  it smells funny.  it’s lifeless and dull.  yuk.  this is the part i like the least, the coating out and sticking on part.  i’m not yet comfortable with it, and the plasticity, the fakeness of the medium really bothers me.  like using some sort of fiberglass that you just know is breaking down your liver.  (this is me who chooses to breathe hot orange oil fumes instead of doing encaustic the ‘right’ way by overheating beeswax and ventilating my studio with a vacuum attachment over my nose.  selective squeamishness.)

i was actually thinking – why not use wax to stick the painting down and varnish it?  marie’s husband keeps bees, after all, and would appreciate a topcoat of shiny, fragrant beeswax over the painting.  wouldn’t he?  i was in the midst of talking to jim about this when i thought, well, i need to experiment with this one before i decide.

i’d just been regarding the 8″ strip i’d torn off of the thumbs-up-diner painting i’m trying to finish now.  i was looking at it sitting on top of the trashcan and thinking what a shame it was that i was fixing to crumple up this fine watercolor paper and toss it in the garbage.  i should use the back of it, or something.

so i snatched up the paper, found a piece of hardboard (masonite, in this case quite literally, even tho they haven’t made masonite in years – that’s how old our stock of panels is), and got out the acrylic matte medium and the jar of beeswax and orange oil.

if i were going to mount a painting, i’d use a lot more care than this.  but i was actually happy for the excuse to rip up paper and slap acrylic on it and smoosh it down with my fingers and coat it with ooky acrylic medium with my fingers.  it was gooky, i had to use a paper towel, and i got acrylic medium all over my palette knife.

i guess it’s time to explain the picture above.  the top half of the photo shows strips of paper towel marked with black where i had been coating out the panel.  on top of this in the right hand corner is a bunch of torn-up strips of watercolor paper.  the section on top is the continuation of the torn up piece on the bottom left.  you can see the edges of the unpainted framed picture, and the shirt on some guy’s back.

the bottom half of the photo shows the board, which is coated out with gray acrylic gesso.  on the right is the top part of the painting strip, the ceiling with the yellow clock and a light fixture hanging beside it.  that’s the part i glued down with acrylic using my fingers and a lot of goop.  the left side looks cloudy, and that’s because it has a fresh coat of wax over it.  i carved some out of the jar with my palette knife, scraped it over the back of the painting and then put it down and took a brayer to it (a rubber roller to press out the air bubbles).  then i carved out some more wax and smeared it on the surface, and tried my damnedest to smooth it out with my fingers, but since i never took the time to thin the wax out to a workable consistency, i deserved the way it soaped up and flaked.  it reminded me of the way wax acts when you whip it for funky candle effects.

the first thing i noticed was that nothing i was doing to the watercolor paper was causing the least little bit of running.  when you put something wet down onto watercolor, you expect the colors to run.  but there was no movement at all from putting sloppy acrylic down, and no movement under the wax either.  perhaps gum arabic doesn’t react with wax, fine, but acrylic is water-based and you’d think watercolor would move right away.  but, like i said, nothing.  perhaps it’s because this painting is so old.  gum arabic hardens more with time, and some of the watercolors i’ve had sitting out on the palette for fifteen years or so just won’t dissolve up anymore.  so maybe that’s it.

the second thing i noticed was that i should have used bleached beeswax.  you can see the difference in the whites.  the torn edges of the piece on the right are white white, and so is the face of the clock and the light fixture.  on the left hand piece, the whites are yellowed.  it’s not a whole lot, but it’s significant.

on this second picture, you can see the results.  just not very well.

the third thing i noticed was that it takes so much longer to put on and burn in a coat of wax than it does to slap a coat of acrylic on both sides and smoosh it down.  the right side, the side i used the acrylic on, was down, stuck, and dried in a matter of minutes.  but it showed brushstrokes, or in this case, fingermarks.  there’s no reason to have brushstrokes on a watercolor.  aesthetically it’s kind of offensive.  that’s been the trouble with the two watercolors i’ve mounted and varnished so far.  the varnishes i’ve used have been put on with a brush, and it has left brushstrokes.  the answer to this is to thin the acrylic way down and use an atomizer to apply it.  but i haven’t done that yet, partly out of fear of violating the manufacturer’s directions on the uv topcoat i’ve been using (which in general call for way more than is necessary just so you have to go out and buy more).

it took a good half an hour to burn in the wax on the left piece of paper.  i use a heat lamp, so burning in is always tedious, slow but sure, and i had to go back several times to melt out drips and lumps.  i was worried about scorching the paper most of all.  this is because when i did an encaustic on top of canvas mounted on board, i ended up scorching the cotton of the canvas.  and watercolor paper is made of cotton.  but tho the paper absorbed some of the wax in spots, it didn’t scorch the paper, or change the colors.

the funny thing was that the wax melted gast or slow, according to the underlying color.  (i totally expect this in encaustic, where the pigment is mixed in with the wax which you then melt.  but this was a finished watercolor and dry as a bone, and i didn’t expect dried pigment to have a similar effect.  tho, because it’s all a matter of albedo, it’s obvious that it should have.  it just surprised me, and seemed even more pronounced than when i’m just burning in pigmented wax.)  where there was black, as in the area near the roof, around the frame, and the guy’s hair, the wax melted the fastest and it seemed the watercolor would run because it was molten everywhere there was black, and still translucent yellow wax everywhere else.  but tho the wax was molten, the underlying granularity of the black was accentuated but didn’t go anywhere.

when wax is molten, it’s clear.  you can see right down into it, and everything looks just as wet and intense as it can.  when the wax cools, it becomes translucent again, and you lose some of the wetness, the clarity, the depth.  it retains enough of these properties to be intriguing as hell, but the only one who sees the clarity and depth is the artist.  the viewer never sees this, and it’s a pity, because this is wax at its most magical.

there was one place where the wax holding the painting onto the board melted, and ran out underneath the paper, which began to lift off.  but while it was still molten i stuck it down with a finger, and it stayed just fine.  once it hardened, i could see that the yellowness was much abated, but still obvious, the colors were a bit muted but not at all runny, and the surface of the paper wasn’t entirely even and i would have to go back and cover spots with the necessary re-melting and all the trouble it can be to keep the melt lines smooth.  else that or scrape it with a razor blade.

because i still wasn’t sure about the non-running part of all this, i took that piece of paper that had the continuation of the picture frame and the guy’s shirt, ripped that in half, and dunked the top strip into a basin of water for five seconds.  you can see above that nothing ran at all, even after dunking, and this isn’t usual, so it must be the age of the painting.  which means i’m going to have to seal my freshly painted watercolor surface before i even glue it down to the board.

what have i decided to do?  i don’t know yet.  jim is pretty strong on the idea that i should mount it with acrylic, since it’s more permanent than wax, which might slip a little on a hot day, tho it would have to be over 100 inside the house, and we’re the only fools who’d stand for that (and our encaustics are fine, thanks).  and he’s pretty insistent that i coat out the surface with acrylic before putting anything on top, just in case.   all the tiny details and sharp-focussed work i did on marie’s fountain, it shouldn’t be ruined by a careless top coat.  and i agree with that.

so tomorrow the testing i have to do is to go back to the right side of the board and put a coat of wax over the acrylic-coated paper, burn that in, and see what it looks like.  if i like the look of the wax on top of the acrylic, then i can proceed with it on the real painting.  and if not, then i can continue to refine the acrylic coating until i’m happy with the no-brushstrokes look i’m aiming for.  and then i can put it all together.  but i really need to think about doing it in wax.  it’s so appropriate.

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.