holbox house 3

i finally finished it.  i made all sorts of mistakes.  you can’t just slap a bunch of wax onto a panel and expect it to fuse up nicely.  what it wants to do is melt, run together, and churn.  and we can’t have that.  that’s what happened to the palm tree in the center.  it was nice and crisp and full of detail, but when i melted the white roof and walls next to it, the thing ran and churned and i didn’t even notice it, because the white wax was still solid and i was getting impatient.


that’s when i decided to mask off the areas i didn’t need to burn in, meaning covering everything i’ve already done with paper.  i used the backs of both the 8.5×11 photos i was using as reference, as well as an envelope, and torn up pieces of some laser-printed receipt.

white throws off the heat.  i’ve got a heat lamp an inch from the surface of the painting, and after a few moments things start to get a little shiny, maybe sweat a little (i’m using orange oil as thinner, and it begins to off-gas at a low temperature).  then the surface gets way shiny, and i can see the reflection of the bulb clearly.  then edges go away and pigment starts to move as the wax liquifies and flows away from the heat.

dark colors, in general, heat up faster, and liquify many seconds before white does.  putting the black windows in first, therefore, is a mistake.  so is putting them in anything but last, especially over top of white.  here i am trying for subtle shadows, and all i get is smears of gray.  the thing to have done would have been to put the white down first and get it good and burned in, therefore good and hard.  i have a theory that the more you heat the wax, the more brittle and hard it becomes.  this is just a theory, and it goes way against the current ‘standard’ practice of keeping the wax molten and brushing it on while hot, because hours of molten wax just isn’t good for the wax’s structure.  i’m convinced, anyway.  since i use solvents, it could be that heating it multiple times doesn’t make it tough but rather makes it normal by evaporating away more and more of the solvent.  however, i think it evaporates more and more of the softer qualities of the wax.  perhaps we’ll see.  i’m going to do another post on the encaustic process itself, soon…


this is the middle stage of the painting, where everything looks awful.  i’m still altering the shape of the house, for example, and the road is giving me fits.  it’s a sand road, because nothing is paved on that island.  and it’s not our typical sand, either, because it’s not exactly white and it’s not black or gray or brown.  so i ended up putting all colors into it, the way i tend to do with richly colored and textured objects.  and while you can make out the things in the background, you’d be hard pressed to report that it was a rather casual airport, with 2 palapas and a plane behind a rail fence and some cinderblock walls.  for the road, i kept slapping on clear wax, or somewhat white colored wax, sort of a hand-mixed buff titanium color.  layer after layer, burned in and burned in, until most of the color was obscured.  and most of the shadows on the road.


the gold ochre on top of the burnt sienna bottom of the house was an inspired idea.  not.  i wanted to do something to darken the shadows inside the porch, and didn’t really want to get anywhere near the black doors, so i lightened the other red blocks instead.  and it looks really messy.  then i had to darken and re-texturize the plam tree.  and then i had to beef up the background some more.  and then add fence rails, which i had to do by carving out the wax next to the house, slipping thin wax into the lines, and burning it in only until it began to run.  the white of the window frame was done by scraping the wax off down to the gesso.  and i had to redo it every time i heated anything around it.  at some point the wax ran even tho i had paper masking it from the sunlamp’s ray’s.  there was a lot of redo in the house.  the grass was actually pretty hard, because i had to put in a bunch of colors before it started to look like it had any depth.  and then the marks on the road.  i incised lines, and you can still see some of the top incision, and then put in dark raw umber and melted it.  but it looked horrible, so i melted it again.  and then it was still a bit awkward, so i did it a third time.

and that’s the beauty of wax.  it attenuates the more you melt it.  you can use the churning effect to your advantage if what you really want is a muddy gray.

that’s the painting.  it’s about 9×12 and will fit in someone’s suitcase the next time they go to holbox to visit.  tia can hang it in her house, or leave it in the sun if she really just doesn’t like it.  it looks passable at about 8 feet, which is where it should be seen from, and the details of the wax look best close up.  you’ll never figure out where i’ve signed it unless you’re looking at the tail of the plane with a magnifying glass.  i hope they don’t think i’m insulting them with a crappy painting, and instead become seduced by the wax into thinking it’s a work of actual art and an homage to their kindness.  but you never know how your art will be received.



holbox house 2


here’s the process picture for the encaustic painting i’m doing as a thanks to tia mercedes down in holbox.  she put us up for three days when we went down there to visit jim’s son’s wife’s relatives, and i was grateful, so thought i’d paint her a picture.  i’d do it in watercolor, but watercolor will fade horribly quickly in a tropical environment.  it’s the intensity of the light and the thinness of the pigment layer.  but wax is another animal, and a wax painting won’t fade nearly as quickly.  there are wax paintings still extant that were done in the first century bc, and they haven’t faded.

you’ll have to look further down the blog to find the first images.  the painting has come a long way since then, without being anything like nearly finished.  it’s still got a long way to go.

the first thing i did was to put in the black windows. once they were melted, i went in with a cestrum and scratched out the white mullion lines.  on reflection, this was a mistake.

when you learn watercolor, they teach you to start with the lights and move toward dark.  of course, i routinely violate that rule, not being able to resist putting in some darks right away.  it’s only when i’m building a portrait that i go strictly from light to dark, and that’s because i’m feeling my way with a portrait, and want nothing committed until the very end.

when you do wax painting, you realize pretty quickly that one of the biggest influences on melting point temperature is the color.  the lighter the color, the longer it takes to melt.  this is due to albedo, and is one of the things we had to study when i was taking environmental science in college, back in the 70s yes i’m that old.  albedo is a measure of a body’s reflectiveness.  when you heat up white wax, a whole lot of the heat gets reflected back off the surface, and the wax takes a long time to soften.  when you heat up black wax, the heat goes into the wax and stays there, and you have to be really careful not to enmolten the pool of wax and have it run all over the place, because it’ll keep heating up even after you’ve removed the heat source, dark wax is that temperature absorbent.

so, turns out i’m a real idiot for putting the black windows in as early as i did.  every time i pass a light over the house, the black starts to glisten and the white is just as solid as ever. this is where i start to use masking to protect elements of the painting.  at this point i’ve put on 3 or 4 layers of white on the house, as well as 2-3 layers of shadow of various darknesses, and when i try to burn it in, the two colors mix in a way not conducive to showing architectural details.  like, no straight lines, not after you’ve melted the wax.  wonderful accidental curves and curlicues, great sedimentation the way you get with some pigments in watercolor, blending of a type not possible any other way than by melting and pooling.  but architectural details?  forget it.  very fucking difficult.  might as well find a way to avoid needing straight lines and sharp edges in the making of a wax painting, because it is very fucking difficult.

so i’m going to end up with another fuzzy painting.  i’m not complaining, because i’m not sure that i don’t like the effect, but it’s about as far away as the nit-picky way i used to paint with watercolors as is possible.  look at some of the detail i used to do in watercolor and you’ll see the difference.


can’t do that in wax. not unless it’s on a very large scale.

back to the holbox painting.  i worked on the background.  there’s 2 palapas and an airplane back there, and now that’s a little clearer.  but you still won’t see it without knowing there’s an airport down the street.  and i put some clear wax on the road and worked some more blues and purples into it.  and i worked on the palm trees with a fan brush, enabling me to put on actual palm frond-looking spiky leaf things.  of course, all this came for naught on the left palm tree, the one behind the house.  when i went to melt that white wax, i ended up obliterating the palm details, because all that lovely green and textured wax turned into a transparent pool of floating pigments, and started to churn.  not happy.

using one of my handy sculpting tools (a case of about 10 small tools with different points on each one) i scratched out the negative space in the railings around both floors of the house, as well as the holes between the stair railings.  i filled these scraped places with dark wax, wiped it off the positive areas, and burned it in, not enough to where the scraped places became level with the built-up places.  that would be to moltenify the wax, and it would have meant the colors would have runned and flowed.  i’m at the point where i don’t want that.  this was one of those points where it becomes obvious that the drawing is wrong.  the tilt of each floor is off just enough to make me nauseous.  i corrected the roofline a couple of times, and corrected the second floor line as well, and it finally got to the point where i was just getting a crick in my neck from looking at it.  this involved scraping away the excess or carving out space for the negative space, depending on whether the original line was too low or high as a perspective line, and filling it with either sky, white, or shadow, depending.  when i was done fucking with the railings i saw that i was going to have to restate both the white walls and the shadows and edges one more time.

there’s lots of work still left in it, and today’s session was very frustrating, because i’m going thru a hate the painting phase.  it’s the middle phase of a painting, when things are horribly ugly and you don’t want to go on.  i must have cleaned seven things today, trying to avoid the ugliness.  but at 8-10 feet it starts to look not so bad, and so i’ll finish it.

i reinforced the shadows and restated the white today.  to do this i had to use 4 pieces of paper to mask off the areas i didn’t want to heat.  at this point i’m putting in a color, masking off everything but that color, and then toasting that color only, while everything remains cool and unmelted behind a layer of white shiny paper that bounces all that heat back into the atmosphere.  theoretically.  what happens when your arm slips and the heatlamp cord bumps into the edge of the paper and it moves?  what happens when the melted wax gets underneath the edge of the paper protecting the delicate parts?  what happens when the heat lamp momentarily rests on the top of the paper?  what happens to the black windows underneath the paper when the white wall next to it is finally melted enough?

all those horrible details you don’t see in the photo above, that’s what.  i scraped some of the wandering wax off while it was still cooling down, and i’m going to have to restate the windows (restate, that’s a laugh.  how about scrape completely out and redo?)

so today’s work was a series of passes with a single color, followed by careful masking off of the old wax and a careful melting of the new layer just until it began to move, just a little.  and then move on to the next area and repeat.  this way i did the shadows more solidly and deeper, and the white walls whiter, and a golden sheen on the burnt sienna tiles (which still looks stupid, and i may have to excise some mortar lines into it to stop it looking so fakey).

i’m nothing like thru.  i have to do more background, and more road, and restate the windows, and make the grass greener.  all this in something like 8×10 inches.  i detest putting details into such a small scale.

because it was a new moon today, i found myself hunting for new projects.  there’s mom’s quilt.  there’s a new unpublished novel idea.  i went looking for water reflections to do in encaustic for my next painting, and found reference photos of the stream at sugar hollow in virginia, a river in north georgia stocked with trout, and a canal reflecting buildings in venice.  i cleaned up a lot.

and now it’s 4 am again.  i’m not up because of anything except i couldn’t sleep.  and now jim’s up as well, and he’s put o the coffee, and found a magazine, so i’m going to go sit with him in bed and talk for awhile, after which we’ll both go back to sleep.

i’m back

i’ve been away. wasting my life watching swine flu build into a thoroughly unimpressive disaster. oh well.

it’s obsessed me since april, and now i’m getting back to life as usual, meaning art. so, what have i been doing?



my sister was in town to take us to the beach. i haven’t done any paintings of the beach. but then we went up to tennessee to visit some friends, and passed this huge sunflower field. i just had to paint it.

what i like about encaustic so much is its unpredictability. you can put it on any way you like, but once the wax starts melting, it does its own thing. that’s what i like about painting dyes on silk, and i deliberately use methods to encourage the running of the dyes, like using sugar syrup as a resist.

i think i’ve figured out what my predilection is in painting. in cooking, i do stews. in fabric, i end up with tie-dye. in painting, i end up with every color in every part of the painting. see all the purple? so what i want is a medium that lets me do that, lets me blend the colors on the canvas and layer colors and make things run.

i think i’ve found my medium. or one of them. finger painting used to be it for me years ago. that’s a stew, too.

something about using the cold wax method of encaustic. it may not be traditional, but so what? the art was lost in the 9th century anyway, and the traditionalists are all about the most modern tools and innovations (except for the sacred recipe for the wax medium itself). anyway. when you dilute the sacred medium with orange oil, you get a wax paste that you can put on with a palette knife or a stiff brush, and you can dilute it so much that you could put it on with a sable brush. i did it in the painting of my sewing room. personally, i like using the palette knife. it’s the first medium where i’ve felt comfortable using a palette knife, and i really get off on it. it’s almost better than finger painting. i’m not adept at it by any means, but so what, that’s what practice is for.

wax is impasto when you put it on, no matter if it’s molten or merely softened by solvents. i like impasto. i like texture. i like to feel things with my fingers. that’s why fabric is such a wonderful thing. not only color, but texture also. you don’t get stew without texture. body. not only taste, but mouth feel.

i like being able to put down colors and then burn them in, layer by layer. i can only do this using wax paste, because the wax that i’ve already melted into the painting has a higher melting point than the wax paste, because of the solvent. so i can put down a layer of purple on top of the yellow that’s already been melted, and the purple will melt and flow fractionally sooner than the underlying layer. this means less churning.

churning is interesting, but produces large areas of single color flatness, and the beauty of wax is the interesting patterns and accidents that the wax has once it’s melted and rehardened. it sort of half blends.

traditionalists put the wax on molten, and then remelt it once it’s hardened. but that means there’s no difference in the melting point of any of the layers of wax, and you have more of a chance of way too much color shifting, or the dreaded churning. i like putting fresh layers of pigment on one at a time and then melting the stuff before it even dries. this fills traditionalists with horror, because to a person they abhor the idea of inhaling solvents.

i’ve got to tell you, i did the experiment with solvents that illustrates why you don’t want to inhale them. i worked a whole day with turpentine once, standing over the painting while heating it, smelling the rich fumes of volatilizating (wait, volatalizing, volitilicating, evaporating)  pine sap until my eyes were watering and it was difficult to draw a full breath and i was nauseous and had a headache. i can see where artists would be scared of inhaling fumes. but the answer to that is proper ventilation. once you’re breathing clean air, you’re okay. but hahaha in a big city once you’re breathing clean air you’re in the country.

i use orange oil. it’s volatile, meaning it’ll evaporate, and it’ll light i think if you hold a match to it, maybe. it’s a wonderful solvent, and when it evaporates it only stings your nose at high concentrations. i can use it all day long without making myself sick. so, using orange oil, i can have wax that handles beautifully without having to be kept in cat food containers on a hotplate. surely keeping melted wax around all day can’t but put fumes in the air.

here’s the other latest project. i figured that based on the success of the sunflowers picture, which i like a fair bit, i would go ahead and finish a project i’ve been working on, which is the painting of the house where we stayed on isla holbox in mexico. i haven’t been having much luck with it so i figured i’d coattail off the back of the other one.


as you can see, it’s a mess. i drew the picture with crayons, mainly because i could. i figured wax, use crayons, it’ll all melt together. right. charcoal would perhaps have been less trouble. the crayon looks like crayon. the trick to dealing with that is to cover the thing up with wax, so okay, fine.

i had put on the green and the blue and the white and clear wax for the road surface, but before heating it i decided i’d be better off putting down one color at a time and then burning it in, and that way limit the bleeding of teh colors into each other, particularly the crisp lines i want for the edge of the house.

so i scraped off everything but the white. i burned the white in. then i put the blue on and burned that. this is where it stayed for a week or two while i went off and did vacation things. when i came back, i put on another layer of white on the house, and stuck some pink in the road, that i’d had laying around under glass since some other painting before the sunflowers. i think it must have been venus. or maybe the mammogram painting .i don’t think i have a picture up of the mammogram painting. i’ll do another blog entry about it later.


after finishing the sunflowers painting, i came back to this one and used my dark green on the right and behind the house to the left, and used the gray green in the palm trees, and the bright green in the foreground and the trees. i melted in each color separately. then i couldn’t resist doing something with the road, so i mixed up my version of buff titanium (ochre, a little blue, loads of white) and put it down and melted it, and then went in with purple, and then with a little black. i used the same black, slightly grayed, on the walls of the hosue.

it’s all very rough at the moment. if i want to get specific, which i usually do with houses, i will have to use a  brush and paint it in, which means the wax is going to have to be thinner. this is the middle stage, which is universally ugly. it’ll improve as i do more with it. i’m still feeling my way here. landscapes in wax are different than still lives, wildlife or space pictures.

but at this stage, i kind of like the atmospheric things it’s doing.