project: encaustic sunflowers

this is one of the xmas presents i’m working on.  it’s small, so i can actually finish it.  i found a nice frame, and a gessoed panel that exactly fit it, and dug out my sunflower photos from last summer, or the summer before, and laid it all out in conte crayon.

i would get jim a set of conte crayons if i hadn’t already gotten him a set, probably last xmas.  so hard to shop for men.  i mean, he loves barnes and noble gift cards, and there’s always utrecht gift cards, but really, when it comes to art and music, he’s got everything he ever needs, in duplicate.

i’ve combined the backgrounds of two of the pictures to be my background.  i love the big hill in the bottom photo, (which is already too far into the background to make sense in this photo) beneath which the line of trees is a tiny dark line, and the flowers just come streaming out across the landscape from the hole in the line of trees.

what you see in the pastel drawing is a vague green mountain range with healthy hills in the middle distance and some sort of field in the foreground.

the only excuse i can give for the nastiness of the sketch is that the ground is dark gray, and puts the colors off.  but anyway it doesn’t matter because it’s all going to get covered with wax.

and this is how it looks with the first layer of wax, spread on with a palette knife.  it just so happened that, except for the dark green, i already had all these colors mixed up and sitting in airtight cups on my palette.

see the little plastic cups right there in the middle?  yes, well, i can tell where everything is.

i used a tiny little palette knife i borrowed from jim, because the palette knives i could find around my palette are too large, and have recently been used for other things (as knives, on the dolphin project).  i slashed on color, filling most of the spaces, and didn’t really worry about placement, because heating destroys even the most carefully laid lines and sections.  happy accidents rule.

this is what it looks like mostly heated.  mostly, i mean all but the very lowest left hand corner and a smidge of the right hand corner, because i was interrupted and had to put it away and go off.  and this is okay at this stage, because i’m not trying to make a uniform surface.  this is only the first layer.

i was liking the sky until too much of it started separating.  i’m going to have to hit it with more sky.  and the hills aren’t the right shade of green and don’t convey distance, and of course the flowers are merely indicated and the grass isn’t grassy.

lots of work.

other presents i will be working on are a batch of sea turtle scarves, and perhaps a dragon scarf that i need as a demo for an idea i have for silk wall hangings.  and since the grandson has just come back to us for the week, i’m going to be upstairs in fabric heaven all day, and can easily set up production there.

as long as i’ve decided to make things, i’ve been meaning to get around to a little something in a picture frame for my kid, which isn’t a painting, okay?  and something with a basket that showed up here one day.  and i’ve got a painting to frame for a real kid who suggested the scene i painted, at the beach.  all this stuff, and only 8 days before xmas.  wheee.


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.