Taking Realism to Abstraction

My studio sits beside a beautiful lake and the sunsets and sunrises on the lake are amazing.  Every day I feel blessed when I see the sky constantly changing, the reflections in the lake go from bright oranges to midnight blues, and the leaves in the fall pop to reds and oranges.  I can understand why artists in the Group of Seven were drawn to the landscapes around Algonquin Park.   I, on the other hand, have a love – hate relationship with painting landscapes.   I have tried painting realistically.  Six years ago I did a few paintings of water plants by the shores of the lake.  Below are examples.

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Shore Plants. acrylic, 30″ X 30″
Shore Plants
Shore Plants, 30″ X 30″, acrylic on canvas
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Shore Plants, 24″ X 48″, acrylic on canvas
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Shore Plants, 30″ X 30″, acrylic on canvas

I had positive reviews but did not see my future as a realistic landscape painter.  I have always been drawn to the non-representational and have predominately painted in that style. Yet, every now and then, when I need a break from the Interlaced series, I try to paint realistic lake views.   And, every time the landscape is finished I disrupt the pretty realism by painting my woven structure over it.  I can’t leave that painting as a realisitc landscape.

Incubation Period

While staying in Florida, for the month of January (2017), I went to an art store to buy myself a few tubes of watercolour paint, paper, some sewing needles and yarn.  Utilizing the idea of barriers, since I was so against Trump’s idea of building a wall along the Mexican and USA border, I created these small watercolour paintings and used my needle and thread and wove a weaving on top of the landscape.  When I got home I put them away.

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Water colour, yarn on paper, 9″ X 12″
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Watercolour on paper with yarn, 9″ X 12″

Experimental Days

Every month I take a few days off from the series that I am working on and shift my thoughts to experimenting on other ideas. On one of those days I decided to take a photograph from the edge of our lake and then, in the studio, paint those reflections on the lake with the horizon line and distant hills.   When it was finished I saw another pretty landscape which I just could not relate to. The image of my weaving materialized and I added a woven overlay on top of the blue water and fused it.  This time, by accident, I over  fused the lines so the wax melted and created lacy lines over the water.  It felt like I had added a warm woven blanket onto the surface and then it sank in some parts and raised to the surface in other areas.   I just loved the affect.  Then, I remembered the watercolour painting that I did of the barrier in Florida and began adding a fence on the horizon line.  As I was painting the fence it reminded me of a lines of trees so I shifted the fence to trees with spaces in between.   I included colours of reds and yellows peaking through those trees.     It became a tree fence blocking the views beyond the horizon line.

I was so excited with that landscape because it was still realistic yet it was also an abstraction – it had a twist when I fused the water and added the running tree fence.  Below is the first painting in the series.

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Standing at the Edge, encaustic on panel, 24″ X 24″

My intent of using barriers or coverings was still in that first painting and became the catalyst for the next series.  I continued to paint three more variations focusing on lake views from the water’s edge and included a running tree fence blocking the views.

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At the Edge #2, Encaustic on panel, 24″ X 24″
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At the Edge #3, encaustic on panel, 24″ X 24″
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At the Edge #4, encaustic on panel, 24″ X 24″ 

 

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Should Wax be our Driving Force?

Many artists having exhibitions use the word Encaustic in their title such as “Encaustic Show”, “Show of Encaustic Paintings,” “Wax Art”, “Encaustic Works,”  “Encaustic: Rebirth of an Ancient Medium,”  “Encaustic Juried Show, 2017”, etc   All of these titles focus on techniques, medium and processes used by the artists.    Where are the interesting  titles or themes for these  shows that focus on the content of the works?    In Facebook groups I see a painting posted by an artist and the title is “Encaustic on Panel?  Does the painting have no title?  Or I hear  Encaustic Artist or Wax Artist as descriptors.   Are  we not artists who  have something to say through our works and not just technicians using molten pigmented wax as a painting medium?

Then I hear such confusions over using Encaustic in our written and verbal conversations.  Shouldn’t I say I am a painter using Encaustic as a process because I paint with pigmented beeswax and use a heat source to burn the top layer to the one below.  As Ralph Mayer explains in his Artist’s Handbook in the section on Encaustic “The word encaustic comes from Greek and means to burn in, which refers to the process of fusing the paint.”    Is there such a thing as Encaustic Paint?   If Encaustic is a process then can it also be encaustic paint?   Aren’t we using pigmented beeswax as paint on panel in the same way as an oil painter would use oil paint?     And what about using encaustic(s) plural?  Do artists use many encaustics?  When I hear an artist say that he or she uses encaustic on panel, I assume that the painter is using a specific process such as a heat source to liquify the wax and a heat gun or torch to burn in each layer of wax.  When I hear  a photographer using beeswax over their photographs and calling their work Encaustic I question whether they are  layering coloured beeswax and fusing  with a heat source.  Can they call their works encaustic if they are adding a final layer of beeswax as a covering to alter the photograph?

Encaustic as a process has been around since the 5th century B.C. In the 1st-2nd century  A.D the Greeks and then the Egyptians used Encaustic to paint their Fayum funeral portraits.  In the 20th century  Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, Martin Kline, Linda Benglis, Michael David, and Joanne Mattera have painted or are still painting with pigmented wax.  When they talk or write about their work they did/do not focus on the medium.   They talk about the intent for their works in relation to the ways they use the elements and principles of design.  When I went to Michael David’s talk at the International Encaustic Conference I left knowing more about the artists’ ideas and why they used Encaustic as their process.  But I was not given a talk on techniques and processes or ways to use wax.  As a community of artists, painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers, etc. shouldn’t we first focus on  the intent of the work and then the techniques and materials and not be driven only by wax?

I would love to hear your views so please leave comments.

Hanging by Threads

In this blog, I take you on my journey through the ups and downs of creating my “Hanging on Threads” painting

The inspiration for this work became the water view with white clouds in the distance, grey clouds coming in from the side and a deep red horizon line.  Then dark blues, greys and white reflections on the lake.  I wanted to capture this waterscape image for the background and then add a gauze-like structure to the surface.

In a sauce pan I melted the wax balls that I saved from scraping the previous artworks. I painted the brownish wax onto the surface of the panels.  The key for these first layers was the fusing.  Lots of heat with the heat gun until the wax melted thoroughly.  Using  these balls of wax  is a great way to save money by not having to use clear medium or clear beeswax on the foundation layer.   Once these layers were done I then started to paint the background with pigmented wax and clear medium.

I had decided to paint the image onto a long horizontal two panel surface.  The panels were joined on the back and did not shift.  As you can see in my studio photograph there is a table that I work on and on the other table I keep my heating tools and wax.

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I begin all of my paintings in the same way.  I heat the wax and apply the colors with a brush.  Not concerned at this point with details, but just to put down the colors in a loose way.  This building up of the surface is important.   I scrape, add more layers to get an interesting surface treatment.  I use a big ratio of medium to wax because I want to achieve transparent surfaces of colors.   The process is very intuitive at this point.  In the next pictures I show the evolution of the different surface and color treatments.  As you can see, I tried creating this cloud like surface of the sky, water, and the red on the horizon line.

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I am continually critiquing my work.  Looking at it from a distance and up close.  I saw that the red was over powering so I just kept on painting by adding layer after layer.  The above version was too colourful so muted down the surface with white cloud formations.

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Was I finished?  Is this surface treatment and color relationship ready for the gauze drawing?  In my opinion I had lost the landscape feeling so became obsessed with revising this landscape.  I added more colors and textures and the following image became the next version.  I also changed the orientation of the panels so that they were joined vertically and not horizontally.   Oh my gosh, this was too busy so I needed to scrape down the surface and added the white back.

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Now I had a lot of interesting surface treatments but I was adding a gauze surface and the background was too busy and would compete with the woven structure.  So, my final background had a softer tonal feeling for the gauze curtain. As you can see below, I brought back the top red and simplified the white blue clouds.  Additionally, I scraped the bottom and painted geometric-like shapes.  The gauze was painted onto the surface.

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I decided that this painting was finished.  When I looked at it over a few days I kept thinking that there is no movement except for the bottom of the gauze and I saw a draped piece of woven fabric that appeared stiff.

Using my IPad, I took a photograph of this painting.  In my Procreate Application I used the tools to play around with the work and then the painting morphed into this gestural interesting image.  The painting was totally transformed and had its own personality.

The following image is the IPad version.

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I loved it and wanted to use the IPad image as a reference.  So the challenge  was – Could I reproduce this work in pigmented wax? I used drawing and painting tools in Procreate on a smooth glass surface so I wasn’t sure if I could replicate the IPad drawing.   With complete abandonment, I took my brushes and liquid wax and painted in the same way as I did on the IPad.   Here is the final version in encaustic on a 30″ X 44″ panel.   The work is called “Hanging by Threads.”

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Substrates and Painting Tools

Porous Surfaces: The molten-pigmented wax or the wax medium should be applied to a porous surface, such as paper, fabric, wood, plaster, etc. Once the first layer is fused with a heat source (I use a heat gun and others use a small propane or butane torch) then other layers of coloured wax or medium can be added  and continually fused until the painting is finished. 

The most common substrates are paper and wood panels. Paper comes in different variety of weights from rice, kozo, and tissue papers that are very thin and transparent, to cardboard and 300-lb watercolour paper, etc.   One can also use different papers as college elements which can be embed into the wax. Artists also may use a hotbox and add colours of wax onto the heated surface and then take a print of the design. These designs are printed on different absorbent papers. Check out Paula Roland‘s hot box and her processes. 

I use heavy water color paper and, when the painting is finished, will mount the image onto a panel or frame it. The issue with wax on paper is its fragility and can crack if bent or folded so one needs to protect the painted surface by attaching the paper onto a ridged surface. Or, be careful not to bend the painting when creating a scroll or hanging the paper without a frame.

In addition to using paper, I predominately use a birch panel that I purchase from an art supply store.   I do, at times, mount paper onto a panel to get a white background and I do like a paper surface to paint on, or I just apply the medium and wax pigment onto the raw panel. One can also use gesso that is specifically made for encaustic.  

Note: I also find it difficult to take the wax off the sides of a panel so I do use masking or painter’s tape that I wrap around the frame. When the painting is finished I will take the tape off the sides.

The following images show how I attach the watercolour paper onto the panel.  The first picture show the equipment needed.  In the second and third picture I show how to glue one side of the paper and the top of the panel.   Then take a old credit or hotel card and scrape the glue to the edges.  Press the watercolour paper onto the panel.  Use the roller and go over the paper and panel.  I sometimes use an old iron on a low setting and iron over the paper and this also presses the paper into the panel.  I leave a heavy book on the panel overnight.  

 

 

Tools to paint with.

Brushes:   They come in all shapes and sizes. I use large brushes for applying large areas of paint to the smallest ones for fine lines. Brushes come in flat, round, natural or acrylic. If I am applying large areas of paint then I usually will use a flat natural bristle brush. Remember, the wax is hot so can melt acrylic brushes. I try to keep my temperature under 200 degrees so this heat will melt my brushes if they are acrylic so I do not keep the small brushes in the wax for too long. I will just dip the small acrylic brush into the wax and then add the lines onto the surface of the painting.   For mixing my colors of wax I use predominately hog hair bristle and for details will go to the softer natural brushes.   Brushes are expensive and I use cheap ones that can be purchased at hardware or dollar stores. I also buy small soft bristle brushes at an art supply store. 

In the picture below the brushes on the left are bristle brushes for painting larger areas with liquid pigmented wax.  I like painting with the short handles.  Then, the fan brushes are great.  I use them to build up texture onto the surface.  Also, the sides make great lines.  The bamboo brushes next to the fan brushes are great to paint details with.  The liquid wax just holds in the bamboo brushes and I can make fine lines and also use the tips to do dots and swishes of lines.  The next group are the small acrylic and natural soft bristle brushes. These are used to paint my fine lines.  I use #3 – #0.  

Brushes for Encaustic

It is wonderful painting with wax because I do not have to clean brushes.  I have a brush for each colour.  Also, if a brush is dirty, I put the tip of the brush onto a hot surface.  The wax melts and I can clean it off with a paper towel. Or dip the brush in medium and take the wax off with a paper towel.  

Paper Towels – a must for painting. I use a lot of paper towels to clean the surfaces of the hot plate and for cleaning my brushes.

Scraping Tools

When the liquid wax is applied to the surface there may be times when you have to scrape the wax down when it is cool.   These scraping tools and  artist’s knife are used to scrape the surface of the wax.  I also use a carving tool that has a small curved surface.  This is great to get into small areas to scrape away a line or scrape down the textural surface.  The tool on the far right also has a small round opening and is also used to scrape down small areas that I can not get with the larger metal scraper.  My favourite tool  is a flat blade which is used for scraping down the surface.  Additionally, a spoon can be used to burnish a collaged element into the wax.  The wooden cotton swabs can be dipped into the wax and then used to create wonderful dots.  

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Spoon to burnish the surface, to make the surface smooth, and to embed collage elements.  

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Wonderful cotton swabs for making dots and blending colors.

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Blades and their holders.  I just use the blade when scraping down the surface.  You have to continually clean off the accumulated wax from the blade or else that wax will end up back on the surface and intermingle with the wax underneath.  This is hard to fix.  

Hot Tools

In this section I talk about the hot tools that I use to make marks.  I will describe each one and talk about its usage.  I use a small flat nosed plier to unscrew the hot tool from the base.  Also, I use the metal eye dropper to take the liquid paint and then add the liquid paint to the Tjanting (Batik) hot tool.  

 

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The first one below is great to use for lines.  As  you can see the tip has a division in the centre where the wax accumulates.  I can dig this tip gently into the solid wax or into liquid wax.  When I draw with this pen it makes these fine lines but is hard to control when the wax flows out at the beginning.  As you can see the wax is a bit wider at the beginning and narrow at the end of each stroke.  This tool takes practice and is hard to control.  

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The following pen nib I bought at the Vendor’s room at the International Encaustic conference.  It was $25.00 just for the nib.  I was very disappointed with the way the nib scratched into the wax layer when I tried to do lines.  It is not the same as the previous nib that came with the hot tool.  I did get two sizes of these writing nibs so they were expensive.  I will keep working with them but I do think other tools do a better job when making lines.  This tool works best when dipped into the liquid wax.  

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Metal brushes come in straight and angled.  They do make great lines, but as you see below they  start off as dark and then move to light.  One can get different brushed lines with these hot tools.  Love the effect of going from transparency to opaque.  

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The following is called the  Tjanting (Batik) hot tool.  I use the metal eye dropper and add liquid wax into the bowl and then put the pin into the bowl.  The white around the plug is wax that has hardened.  Once the tool gets hot the wax melts.  This pin plugs up the hole on the bottom and then when you hold the bottom onto the surface and move it the pen gets pushed up and then the wax flows out.  You can make dots and flowing lines.  One has to be careful because the pointed nib can easily drop out of the bowl and then the wax comes out and makes a mess, as you can see below.  These Tjanting tools come in three hole sizes – small, medium and large.  

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As you can see below, both of these pictures show the batik tool used to make lines.  I do like this tool because I can add interesting lines to the surface of my paintings.  

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Finally, the brush can also be used to make lines.  In this example, I use the smallest brush that I can find.  It does incredible lines.  One can combine the different tools to make different surface treatments. 

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The following encaustic painting is the underneath layer. I used a wide bristle brush for the first few layers and then just the bamboo brush for the surface texture.  It is 24″ X 48″. A bamboo brush is great for adding small and wide marks as well as dots.  I will be adding my gauze covering on top of this painting.  

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Getting Confident with Encaustic Medium – Shore Line Series

Now, that I feel somewhat confident with the medium, I have decided to begin my Shore Line Series. My goal is to create 10 encaustic artworks of our shoreline around the lake where I have my studio. I have tried different techniques over the past month and have concluded that the paint needs to be added to the surface similar to a pointillism technique. Through experimentation, overlapping small brushstrokes and a layering of different colored oil paint/wax are needed. Then over the waxed surface use an iron and blend very carefully. The problem with the iron – too much wax could be melted in areas and the edge of the iron can leave grooves that expose the back water colour paper layer. This can be used to my advantage as well if the bottom layer coming through the surface is exposed. I have to plan the layers of colors so that one can see the bottom layer and it is integrated into the foreground.

In the first 12 “ X 12” shoreline work I used my imagination and first created a water surface treatment with the layering of colored wax and then took may iron to incise the surface into a waving pattern to represent the water. Then, I took strips of fabric and waxed them down to the surface. The fabric represented the reeds. I added a bit of dark color to the edge of the reeds to suggestion a light source.

The following image is my first attempt at water.

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Back to the Basics: The Elements of Design

For13 years at California State University in Sacramento I taught students how to use media, techniques, tools, and the elements of design (which are line, shape, form, texture, colour, value and space) before creating “finished” artworks. Once students had confidence with the elements of art, their art making tools and a variety of art media, then he or she tackled a personal style of painting or sculpting to explore specific topics or ideas. I designed curriculum materials with a focus on sequential learning through skill building steps.   Since I am learning a new medium, I have decided to go back to the basics and use my sequential learning step-by-step packets and connect those ideas with encaustic art.  Then, after exploring each element of design and practicing the variety of encaustic technical processes, I will pick a theme and explore this theme through larger encaustic artworks.

 Elements of Design: The language used for all art works

Week 1: Line

Week 2. Shape

Week 3. Color

Week 4 Form/Value

Week 5 Texture

Week 6 Space

 So, for example, in week one I will create a picture with just lines and use different drawing, painting and sculptural surfaces when creating lines. Then, I will pick encaustic tools and wax coloured media to reproduce the drawings on small 8” X 8” birch panels. Finally, my culminating artwork will focus on line with encaustic media. This process will be repeated for shape, colour, form/value, texture and space.  

 After reading two books “Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide to Creating Fine Art with Wax” by Lissa Rankin and the “Encaustic Studio: A Wax Workshop in Mixed-Media Art” by Daniella Wolf; looking at many encaustic artworks on the internet; and visiting some great website blogs on Encaustic, I have narrowed down the following techniques that I would like to learn and eventually incorporate one-by-one into my final studies. This list is in no particular order. I hope to complete all of them by the end of the 6 weeks.

  1. Embedding images and objects into the wax such as buttons, seed beads, etc.
  2. Painting on different paper surfaces such as tissue paper, cartridge paper, napkins, tracing paper, etc and glue and wax these to the panel.
  3. Using Photo transfer techniques.
  4. Incising into the wax.
  5. Building up relief with wax.
  6. Doing smooth surfaces with brushes and pouring the wax, and creating rough textural surfaces by altering the surface.
  7. Adding just smooth paper to the surface and then wax the surface to get a smooth ground. Fuse between the layers.
  8. Drawing images onto white paper surfaces  and using watercolor to finish the painting.   Cover with wax medium.
  9. Using plaster drywall compound and add stencils into the drywall. Use trowel tools, plastic cards, and incise lines into the wet compound.
  10. Making stencils and integrate the stencils into the medium. Repeating the steps by fusing in between the layers. Doing rubbings and prints and integrating them into the background.
  11. Layering with stamps and prints. Stamps that can be done on the white paper bottom layer and then continue with the different stamps using ink, or water-colour. Creating a sense of space with the background, foreground and middle ground.
  12. Fabric collage.   Using stitched pieces, or felted surfaces, etc. Waxing the surface once the collage is imbedded into the wax.
  13. Collaging papers such as tissue paper, wax papers, paper napkins, etc. fusing between the layers. Adding inks to the tissue papers first and then adding to the wax surfaces.
  14. Textural scoring and adding coldish wax onto the surface to keep layering with the wax. This texture can be done within smaller areas to contrast between areas that are smooth and others are textured.
  15. Transfers – drawing on paper, such as parchment paper, and transferring the image onto the surface of warmish wax. Also, using wax or parchment sheets of papers for transferring onto the surface. Use photocopy or laser printer to make the copy. Add the picture face down and burnish the back. Take water and pull the paper off the back after it has been soaking for a bit. Rub with finger until all of the white paper comes off.
  16. Building up layers with metal cookie cutters. Pour into the containers. Also incising line shapes with different metal cutter type tools and filling in with oil pastels.
  17. Simple printmaking techniques such as collaging leaf prints right on the pallet and then printing onto the surface of the substrate.
  18. Blocking out part of the painting with painter’s tape and then waxing over the areas where I want more wax and other areas with less wax.  Aim is get vibrancy within the painting and more areas of depth. Within each part demonstrate the blocking techniques.
  19. Cutting shapes out of the wax and putting images within the shapes

 

First day Facing the Beeswax

Today I prepared my surfaces for my paintings. I glued on the bristol board paper and prepared my beeswax and damar resin concoction I cooked 1 part resin to 8 parts of wax.  That was the recipe percentage that was recommended on most websites on Encaustic techniques.  But, what a mess I made.  I looked on YouTube for a recipe and found a few that said “melt the wax first and then add the damar resin into the wax”.  One site said to first melt the resin in an Electric Frying pan until it is melted and then add the wax.  So, I just went with Jon Peters’ recipe (see link below). Peters did such a great job showing the following steps:   First crush the darmar varnish into powder with a mallet.  Then, melt half the wax in a electric pot and add the resin after the wax is melted.  Then, strain the wax into another container.  Put the now clear wax back into the cooking pot and add the rest of the wax.    Keep the temperature between 180 – 210 degrees.   Well, I did not wait but added the resin before all the wax was melted.  The damar became a glob of hard sticky substance and took forever to melt.  I must have stirred the wax medium for over an hour and the damar resin was still in its crystal gooey state sitting on the bottom of the pan.  I should have listened to Jon Peters who showed the steps which seemed so simple.   The trick is – the darmar resin needs a higher temperature to melt and the wax needs a lower temperature, so that is why one should melt a smaller amount first.  It is amazing how I never follow a recipe but always make these “creative” subtle changes and then regret the changes at the end.

So, tomorrow I will remelt the wax again and follow Jon Peters’ steps rigourously.  Check out his YouTube video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuzJkaCyM24#