Encaustic painting dates back to the ancient Greeks, when shipbuilders used wax to fill cracks in their ships. Sometime thereafter pigment was added to the wax, and repairs became restorative & decorative. Soon the art moved from ship’s hulls to other surfaces. Some encaustic paintings from AD 100-125 survive, depicting bust and head portraits set into mummy casings in Greco-Roman Egypt. Beeswax was used in many ways in this era—even as a kind of dry-erase board for conveying messages. So how do we travel from ancient Greece to the city of New Haven?
This year’s open studios features a variety of artist’s talks and demonstrations, and on Saturday, Maria Lara-Whelpley, an artist with a space in Erector Square provided a demonstration of the technique we can thank the Greeks & the bees & even pine trees for making possible. I’ve always admired the way that encaustic artworks I’ve seen seem soaked in a softness & semi-transparency. Maria Lara-Whelpley describes the feeling of looking at images created with encaustic techniques as akin to “looking through a semi-sheer curtain.”
If this combination of “bee sweat” or beeswax, damar varnish, (the crystallized sap of a fir tree) and pigment can create this surface seems like beautiful, ancient alchemy…well, it is. But if one was also seeking an artform that might allow you to brandish a heat gun, a torch, and carving tools, as well as joint compound, well, you are also in the right place. One blessing of the modern age is that we can adapt the methods of the ancients, but order grade A beeswax over the internet from Illinois. Don’t say the future isn’t here. Don’t say heat guns aren’t awesome.
Lara-Whelpley demonstrated using the wax itself as a drawing surface that she carved into, imbued with pigments, and coated again with more wax. The wax used for painting sat upon a hotplate surface and was clear and shimmering. She also showed us a sheet of rice paper she’d printed on her home printer, which she affixed to the surface of a birch board treated with 3-4 coats of joint compound, which she praised for its roughness. Lara-Whelpley then built layers of wax over this paper. She also demonstrated methods for transferring photocopied images using the heat gun and wax.
You can mix oil paints with the encaustic medium as well, but it seems the ratios must remain at about 20% oil paint, 80% wax, otherwise the medium will not dry. I’d argue there is something magical and organic about the effect it gives, something that has always drawn my eye into works done with it. At some point, Lara-Whelpley talked about the archeology of the work—and this seemed, to me, just the right word for the kind of patience and strangeness of the process. It was ancient and pensive, it was meticulous and forgiving, it and new and wonderful.
This isn’t the last demonstration of CWOS! Nor was it the first! Check out:
This year’s City-Wide Open Studios features more interactive demonstrations by artists, and the second weekend is no exception. On Saturday and Sunday, October 2 and 3, Artspace’s neighbor Project Storefronts will hold demonstrations in hooping, weaving, and reading knitting patterns from 1 pm – 4 pm at their 71 Orange Street location.
At Project Storefronts on Sunday, October 3, DETRITUS will host a chapbook-binding workshop from 3 pm – 4 pm; the event will be led by local authors Beth Anne Royer and Edgar Garcia. Also on Sunday, October 3, Creative Arts Workshop will host ongoing demonstrations in sculpture, painting, drawing, and printmaking from 12 pm – 5 pm at their 80 Audubon Street location.
Visitors can explore studios and demonstrations on their own, or participate in guided bike tours led by the Devil’s Gear beginning at 12:30 pm and leaving from their new location at 151 Orange Street, in the rear of the 360 State Street building. Studios will be open from 12 noon – 5 pm on both days, and a complete map and .pdf guide are available on the City-Wide Open Studios website
A slideshow of the process:
Beth Anne Royer lives in a city, works in a city, and spends a lot of time thinking about why they do & don’t work. She enjoys contemplating spaces where commerce, surprises, and art can all get along. She writes poetry and short fiction, and works for the City of Bridgeport as a Project Manager (and all-around technology nerd human wonk). She admires: David Byrne, Jane Jacobs, Keri Smith, Malvina Reynolds, Martin Luther King, Imogen Cunningham, and any number of additional unfamous but dedicated citizens who work to make their towns, cities, and spaces better places to live. At one time or another, she as called all theses places home: Wellsboro, Princeton, Boston, Miami, New Haven, Milford, Olympia, and Providence. One thing she enjoys about having a dog is that when you walk one, people ask you for directions.