Encaustic . . . from page 1
It doesn’t take long to see the appeal of encaustic. Using melted beeswax and pigment, the medium lends itself to experimentation and a seemingly infinite variety of outcomes – from detailed, smoothly finished representational subjects to abstract, highly textured pieces.
The most basic materials include the following:
- An electric griddle or similarly temperature-controlled heating element with a large flat surface.
- Small metal containers that sit on the griddle for melting the pigment and medium.
- Another, perhaps larger, pot for keeping the encaustic medium (a combination of beeswax and Damar resin) melted and ready to use.
- Bristle brushes.
- A heat gun for heating each layer of paint and wax before the next layer is applied.
- Various tools for creating texture, images, or other design elements.
- A hard support for the work, which could be paper, wood panel, or canvas covered panel.
The basic materials and process are just the starting point. Artists can and do follow their own tangents to create their personal styles.
Jeff Juhlin is perhaps one of the first Utah artists to work with encaustic. He has a national reputation in the medium and this month is part of the Kimball's Encaustic with a Textile Sensibility; Salt Lake's A Gallery has just hung a solo show of his work; and he helped curate the FUSE exhibit at the Kimball.
Juhlin’s spacious studio west of The Gateway was almost ready for a creative workday when I showed up early one morning. Small metal pots of paint and encaustic medium were heating on several electric griddles.|0| A larger electric fondue pot held melted medium. Various tools for scraping, scoring, and pattern-making were nearby. And several works-in-progress hung on the wall. The obligatory exhaust fan over the work area was ready to suck out any toxic vapors, though if the heat under the paints and medium is kept to less than 200 degrees, toxicity is not really an issue.
There are as many ways to start a painting as there are artists. Juhlin usually works directly on a cradled panel. Some artists coat the panel with a white gesso made especially for encaustic. He shows me a work just begun that so far has some oil paint and mulberry paper adhered with wax in a geometric design. This forms the basic design/map onto which he will build many layers of paint and medium.
Each successive layer is an opportunity for special effects that enhance the design, while creating depth and interest. For example, Juhlin may add other collage paper, photos, or digital transfers at any time. He may scrape into a layer, leaving a relief pattern, rub India ink or oil sticks into crevices, or adhere wood strips or other objects to build up the surface texture.
Before adding a new layer, the artist heats the existing layer using a heat gun.|1| If the underlying wax medium isn’t warm the new layer won’t adhere properly. In any layer, the artist might use oil paint |2| or ink to paint an image or to add color to an area. When finished (which could be eight or more layers), the artist may buff the surface to a shine.
Juhlin first began working in encaustic after a workshop in California ten years ago. Since then, his abstract encaustic work has evolved and changed with each successive experiment with new tools and materials. Today his work often includes mulberry paper for its organic fibers, geometric patterns and lines, scraped, taped, or made with ink, and lots of rough texture that reveal bits of the underpainting on the surface of the panel.|3|
Gia Whitlock,|4| who exhibits regularly at Salt Lake's 15th Street Gallery and Alpine Art, is one of the artists that has been curated into Kimball's FUSE show. Like Juhlin, Whitlock works on cradled panels and her work is abstract and highly textured.|5| Her current series uses the landscapes and city skylines as inspiration for her design. She also finds inspiration and a way to start a piece by leafing through her big accordion file of collected papers, postage stamps. After adhering bits of paper in the shapes of buildings and skyscrapers along the bottom of the panel, she then builds the layers of wax medium and paint.|6|
Whitlock works in a detached garage/studio behind her home in the Sugarhouse area.|7| In warm weather, she leaves the door open for maximum ventilation, but she also has a heater for winter and an exhaust fan. When I visit, she points to the vat of medium that she has just mixed with a 4:1 ratio of beeswax and Damar resin, which she buys in granular form because it’s less expensive than the pre-mixed blocks. Like Juhlin, she orders blocks of paint made by R&F Paints.|8| The block contains pigment combined with encaustic medium and melts easily when heated on the griddle. Colors may be mixed just like any other paint.
A 2002 graduate of Westminster College, Whitlock worked first as a graphic designer, then began painting in acrylic and oils in 2005. Since switching to encaustic more than a year ago her art business has taken off. “I like this the best because it lets me have all these quirks. It dries fast. It has great texture. I think I’m stuck here.”
Nancy Vorm, another artist in the FUSE show, has a much different approach for her current body of encaustic work.|9-10| Instead of panel supports, she works on BFK papers made for printing. Taking inspiration from the “rust belt” part of Indiana where she grew up, she uses vinegar to wet the paper and activate the rust, and makes a rusty print from rusted metal plates and other objects. She controls, somewhat, the lightness or darkness of the print by varying the amount of time the paper is in contact with the rusted object. “I love the randomness of it, because that’s how rust is,” she says.
Once printed, she coats the paper with beeswax, painting it on with a brush and then scraping off the excess with a plastic card. The beeswax has a little resin in it, which gives the coated paper a shine. For one piece that will be displayed at the Kimball show she connected her rectangular prints at the corners with little wires in an assemblage of seven rows and eight columns. These will be displayed in front of a window to show off the beautiful translucence of the wax-coated paper.
Vorm has been working with encaustic for three years.|11| It was a natural transition from her highly textured acrylic work and her background as a textile artist. As a student at the University of Utah, she got a brief introduction to encaustic, but it was after graduation that she enrolled in a workshop and got hooked.
How archival is a painting made with wax, which could melt? I wonder. Each artist told me that encaustic is actually more vulnerable to cold, which could make it crack. The melting point would be about 160 degrees, far hotter than usual display conditions. Juhlin points out that the wax-covered edges of his panels are somewhat vulnerable to nicks and chips, but, knocking on one of his pieces, he notes, “The surface is really quite hard and durable.”
Between the two exhibits at Kimball Art Center and the Juhlin show at A Gallery, art lovers will feast on encaustic this month, getting a taste of the many ways this versatile medium can serve the creative imagination.
Exhibition Preview: Salt Lake City
A Taste of Jimmie's
Pockets of Jim William's History at Westgate Lofts
There are many “key moments” in Jim Williams’ life: his childhood discovery of a knack for remodeling his midwestern family home; his decision to study architecture with Bruce Gof, the legendary student of Frank Lloyd Wright who surpassed his teacher in flights of sheer fancy; his foray into domesticity in a former polygamist house in the Salt Lake Avenues neighborhood, where he lived with wife and children; his decision to study art and become a painter; his determination to return here in 1971, to fix up and sell his former home; the evolution of that much-modified structure into a combination atelier and gallery. In fact, aside from the acknowledgement in his paintings, drawings, sculptures, collages, and what-nots of the aesthetic trends that swirled about him in post-WWII America, perhaps the most lasting trace of Jim Williams’ formative years is his commitment to the principle, often intoned with gravity in what became known as the Sixties, that today is the first day of the rest of our lives. Every moment that could be seen as the summary of ones past can, with enough vigor and joie de vivre, just as well be taken for the beginning of the future waiting to emerge from the melding of memory and imagination.
Williams and his current collaborators have a phrase for it: “the beginning of now.” It’s also the title of their book, a labor of love and respect, including a volume of photographs by Tj Nelson and another of text by Cara Despain, both bound and slipcased together by Mary Toscano. In a sense the book came into being to formalize and make more accessible the rare personal tours that have hitherto been the only way for strangers to experience Jimmie’s. A shared desire to give the book a proper start led, in turn, to the decision to extract—to borrow in as intact a manner as possible—a few of the more accessible, free-standing parts of the elaborately interconnected, multimedia composition and self-portrait that his house has become, and create from them an installation that will be on view at the Westgate Lofts in June. The exhibition will foster the book, which in turn introduces the house.
For an apparently reclusive, admittedly shy man, Jim Williams brings together a remarkable network of creative collaborators. Visitors to Jimmie’s, in any of its formats, will encounter ceramic sculptor and collaborative myth-maker Jim Stewart, whose masks are everywhere throughout the house and whose shared project, which they call the “post-apocalyptic series,” includes some of the few portable artworks to be found in an environment where nothing is clutter and each consciously-placed bit of memorabilia plays a deliberate role. Then there are the often-spontaneous larks of “Tom, Dick, and Harry,” an artistic triumverate of three friends: Don Andrews, Williams, and Marc Rogers. More recently, Willisams was joined by studio assistant Andrew Callis, a young artist who supplements his primary task of executing Williams’ plans with self-appointed roles as archivist and interlocutor. Beyond these immediate collaborators lies a web of influences and friends like Tom Deaver, a childhood friend who moved to Japan to make bamboo flutes, and Frank McEntire, the Salt Lake-based sculptor whose lively, humorous use of found objects echo his own approach, while pointing to different uses for the same resources.
If Jim Williams’ autobiographical magnum opus is instinctively private, introspective, inward-turning, his media are contrastingly outgoing and populist. Standing out among his encyclopedic array of self-expressive forms are two of the most modern and ubiquitous: postcards and t-shirts. The former is Everyman’s artwork: a vessel for conveying one person’s memories to another, specific audience, but almost certain to touch others as well. The t-shirt is also a kind of miniature billboard, with the added symbolism that places its maximum density, its primal content, right over the wearer’s heart. But then Williams, a prolific creator of t-shirts, needed to invent alternative ways of sharing, even inventing a combination cardboard box and picture frame that allows him to hang them on the wall like paintings.
In an age where too much art has given in to spectacle, to the impersonal, extravagant display of anonymous concepts and would-be universal vistas that end up little more than mechanized glimpses, Jim Williams’ kind of exploration-in-depth of modern life from a single, but by no means narrow, point of view feels like a breath of fresh air from an open window. If every portrait is a self-portrait, it’s equally true that every self-portrait is a mirror in which to study our own appearance. The concept of the artist includes the assumption that a sensitive witness will intuitively select the things that will continue to matter. Everyone involved in the beginning of now deserves thanks for making this remarkable testimony and un-monumental monument accessible. We owe it to ourselves to see it.