I finally learned something about intarsia. For those of you who don’t know, intarsia is a basic encaustic technique (and one I should have figured out ages ago). Essentially, intarsia is an inlay process, where you carve out a channel of wax and backfill with wax of a different color. Then you scrape off the excess and perfecto—there’s your inlay of wax.
Intarsia is a beautiful effect because you can achieve both a clean line and a smooth surface. The two different colored waxes also seem to absorb one another’s colors optically rather than by actually mixing.
It sounds simple. Cut a channel, backfill, remove excess. But in my hands, I might have been excavating Troy—scrape, scrape, scrape and whoa! Where’d that design go to?
My problem was that the wax I backfilled with always hardened too quickly. Even working an inch at a time, the new wax bonded to the under layer so completely that I couldn’t scrape off the excess without gouging. While I like a little random order, this unpredictability was too much. So here’s what I did. When I made the second color for the inlay, I mixed my dry pigment with some linseed oil before adding it to the wax.
I placed a teaspoon of dry pigment in a clean shallow bowl, added half a teaspoon of linseed oil and mashed it up with a cotton swab. The swab is a new tool for me. Though it may shed a few filaments, it mashes the oil into the pigment, and you can use the swab as a one-time brush to test your color or add a sample of the new color to your color chart. And simply throw it away.
Anyway, the pigment-linseed oil mixture should be a smooth paste. If you need to add more oil, don’t hesitate. The oil actually helps the pigment blend with the wax and stay in suspension a little longer so your color remains consistent.
Add the pigment to the wax and adjust the color to suit your project. Here’s the interesting part: when you add the enriched wax to your painting, it will feel softer. You may wonder if it will ever set up. It does—linseed oil is a drying oil. It develops a thick permanent film or skin as it dries. It will do this in your wax, becoming just as hard and permanent as the surrounding matrix.
But for ten minutes or so, you can scrape it off very easily. The scrapings tools I’ve been using are great too. Here are stock photos of two new tool sets:
The first image is a steel sculpting set. They are about like surgical tools–small and precise and sharp. They were about $11 and a good investment. The next image is a mini-ribbon tool set for clay. Larger ribbon tools haven’t worked for me–too much flex in the ribbon. These tools are small and much more rigid. The only downside is that the metal ribbon gets worn out too quickly, I’m working on my third set of these tools. It wouldn’t be difficult to design a small ribbon tool with a thicker gauge of wire, but so far I haven’t found it. For now, these remain my all-time favorite hand tools.
Here are some images of new work using a lot of intarsia. They aren’t perfectly clean because I tend like imperfections, but you can see that overall, the intarsia is smooth: