The Theory made a really good point yesterday about artists’ materials: The art supply store is a fairly recent phenomenon. Think Bisquick, everyone. Remember the box with the fluffy pancakes on the label? Well, all it has in it is flour, salt, baking powder and shortening. Stuff your mom already had at home. What she was buying was the box and the recipes. Art supply stores, while heaven on earth, shorten the same part of the learning process as Bisquick.
My first pieces were done on prepared plywood board with a cradle on the back (a cradle looks like a section of a box glued to the back) which could be hung directly on the wall as soon as the pieces were cool. The cradling made the pieces look like they were hovering about half an inch off the wall.
I prepared the surface with black Chalkboard paint by Rustoleum. Chalkboard paint worked as an excellent primer or gesso, though I didn’t understand why until much later. I still keep a can of it in my desk, though the fewer things that are black in my life, the better. Clothes, dogs, graphite—it’s all black.
As these were not only my very first encaustic pieces, they were my very first attempts at making any art, I thought everything was DIY. I knew there were places called Art Media, Pearl Paint, Utrecht, but those were dull places my parents went while I stayed in the car writing stories.
Not everything is DIY
Here it is, over a year from the first time I roasted a blue paraffin candle in one of The Theory’s sauté pans. Despite what you may think, not everything is DIY. I don’t advocate grinding your own paint from minerals—even for me that’s crazy. And I have been known to pick up ten-packs of prepared artist boards and canvases. But as easy as these things are to use, they often present unexpected challenges for encaustic. A stretched canvas does not stand up to incising or pressure from an iron—and you can’t go large because of the flex. Canvas boards tend to warp.
I wanted so much to be able to use Utrecht’s prepared 8″ x 8″ canvases when they were on sale. 8″ x 8″ is the largest size of stretched canvas I can use with my materials, and I was so charmed I could hang them on the wall by myself without intervention by The Theory. Except…. the stretcher bars were uneven. They were set in a little shelf with the higher edge on the outside and the slightly shorter framed on the inside. A painter would never notice it. But an encaustic artist, especially someone who works with an iron, would know right away it was impossible to get a flat surface.
How important is the surface you are painting on?
Have you heard about expensive encaustic art sliding off its surface mount and hitting the floor? I’ve heard from several sources that this can happen, along with cracking and chipping and other indignities that happen when a rigid material like wax is applied to a flexible surface like a stretched canvas or paper.
Like every other art form, there are pre-made products for encaustic artists. Because we require a solid, rigid work surface, the things we paint onto are called supports. Traditionally, they are wooden boards or even stone. I’ve heard the ancient Greeks painted their statues with colored wax medium—though don’t ask me how they dealt with heat! That might be the reason the Winged Victory of Samothrace appears to us in her original, marbled flesh.
Supports made for encaustic are finished wood or prepared board with a clay finish. Of course, these are perfect—level, smooth, and porous. They come out of the wrapper ready to use for exactly your purpose, and are available in most standard sizes. They are also on the expensive side, though I’m too much of a lady to quote actual prices.
Check out some online resources here:
I hope you noticed my choice of words—standard sizes. I have no real basis for my objection, because there is nothing wrong with having your work the size and shape of other people’s work. But I feel something when I encounter non-standard art shapes. It’s a sense of being in the presence of someone thinking outside the, well, box. I think of it as evidence that the artist has considered all aspects of the project, and I’m instantly curious. What is this person saying with this choice?
For the next few posts, I’d like to talk about boards and supports and surfaces. We’ll start with a surface that I absolutely love—watercolor paper on board. Then we’ll discuss going bare.