I’m home sick today and about to go back to bed. But before I return to the sleep chamber, where I hope to remain until the space ship reaches Earth (or until the computer detects a distress beacon and wakes me up), I thought I would post.
Supports are important
I must spend half my time discussing, searching, finding, cutting and preparing supports for encaustic art. And then I spend the other half of my time wondering if I did it right. To be perfectly honest, almost any rigid, porous surface is fine for this material. Wax’s only true enemy is heat.
As I said in an earlier post, you can save yourself a lot of worry and doubt and just go get some beautiful clay boards from the art supply store. By now, you probably know me better than that. Why buy it if I can spend whole days making supports from scratch?
Handmade encaustic supports
I like plywood panels wrapped with watercolor paper. You want paper that is thin enough the fold but still lovely enough to have that rough, handmade surface called “tooth”. Watercolor paper is very absorbent, which makes it perfect for encaustic. I do the paper wrap for two reasons: One, so I can avoid the question of proper gesso for another week; Two, because when you turn the panel over, it looks handmade. Thus artistic. My work can look great from the back, at least!
Here’s a tutorial on my handmade supports:
First, the boards
I use luan or luaun plywood. It’s a sandwich of plywood materials between two thin sheets of veneer. It’s a thin board so I wouldn’t use it for large panels—too much flex. At a smaller scale, it’s wonderful—light and clean with a reddish tinge. I paid six dollars for a half sheet from Home Depot and I will probably get a couple dozen supports out of it.
Ralph Mayer in The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques says that plywood, specifically Masonite, is not archival. He says there’s some evidence it is still releasing gases from processing, and those could have a harmful effect on art materials. Maybe Mr. Mayer didn’t have to buy clay panels from art stores for $20 each. Besides, what’s archival? The Last Supper is not archival and you can still sort of see the image.
I cover one side of the panel with a layer of glue thinned with water. I use a white, neutral pH glue and mix it 2 to 1 with distilled water. It is thin and foamy and spreads nicely with a hake brush. You want it to cover the surface of the board completely so that the paper doesn’t bubble or lift. I’ve used Elmer’s Glue for this, but it doesn’t hold as well in a thinned state.
Press on the paper, which has been cut to shape with a two-inch margin all around. Smooth the surface to eliminated bubbles. Sometimes I will make a stack of panels and weight them down for a few hours to make sure the paper is attaching firmly, but The Theory reminds me that glue doesn’t dry that way. I guess glue needs air or something. Me being me, I’ve been known to hit the panels with my heat gun. Want some air? Here you go.
Next I notch out the corners of the paper like this:
Where I am the world’s most impatient person, lumpy wrinkled corners make me crazy. I take extra time with this step because what you do on the back of a panel is always there for the world to see.
Finally I fold, glue and press the edges.
When the panels are dry, I prime them with layers of plain yellow beeswax and heat them with my iron until the wax soaks into the paper. The panels are ready to use after that.
Caveat: This weekend I made ten panels and used four sheets of very expensive French watercolor paper. Watching the paper disappear and realizing it will take another trip to Utrecht to replenish my supply has made me start thinking about gesso again. More about that later.