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Archive for the ‘Encaustic’ Category

Cover of Encaustic Materials and Methods: A facsimile edition.

Encaustic Materials and Methods is finally here! Long-time followers of this blog may remember that I’ve been talking about bringing the 1949 text of Francis Pratt and Becca Fizell’s influential but nearly impossible to find book back to life. And after three long years, the book went live on Amazon a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a link to Encaustic Materials and Methods on Amazon.

This is a facsimile edition, which means that each page of the original book was carefully scanned so that the new version maintains the look and feel of the original. Some images were reproduced, though not all. Special thanks to the late Esther Geller for allowing us to include a new photo of her encaustic masterpiece, Oriental Musician (late 1940s). Additionally, we thank the Menil Collection for the rights to reproduce Fleur de Sang (1943) by Victor Brauner, Bryn Mawr College for the rights to reproduce Young Christ Disputing with the Doctors (1945) by David Aronson, the Whitney Museum of American Art for Karl Zerbe’s Harlequin (1944), and of course the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the use of Portrait of a young woman with a gilded wreath (A.D. 120-140).

This book would not have been the labor of love that it is without the assistance of Hannah M. G. Shapero, daughter of Esther Geller, and Ben Aronson, son of David Aronson. They provided insight into the artistic practices of their parents, and it will surprise no one to learn that both are wonderful artists themselves.  Visit Hannah M. G. Shapero’s web site here and Ben Aronson’s web site here. Sadly, both Esther Geller and David Aronson passed away this year.

And finally, a special shout-out goes to Virginia Howard, great-niece of Francis Pratt, who generously shared information about her aunt, including the loan of important archival documents. She also wrote the brief bio of Francis that appears in the book. Thanks, Virginia!

Caution: Yes, Victor Brauner supposedly used gasoline in his encaustic process. But Victor was a Jewish communist hiding out in the mountains during WWII. He had nothing, he could go nowhere and yet he still made art. I love Fleur de Sang for exactly those reasons. Here’s a link to an earlier fan-girl post I did about Victor.

Artists familiar with art materials (flake white, anyone?) knows that most of these things will kill you, one way or another. So please, exercise caution even when using your commercial encaustic products.

And maybe it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: keep your gas in your tank.

Last word: Looking at the recipes and formulas in Encaustic Materials and Methods is to witness the birth of modern encaustic art. We wouldn’t be who we are now without the genius of these mid-20th century artists, most of whom are gone now.

Here's a cute photo of Esther Geller standing in front of Oriental Musician. Photo from the Boston Globe.

Here’s a cute photo of Esther Geller standing in front of Oriental Musician. Photo from the Boston Globe.

Free stuff
I loaded a pdf of sample pages of Encaustic Materials and Methods in the Free Box, the top box in the right-hand column of this page. Take a look.

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Hello! Yes, friends, I’m back from the Reno Recovery Unit at Bellevue Oregon. This is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. When last we spoke, I had petrified albino rats on my mind and not much hope that the renovation of our kitchen would never be finished. I wasn’t far wrong on that last one. Still need to do some touch up wall work and some painting.

We moved back into the kitchen in late September, after the rains started—September was one of the wettest months of the year. There’s nothing like grilling in the rain, or washing dishes on your knees in the bathtub. Whoa, flashback! The doctors at RRU said there’d be days like this. [BTW, there isn’t any such place as a recovery unit for crazy DIY-ers, it’s just wishful thinking on my part. If it did exist, The Theory and I would still be there, eating soft-boiled eggs and watching daytime television.]

I offer some before-and-afters as proof that it wasn’t all a dream:

Under that pretty blue tile was a gooey, fungus- and bacteria-rich plywood of the 1979 variety. We salvaged as many of the tiles as possible. My mom made them.

Sink wall before. Under that pretty blue tile was a gooey, fungus- and bacteria-rich plywood sheet of the 1979 variety. We salvaged as many of the tiles as possible. My mom made them.

Here's the same wall after demo. The shovel is pointing to the place where The Theory found the petrified albino rats.

Here’s the same wall after demo. The shovel is pointing to the place where The Theory found the petrified albino rats.

Ta-da! Took this photo just this morning and you'll note the lived-in look.

Ta-da! Took this photo just this morning and you’ll note the lived-in look.

Before. Trapped between two doorways, the appliances were constant traffic stoppers. We saved the blue splash behind the stove. It's acrylic paint over stainless steel, made by my dad. Free to a good home, if you have a truck.

Stove wall before. Trapped between two doorways, the appliances were constant traffic stoppers. We saved the blue splash behind the stove. It’s acrylic paint over stainless steel, made by my dad. Free to a good home, if you have a truck.

Stripped down to the wallpaper of previous owners.

Stripped down to the wallpaper of previous owners.

After. This simplified footprint makes it darn near impossible to incinerate children and pets as they walk by. Some might say that's NOT an improvement.

After. This simplified footprint makes it darn near impossible to incinerate children and pets as they walk by. Some might say that’s NOT an improvement.

Where’s the art?

To be honest, it’s taken me three hours to write this post. That’s how un-creative DIY has left me. For instance, I spent my xmas vacation curled under the duvet watching Wallander and developing a weird crush on Kenneth Branaugh. I think it was because he cried during season two, which is something The Theory did often during the reno. <sigh> Now that I’ve seen all the Wallenders I’ll have to think of something else to do. Art, anyone?

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Here’s a link to a show juried by Shawn Hill, critic, Art New England for the Seventh International Encaustic Conference. Have to admit I’m a little confused because I thought it was the fifth international conference this year. How time flies when you are a famous encaustic artist like these folks. The exhibition theme is “seven.” And gosh, wouldn’t that make a fine theme for a high school prom?

Here is an artist from the show I especially like, Leslie Ford:

Seven Seas by Leslie Ford. Encaustic, charcoal on wood. 24" x 24".

Leslie Ford. Seven Seas. Encaustic, charcoal on wood panel. 24″ x 24″.

Leslie Ford. Nothing Surprising. Oil, pigment stick and cold wax on panel, 24" x 12". Not in the exhibition but just look at all that cold wax!

Leslie Ford. Nothing Surprising. Oil, pigment stick and cold wax on panel, 24″ x 12″. Not in the exhibition but just look at all that cold wax!

Go to Leslie Ford’s site and see more beautiful paintings.

Despite the snotty remark (above) about a high school prom with the theme of seven–which brings to mind the dark David Fincher flick called Se7en and surely not a suitable theme for any kind of public event (oh I’m doing it again), this show looks amazing!

Why am I so touchy today? Because I am THIS close to having the infernal book done–Seven Ways to Feel Pain with Encaustic Materials. I’m sorry, I mean The Encaustic Materials Handbook. I’ll be breaking a bottle of champagne over my head sometime this week.

Me. See? I'm smiling.

Me. See? I’m smiling.

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Okay, yes, you’re right.  I should have started with this recipe first.

Basic chalk ground is the easiest and most flexible gesso in the entire history of artist-kind. In fact, if you Google “homemade gesso” you’ll come up with dozens of versions of this recipe by great artists and innovative thinkers who might possibly have been broke at some point in their careers. I mean, what else could possibly explain the use of baby powder as filler for gesso?

I can relate. Maybe it never occurred to me to use baby powder because my kids haven’t needed diapers since the last century. Well, The Theory thinks they still do because I continue to pay their cell phone bills. (It’s called a family plan, sweetie!)

What you need:

  • 4 parts white glue, like Elmers’s, wood glue or archival (pH neutral) hide glue
  • 3 parts water
  • 4 parts filler (chalk or whiting, gypsum, Plaster of Paris, baby powder)
  • 1 part pigment

Combine water and glue in a jar or container. In a separate container, combine filler and pigment. Slowly add filler to glue mixture, stirring constantly. Add more filler or water/glue blend to get the consistency you want. Ideally it should be like pancake batter, but you can thicken it with more filler to build up impasto effects.

If you use rabbit-skin glue
Both The Painter’s Handbook by Mark David Gottsegen and The Artist’s Handbook by Ralph Mayer offer chalk ground formulas that include rabbit-skin glue. If you want to use this traditional glue, follow the directions on the package. You can omit the extra water in the recipe above.

Plaster of Paris
If you use Plaster of Paris, be sure to sift out the big chunks of rock first.

The last word on baby powder
I asked my dad about using talcum powder for filler, and he said it worked well as long as you used a rigid support. It’s no good for canvas because it’s too brittle. The last time he diapered a kid, baby powder actually contained talcum powder. Who knew it was slightly toxic? Current ingredients may include cornstarch, which in itself might be interesting to experiment with as filler for gesso. But it’s true—all these gesso recipes are much better on rigid supports.

I am so done with gesso and board prep for now! To celebrate the closing of the board prep series, here’s an old piece from two years ago that I almost forgot about. It’s amazing how pieces start to look better if you don’t see them for a while.

Nasca II (2011). Encaustic and graphite on board, 8" x 8". Based on those amazing ancient earthworks in South America.

Nasca II (2011). Encaustic and graphite on board, 8″ x 8″. Based on those amazing ancient earthworks in South America. For the record, this piece uses a watercolor paper ground. Also for the record, I had a reason for naming this piece “Nasca” rather than “Nazca.” All I remember is that it had nothing to do with “NASCAR.”

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Last time I talked about making milk paint gesso from fresh or reconstituted milk. Works great. I even did a batch where I added baby powder as filler, and I have to say I’m impressed. Though there’s a lingering clean bottom scent on the dry boards, which is kind of odd.

But there’s another way to make milk paint. It’s an old and revered type of homemade paint that utilizes a substance in milk called casein. You can buy dry casein or make your own, and though I haven’t used the dry stuff, I understand it functions a little like egg in tempera paint—the pigment is suspended in the fat globules, giving the paint a deep, jewel-like clarity.

When I went looking for milk paint recipes, the first one I saw was on the Martha Stewart site and I admit, this was not a turn-on. Back to old 1870 for me. But when I finally decided to contrast the two types of milk paint, fresh vs. curdled, I went back to Martha and saw a very interesting tip in the comments about adding borax to smooth out the curds.

The recipe I ended up using was from Earth Pigments which is a wonderful site and sells all kinds of natural pigments and basic supplies. The version of the recipe I give here is for a smaller amount, though I recommend you go to Earth Pigments and spend some time with their recipes.

1/2 gallon milk
1 cup white vinegar

Have the milk at room temperature before you add the vinegar. Once you add the vinegar don’t stir it anymore because the curds are already forming. Let the mixture sit in a warm place overnight. The next day, line a colander with cheesecloth (that’s what it’s for) and place it in your sink or over a large bowl. Pour the milk and vinegar mixture through the colander, thus separating the curds from the whey. I don’t know what to do with whey but it might be good for something. I just let mine go.

Next run some water very gently over the curds to wash away the vinegar. Put the dripping wet curds in a large bowl or gesso container. In a separate container, add:

½ cup hydrated lime
¾ cup water

Add water to the lime until saturated. You should be able to make a creamy paste, though I use garden lime which has to be sifted to remove larger chunks of rock and didn’t get anywhere near creamy. This milk paint recipe seems to require a very fine grade of lime, which you might want to buy specially. The 1870 milk paint recipe isn’t nearly as finicky.

Add the lime/water combination to the curds and stir. The curds should start to break down and become smooth. If this doesn’t happen, do what Martha Stewart’s commenter suggests and add:

½ teaspoon of borax

When the curds are smooth and the paint resembles pancake batter, add:

1-2 tablespoons of pigment
3-4 cups of filler such as chalk, gypsum, even baby powder.

Blend until it is smooth and luscious, and add more filler until you get the consistency you want. Use a gesso brush to paint your boards, making even left to right strokes. Allow to dry overnight, then add another coat, if desired, turning the board 90 degrees clockwise and using left to right brush strokes (this time in another direction). When the gesso is thoroughly dry, sand it until silky.

My version of casein milk paint gesso still had a few lumpy curds. Next time I will probably run it through the food processor. But when fully dry, the gesso was solid and tight and easy to sand. I have to say I still prefer the 1870 version for sheer simplicity, but this paint is nice and if I ever want to distress any furniture, I know where to go. Here’s a photo of casein gesso still wet:

Casein milk paint gesso on board. Once again--no pigment. I really need to get some more titanium white. But the golden color from the gypsum is pretty sweet, and the board dried flat white. I guess I'm just not that picky.

Casein milk paint gesso on board. Once again–no pigment. Note to Self: buy some titanium white. I checked yesterday and the board dried flat white even without pigment. Photo by Da Theory.

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To curd or not to curd? That is indeed a question. This week I’m going to talk about both kinds of milk paint because that’s what I did last weekend. Made tons of gesso.

Here at The Hive, where our motto is cheap and so is the rest of us, milk paint is a big part of the gesso repertoire. Milk, hydrated lime and gypsum—how do you spell inexpensive? I’ve championed the original recipe, sometimes called the 1870 Formula, which I found on the Pioneer Thinking web site.

The basic recipe is this:

1 quart milk (fresh or powdered and reconstituted)

1 ounce hydrated lime (not quick lime)

1-2 tablespoons of dry pigment

1-2 pounds of chalk or gypsum

If you are using an art-grade hydrated lime or lime putty, add a small amount of milk to the lime to make a creamy paste. Here’s a link to Earth Pigments where they sell a variety of natural painting supplies.

But if you are a cheapskate, you may be using using garden lime (available in the garden department). You will notice that hydrated lime has a gritty consistency and is composed of little bits of rock of varying sizes. Try to sieve out the bigger pieces first. Place lime in a small jar and add an equal amount of milk. Seal the jar with a tight lid and shake. Allow the lime and milk to sit half an hour, shaking occasionally. You can’t actually dissolve the lime in milk, but you can make sure that the smallest particles of lime are suspended in the milk. After half an hour, pour the mixture through a layer of cheesecloth, reserving the milk and lime mixture and disposing of any little rocks caught in the cheesecloth.

Add the rest of the milk and pigment and blend well. Sift chalk into the milk mixture, stirring frequently. I’ve chosen to use gypsum for filler, which is a soft calcium mineral used in plaster and wallboard. Another name for it is alabaster, and it does have a translucent quality worthy of the name. You can get a 40 pound bag of gypsum for about $8 in your local garden center. I’ve spent a lot of time sieving and sifting gypsum, even the cheap stuff, and I have never encountered anything except fine, soft powder. It is luscious.

Your paint is finished when it looks like thick, pourable pancake batter. Paint it onto your boards with a gesso brush, using consistent left to right brush strokes. You can stop at one coat or wait until dry to add more coats. Each time you paint another coat, turn the board 90 degrees clockwise so that your left to right brush strokes go in a different direction.

This is a thin paint so please be sure to paint both sides of the board to counter some of the warping that will occur, or use cradled or braced panels. By adding more filler (chalk or gypsum), you can build a paste-like paint which you can slather onto your board with a putty knife. This is nice if you want to build up a little more texture under your painting. Thick or thin, milk paint dries leaving a residue of chalk on the surface of the panel which can be sanded smooth.

About filler
Artistes talk about chalk filler in gesso, but guess what? You can use (maybe) almost anything. I saw a homemade gesso recipe that used baby powder as filler. This was so cool I decided to try it and aside from being remarkably blue in color, it worked great. When I bought two jars of baby powder, the grocery clerk gave me a weird look, like Lady, you’re too old to have a baby, you aren’t fooling anyone. I know you’re a drug queen. Ah, my other, profitable career!

Here’s a photo The Theory took of my milk paint and gypsum gesso:

Milk paint and gypsum gesso. I didn't add any pigment. The natural color of the filler is lovely here and it dries to a near white. The truth is that I was out of titanium white pigment.

Milk paint and gypsum gesso. I didn’t add any pigment. The natural color of the filler is lovely here and it dries to a near white. The truth is that I was out of titanium white pigment.

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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:

Steel sculpting set

Steel sculpting set

Mini ribbon set

Mini-ribbon set

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:

Red Waves (2013). Encaustic on linen. This is a piece of wax-soaked linen. It makes a nice rigid board. The design is inspired by Turkish Kilim carpets. All the imperfections are intentional, I swear!

Red Waves (2013). Encaustic on linen. This is a piece of wax-soaked linen I made a la Victor Brauner–you can even see the fringe on the bottom edge. The design is inspired by Turkish Kilim carpets. All the imperfections are intentional, I swear!

On the Floor (2013). Here I layered clear wax over alternating strips of intarsia. Again I was inspired by traditional tapestry designs.

On the Floor (2013). Here I layered clear wax over alternating strips of intarsia. Again I was inspired by traditional tapestry designs. All the little dark speckles which look sloppy in the scan are actually wonderful in real life. This is a nice piece to touch.

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