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Archive for the ‘Encaustic History’ 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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What to get the artist who has everything but a good idea? What else–a reference book. Now when your favorite artist has no inspiration, she can browse color and light optical effects or check the toxicity levels of her favorite solvents, all from the convenient location of her comfy chair.

Here are two I like a lot and use all the time:

Ralph MayerMayer, Ralph. The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, 5th ed. New York: Viking Penguin. 1991. I often mention mi brujo, Ralph. He’s the Man, andThe Artist’s Handbook is the Book. Ralph Mayer first published his handbook in the 1940’s and it has been updated in later editions to discuss modern, non-trad materials. Starting with a chapter on pigments, which includes composition, optical effects, theories, and anything else you want to know, it continues through detailed chapters on oil painting, acrylics, solvents, thinners, waxes, resins, encaustic, chemistry and conservation of art. The chapter on encaustic gives all the basic information an artist needs, as well as the why behind the ancient methods.

GottsegenGottsegen, Mark David. The Painter’s Handbook: A Complete Reference, Revised and Expanded. New York: Watson:Guptill Publications. 2006. A modern sidekick for Ralph Mayer, Gottsegen’s text is full of useful shortcuts and up-to-date information. His sketches and illustrations are very helpful. When the words “graduated cylinder” and “gravy separator” bring nothing to mind, his sketches tell you everything you need to know. While describing damar varnish, his definition of “five-pound cut” made sense instantly, while I’m still confused about whatever Ralph Mayer was saying. The Painter’s Handbook goes a step further, explaining not only what a substance or technique is but explains exactly how to use it. These two handbooks are indispensable additions to an artist’s library.

This blog will be having a long winter’s nap next week, saving herself for a brilliant and gleefully messy 2013.

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Since we’re edging into Christmas, I thought I’d mention a couple of great books for encaustic artists.

A list of resources is posted under a separate tab (above) but it is by no means complete. New books are coming out all the time and artists are always busy creating new masterpieces.  If you come across anything you think would be of interest to other encaustic artists, please comment and provide links. I will be adding and updating as new things come to light.

But here are a couple of books about the history of encaustic art and materials that I really enjoyed.

A Manual of Fresco and Encaustic Painting by W.B.S. Taylor

A Manual of Fresco and Encaustic Painting by W.B.S. Taylor

Taylor, William Benjamin Sarsfield. A Manual of Fresco and Encaustic Painting. London: Chapman Hall. 1843. The edition I have of this book is a facsimile of the 1843 publication where the original pages are photocopied and bound as a new book. Some words disappear at the end of the lines and some blocks of text sit crooked on the page. But that only adds to the charm. Mr. Taylor is a staunch supporter of the noble Greek style embodied in the methods and materials of encaustic painting. He bemoans the treacherous effect that Rococo gilding, gems, artistic fripperies, and oil painting have on art lovers with weak minds. The book is mostly about fresco painting, with whole chapters devoted to fighting damp in walls–the death of fresco in those drafty old English manor homes. But there are some wonderful descriptions of ancient encaustic murals and how the Greeks prepped big walls for wax, as well as the battle waged by the French Academy to resurrect encaustic after it was buried in the sands of time.

Nice overview of the field:

Waxing Poetic by Gail Stavitsky

Waxing Poetic by Gail Stavitsky

Stavitsky, Gail. Waxing Poetic: Encautic Art in America. Montclair, New Jersey: The Montclair Art Museum. 1997.  This is a museum catalog written for an exhibition of encaustic art at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, New Jersey in 1999. The catalog contains three essays: the first by Danielle Rice, Ph.D.is “Encaustic History Revivals: A History of Discord and Discovery.” Here’s where I learned why the eighteenth century French Academy was so eager to revive encaustic painting–that corrupt and effusive Rococo Art and its terrible lack of morals. They thought they could turn the tide of art history by re-introducing encaustic art and the high aesthetic standards of the ancient Greeks. Nice try. But from that point on, despite the, er, cleansing effects of the French Revolution, encaustic has never been forgotten again.

The second essay in Waxing Poetic, by Gail Stavitsky, takes the history of encaustic art through the twentieth century. We learn about early twentieth century experimentation, and track encaustic art through Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, and later artists. Stavitsky discusses a humble, out of print book called Encaustic Materials and Methods by Frances Pratt and Becca Fizell from 1949 that did more for documenting and standardizing encaustic as we know it than anyone else. (See my earlier post)

The third essay in Waxing Poetic, entitled “Encaustic as a Contemporary Paint Medium” is by none other than Richard Frumess himself, founder of R&F Handmade Paint.

Waxing Poetic is out of print but many used copies seem to be available. Check your local library.

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I can’t believe it—I found the holy grail of twentieth century encaustic books: Encaustic Materials and Methods by Frances Pratt and Becca Fizell. Ever since I first read about it in Joanne Mattera’s book The Art of Encaustic Painting, the words “out of print” have haunted me. I mean, how hard can it be to find this book?

Cover of Encaustic Materials and Methods by Frances Pratt and Becca Fizell.

Cover of Encaustic Materials and Methods by Frances Pratt and Becca Fizell.

As it turns out, harder than I thought. Encaustic Materials and Methods was published in 1949 by Lear Publishers. It was never re-issued. There are only 131 copies in libraries around the country. The Theory learned there weren’t any in Oregon. Abe Books didn’t have it, or eBay. And Amazon Used Books didn’t usually have it. Until one day….

And there is was. When I saw the listing on Amazon, I bought it immediately without blinking an eye at the cost. What’s money, asks the broke person. This little book is chock full of actual wax medium and paint recipes created long before the commercial encaustic paint market was even a twinkle. It’s a DIY dream come true. I’ll post recipes later but for now here’s my quickie synopsis:

Pratt, Frances and Becca Fizell. Encaustic Materials and Methods. New York: Lear Publishers, Inc. 1949. This rare, out of print book was written when American art was first ascending the world stage, and artists were seeking out new ideas and non-traditional materials. Though neither new nor non-traditional, wax emulsion and encaustic were enjoying a kind of renaissance made possible by electric heating sources. Encaustic Materials and Methods presents a functional history of encaustic, focusing on composition and methodology. It is at its best in the chapters focusing on contemporary (to the authors) artists. Each artist describes their supports, their recipes and how they adapted the medium to their ideas and styles. Artists featured include Karl Zerbe, Victor Brauner and Fred Conway, among others, at least a third of which are women. Some are traditional, actually working out Pliny the Elder’s seawater and potassium carbonate formula. Others add everything they can to the wax to create compounds that behave much more like oil paint.

Update: Frances Pratt Art web site launched December 17, 2012… researched, assembled and coded by The Theory. Read about the life of Ms. Pratt, and check back as The Theory squeezes more data from the stones and bones of history.

My favorite story from Encaustic Materials and Methods is about Victor Brauner, a Romanian surrealist who spent World War II isolated in the mountains, thinning his paints with gasoline. Here’s an image of his work:

Victor Brauner. Consciousness of Shock.

Victor Brauner. Consciousness of Shock. Encaustic. Photo courtesy of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

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