Posts Tagged ‘Encaustic Materials and Methods’

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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The Hive Encaustic went dormant last week as I had to travel for work to Denver, Colorado. I went to a place called the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. This is high prairie, cold and windswept, and the prairie grasses and few scant trees were as brown as toast.

The only geologic features visible (except for the Rocky Mountains themselves) were huge mesa-shaped piles of old runway material from the now-defunct Stapleton Airport. I heard the runways were 60 feet thick! That makes a lot of asphalt. I didn’t get any photos of the urbanite mesas because I was so busy snapping pix of buffalo:

Took this from the car. Tourists aren't supposed to get out and get up close and personal with bison.

Took this from the car. Tourists aren’t supposed to get out and get up close and personal with bison.

Look at this guy's little hooves. He reminds me so much of Lascaux cave paintings, some 30,000 years old.

Look at this guy’s little hooves. He reminds me so much of Lascaux cave paintings, some 30,000 years old.

The Arsenal has a heard of about 300 head of bison. Can you believe that millions of these amazing animals once roamed the prairies? And what happened to them all, hmmm? I guess it only makes sense that the same government that presided at their eradication would install them at a site once used to manufacture deadly sarin gas. Bitter? Moi?

I returned home to be greeted by this crazy face:

Marzipan who is still in shock over having missed a meal because I had to leave the house at 3:30 am. The Theory tried to feed him breakfast but he was otherwise occupied (zzz).

Marzipan who is still in shock over having missed a meal because I had to leave the house at 3:30 am. The Theory tried to feed him breakfast but he was otherwise occupied (zzz).

Next week, it’s back to ebook hell. Will I never be done? It’s a simple little encaustic materials handbook. It shouldn’t take that long but here I am, embarking on my third draft of edits.

Francis Pratt Update
But quit whining! A reprint of Francis Pratt and Becca Fizell’s 1949 classic Encaustic Materials and Methods is about to be re-released in a facsimile edition with an introduction by me and a longer essay by The Theory. Oooh baby! Go here to read more about it.

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Good morning. We’re going to talk about cold wax paint this week—a subject that one would think I’d already exhausted. I’ve written how cold wax paint can be used in encaustic work, it can be treated like encaustic materials, and yet it is not encaustic because it is cold wax paint. I even gave a recipe using mineral spirits as a solvent to make cold wax medium.

Minerals spirits can make a wonderful, mayonnaise-like substance when mixed with wax. Cold wax medium made with mineral spirits can be used to prepare boards and panels in a way that keeps most pin holes and bubbles from ever happening. That alone is an awesome achievement.

But mineral spirits and beeswax do not make good paint. In addition to the drying time (about two weeks), the layers of paint are chalky. Run your hand across a dry piece and your fingers come away with paint on them. It’s not stable.

Let me just say that words cannot describe what it’s like to realize your paint isn’t doing the one thing paint is supposed to do—stick to things. Talk about your dark night of the soul.

But trying to secure paint to my work is what sent me in search of glazes, so it hasn’t been all bad. In reading about glaze I came across the work of Fred Conway in Francis Pratt’s little book, Encaustic Materials and Methods. Fred used damar varnish to dissolve beeswax. In the recipe I give for Glaze Week, the proportions are ¾ damar varnish to ¼ wax. But Fred also used much more wax-heavy recipes—his 1/3 damar varnish to 2/3 wax created what he called a “thick glaze.”

I settled on ½ damar varnish to ½ beeswax. I mixed the two in a glass jar and within minutes the wax started to transform to jelly. I sealed the jar and set it aside for a week. After that time what I had was this incredibly luscious, translucent medium.

Spooned out of the jar, this is what two-week old Fred Conway cold wax medium looks like. Photo by The Theory.

Spooned out of the jar, this is what two-week old Fred Conway cold wax medium looks like. Although opaque in a large dollop like this, it paints completely clear. Photo by The Theory.

Here at The Hive, you know my mantra is if you aren’t rich, act cheap. I am no way going to pay $11 for a 4 ounce jar of varnish when I can get a 1lb bag of rough damar crystal for $10 and make my own. It’s so easy everyone should do it. Here is a great recipe for damar varnish from Wet Canvas. Pay attention to the safety tips, and just think what it will be like to have quarts of this liquid gold in your studio.

Next time, pretty colors in cold wax paint.

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I’m in a glaze myself today as we finally reach Friday here at The Hive. In my first post I talked about a glaze made from an enhanced version of the wax medium recipe that we all use. In the next post, I gave the recipe for a hot glaze made with damar varnish and linseed oil.

Today we’re turning cold. Yup, a cold wax glaze designed to be used in works where there is both hot and cold wax media, or even non-wax elements. The reason I’m focusing so relentlessly on glazes is that I am working with both types of wax, and one of the things I don’t like about cold wax is the rather flat surface. I wanted a way to level and unify the values of both. All three of these glaze types have advantages but the one we’ll talk about to today is the easiest to use and the most versatile.

Francis Pratt interviewed an artist and educator named Fred Conway (1900-1972). He taught for years at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts, Washington University, in St. Louis, Missouri. Like many artists of the era, he began using encaustic during the war years. WWII, that is. Sadly, Fred is forgotten now, and pictures of his work are hard to find, and I didn’t locate any encaustic pieces at all. Here is a painting called Missouri River Landscape which you can almost see as encaustic. Even though the label says it’s an oil, who can tell? I think mis-labeling encaustics as oil paintings happens a lot, especially in older art works.

Fred Conway (1900-1972). Missouri River Landscape. Date and location unknown.

Fred Conway (1900-1972). Missouri River Landscape. Date, materials and location unknown.

Fred Conway’s Thin Glaze

¼ wax
¾ damar varnish.

Mix the wax and varnish in a glass jar. Seal the jar with a tight lid and gently shake the contents to fully incorporate the ingredients. Fred wanted you to let the glaze stand for three weeks or longer before using. But almost as soon as I added the varnish, the mixture became a thick, translucent jelly. I used it after five days, after twelve days and used my last bit after nearly twenty days. The only change I noticed was that the goo became even more translucent.

Fred says to use a brush or knife to apply to the surface of your painting. I actually globbed it on and rubbed it off with a cloth, as you would furniture varnish. The piece will be dry in an hour or two, but you should wait 24-48 hours before fusing. The strong smell of turpentine will get less, and that’s how you know the material has gassed off sufficiently for fusing. And use your heat gun. Your torch can catch it on fire. And yes, before you ask, I’ve done it. Here’s Fred’s Glaze on the six point scale:

1) Application method: Brush or wipe it on.

2) Drying time: 24 to 48 hours.

3) Transparency: Clear if applied thinly, has a slight white haze if applied too thickly.

4) Interaction with underlayers: Slight interaction with top hot wax layer.

5) Appearance: Medium body, eggshell finish.

6) Bloom prevention: Excellent.

Here’s a piece I glazed on Monday. It’s still a little sticky and you can see the cloudy areas where the glaze isn’t quite set. It’s my usual abstract hot mess but The Theory asked to keep it! He said it showed that I am making tiny steps toward composition. Now if ever a word could strike TERROR into the heart of a writer it is the word composition. I felt like I needed to apply to the nearest art school immediately. I know nothing about art, and what the heck is composition, anyway? Judge for yourselves:

Tasker (2013). Encaustic on board, 5 1/2" x 6". The brighter yellow parts are cold wax, the darker yellow parts are yellow unfiltered wax. All the rest is hot wax paint. Some of the cloudy areas are actually gray paint, not glaze. You get what I mean about a hot--and cold--mess.

Tasker (2013). Encaustic on board, 5 1/2″ x 6″. The brighter yellow parts are cold wax, the darker yellow parts are yellow unfiltered wax. All the rest is hot wax paint. Some of the cloudy areas are actually gray paint, not glaze. You get what I mean about a hot–and cold–mess.

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David Aronson 91923-). Bell-Boy. Encaustic, 28.5" x 18.5".

David Aronson (1923-). Bell-Boy. Encaustic, 28.5″ x 18.5″.

Last time I talked about a very simple adaptation to the encaustic medium recipe we all use. Instead of the standard 8 parts beeswax to 2 parts damar resin, I suggested using a 5 parts beeswax to 5 parts resin formula. This Half and Half recipe can be used as a thick finishing glaze. Read more about this recipe here.

Turning back to Francis Pratt and the artists she interviewed for Encaustic Materials and Methods, I learned about another Boston Expressionist and student of the great Karl Zerbe, David Aronson (1923-). The piece on the right makes me wish (yet again) that encaustic work photographed better. Photos don’t catch the impasto, tool marks and surface treatment that gives this medium such depth.

Aronson used the following recipe as a glaze for his encaustic paintings. I can’t speak for what he was trying to achieve with a final surface treatment but I know that when I use this glaze it has a clarifying and leveling effect on the underlayers, especially if I’ve used layers of both hot and cold wax.

David Aronson’s Hot Glaze

1 part damar varnish

1 part linseed oil

8 parts beeswax

Place all ingredients in a melting container and heat on your palette. Use it at slightly higher temperature than your regular wax paint–it should be very thin and liquid. While you can brush it on, it’s better to apply the way Aronson recommends, with a hot putty or palette knife. Applied too thickly, it will dry a cloudy white. If applied as thinly as possible, the glaze glistens and shines. Here are my results on the six-point scale:

1) Application method: Hot wax, applied with a knife.

2) Drying time: Up to two weeks.

3) Transparency: Clear if applied thinly.

4) Interaction with underlayers: None.

5) Appearance: Thin, gloss.

6) Bloom prevention: Very good

And yes, you read 2) correctly, the drying time IS two weeks. This is totally foreign to encaustic artists, the idea that you have to wait for paint to dry. The linseed oil, which imparts some of the lovely gloss, takes time to cure. You will start to see the shine after two or three days, but it will remain tacky for quite a while. If you have any spots where the glaze pooled thickly, it may take even longer. The advantage of this glaze is that it really does unify the somewhat chalky appearance of cold wax with the smooth surface of hot wax. It gives you a kind of window into the layers of paint.

Here’s one of mine where I tried the glaze. The black areas are hot wax and the blue areas are cold wax:

Untitled [large blue-green] (detail) (low-res)

Untitled (blue and black). The white patches on the upper right are pooled glaze. Everywhere else, the glaze was applied correctly and the blue and black layers are equalized. Before I applied the glaze, the blue areas looked dry and chalky.

The image above was a scan, not a photo. I think I get better close-ups with scans but The Theory says photos are better.  Next time, we will discuss a cold wax glaze recipe.

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I’m still loving this book—Encaustic Materials and Methods by Frances Pratt and Becca Fizell. It was written at a time when encaustic art included a range of materials and techniques, and many of the formulas were developed by the artists themselves.

As I worked with encaustic pieces that contained both hot and cold wax, I began to want a glaze that could create a uniform surface. I also needed a little more bloom control. The weather has been very winter-y here at the Hive and it’s not the flowers around here that are blooming.

I turned to my Frances Pratt to see what her long ago artists had to say about encaustic glazes, and found several glaze recipes, two for hot wax and one for cold wax. I tested each for a variety of results: 1) Application method, 2) Drying time, 3) Transparency, 4) Interaction with underlayers, 5) Finished look, 6) Bloom prevention.

This week I’ll talk about each of these recipes.

Half and Half Beeswax / Damar Resin

I saw a paint recipe by Boston Expressionist Esther Geller (1922-) in Encaustic Materials and Methods. Click this link to see images of Esther’s work posted on Pyrocantha’s Flickr Photostream. Esther often worked on Masonite in very large formats, which is about the coolest thing for an encaustic artist to do.

Esther Geller. Phragmoi Gates (1975). Encaustic on Masonite. Six joined panels each 6' high x 2' wide.

Esther Geller. Phragmoi Gates (1975). Encaustic on Masonite. Six joined panels each 6′ high x 2′ wide.

Here’s another image of Esther’s beautiful work:

Esther Geller. Dancing Goddess. Encaustic on Masonite.

Esther Geller. Dancing Goddess. Encaustic on Masonite. Image from an exhibition at TCAN, Natick Performing Arts Center, Natick MA.

Esther uses cakes of 50% beeswax and 50% damar resin, to which she adds stand oil and turpentine to make a buttery encaustic paint. Esther’s perfect paint is the subject of another post, where I also curse mineral spirits. Ptooey!

When I made a batch of half and half medium and poured it into muffin tins, I noticed that the medium didn’t shrink while cooling and it was difficult to release from the pans. It also had a nice, hard gloss. I melted a cake on my palette and used it to glaze a piece where I’d worked some oil paint into the surface. Here are my results on the six-point scale:

1) Application method: Hot wax, brushed on.

2) Drying time: Instant.

3) Transparency: Cloudy, more than regular white wax medium.

4) Interaction with underlayers: None. I fused lightly to get a good bond.

5) Appearance: Thick, semi-gloss.

6) Bloom prevention: Very good

The recipe for Half and Half is easy:

Step one:
Melt 5 parts white beeswax over medium high heat until fully melted.

Step two:
Add five parts damar resin crystal to melted wax, dropping the pieces into the hot mixture carefully to avoid splatter.

Step three:
Continue to stir the mixture as the resin melts into thick ribbons. Watch your temperature to keep from going over 200 degrees F. The resin should be fully incorporated around 185 degrees.

Step four:
Line a strainer with four layers of cheesecloth and carefully pour the hot wax mixture through the strainer into ½ cup muffin tins. When fully cooled, turn the muffin pan upside down and strike the edge of the pan against a hard surface until the wax cakes pop out. If they resist, try holding the pan in both hands and gently flexing the metal. Strike again.

Melt a half and half cake over your palette. Brush the hot liquid onto your painting, trying to minimize lumps and bumps. Fuse lightly with your heat gun. This creates a hard, sticky surface, and scraping will be difficult. Use an iron to even out imperfections and scrape while the wax is warm. I’ve heard that high-resin content will make wax more brittle. While I haven’t noticed this, please experiment when using it on larger pieces.

Untitled (2013). Encaustic on board, 6 1/2" x 7 1/2". You can see how cloudy the glaze layer is when compared to areas where I scraped back to the dark blue underlayers.

Kassandra Kelly. Untitled (2013). Encaustic on board, 6 1/2″ x 7 1/2″. You can see how cloudy the glaze layer is when compared to areas where I scraped back to the dark blue underlayers.

Next time: A glossy and transparent hot wax glaze. Ooh la la.

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Last time we discussed using cold wax medium to prepare boards for encaustic. The next step is to make cold wax paint. In Encaustic Materials and Methods, Frances Pratt notes dozens of variations on the basic recipe, with some artists using different combinations of varnish and stand oil to cold wax, but let’s keep it simple.

Cold wax paint using oil paint from a tube:

  • Spoon a desired quantity of cold wax paint into a mixing container;
  • Squeeze a little tube oil into the paste and mix with a spoon or craft stick until the color is correct.

Cold wax paint using dry pigment:

  • Place a teaspoon of dry pigment in a small mixing container (one of those metal trays from art supply stores that looks like round muffin tins works great for this).
  • Add half a teaspoon or so of linseed oil and mix with a spoon or craft stick. Some pigments blend easily while some remain kind of gritty. Use the hard edge of a craft stick to grind the oil into the pigment.
  • Spoon a desired quantity of cold wax paste into a second mixing container and add your pigment mixture. Add more pigment to correct the color.

Note: Dry pigments are basically dust and get everywhere. While some are made from natural substances, many more are developed through industrial processes using nasty chemicals. Please consider all dry pigments hazardous and ALWAYS use a face mask and gloves. Once the pigment is mixed with linseed oil, it’s as safe as oil paint. Which is to say, keep your gloves on. Oil paint isn’t all that safe either.

Cold wax paint, both made from dry pigment.

Cold wax paint, both made from dry pigment. The green looks a little chalky and could probably use another half teaspoon of oil.

So far so good, right? Now it gets complicated. This paint doesn’t harden up like hot wax. In fact it acts a lot like oil paint, staying wet for hours. You are waiting for the mineral spirits to gas off and the linseed oil to dry and harden. When I first started using cold wax, I had to adjust my expectations. I wasn’t getting instant results the way I was used to with hot wax paint. In fact sometimes I had to wait a whole week for the paint to cure.

You can’t exactly call this stuff encaustic if it acts like oil paint, so what is it good for? Well, you can paint with it. When it hardens, it feels just like encaustic wax and it can be fused to additional encaustic layers. The good part about cold wax is that you can keep it on the brush much longer than hot wax and do some very painterly things with it.

If you are so inclined, you can also heat the paint with your heat gun to force the gas to evaporate a little faster. DON’T USE A TORCH—it will set the mineral spirits on fire. I kid you not.

Here’s a piece I finished this weekend that is part of my faux Richter experience:

Berlin Noir (2013). Encaustic on board, 8" x 7.5".

Berlin Noir (2013). Encaustic on board, 8″ x 7.5″.

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