Friday, September 22, 2017

Wax and The Color of Flesh

Francisco Benitez, detail of Departure,
shown full view farther along in article

When I worked as a freelance book editor I had this idea for a book: The Color of Flesh. I envisioned a chapter-by-chapter exploration of how painters created a range of skin tones in oil, acrylic, encaustic, pastel, and watercolor. I saw it as a useful guide for new painters as well as for artists new to painting the figure. Of course there would be exquisite examples of skin tone, from Velasquez’s coppery Juan de Pareja to Artemisia’s ruddy Judith to Boucher’s pink and creamy nudes. I still think it’s a great idea for someone to take on, but for this article I am thinking visually about pigmented wax and its simulation of flesh—warm and cool, swarthy and pale, highlight and shadow—and what the medium’s inherent luminosity brings to the suggestion of epidermal radiance. I’m also taken with what the color of wax itself brings to the evocation of flesh. --J.M.

What follows is highly subjective musing on the subject. I’ve photographed many of these artworks over the past several years during my travels to galleries, museums, and art fairs with the idea of one day putting together this article. The rest of the images come primarily from the websites of artists whose work I admire, or directly from the artists themselves. 

Inset: Crayola’s assortment of “flesh-colored” crayons, introduced in 1992, was a welcome addition to the peachy monotone we used as kids, but of course they are no match for the range of skin tones achieved by painters and sculptors, such as Lora Murphy's, below

Lora Murphy working on Be Fearless, 2014, encaustic on panel, 16 x 16 inches
Photo courtesy of the artist

What you see behind Murphy's portrait of Frida Kahlo is a skin-tone chart that she made for her work in encaustic. "The basic mixes are across the top, and the variations of each color are below it," says Murphy.  "I didn't want to mix only on the hotplate. I wanted to see how the colors would work if they were just laid on top of each other. I wanted to see how they could be warmed, cooled, made more concentrated, lightened, and darkened. And I was fascinated by the way an iron could make tones that could not be done with a brush."

. . . . . .

Fayum Portraits

Let's start at the beginning. Fayum paintings, the earliest existing encaustic portraits, are a reflection of the multicultural, if stratified, society that was Greco-Roman Egypt in the centuries at the cusp of B.C. and A.D.  Painted by skilled portraitists in the Greek tradition—the head facing the viewer with the body turned slightly away, a light source illuminating forehead, nose and chin—these compelling life-size portraits depicted a range of North African and Mediterranean people living in the Nile Delta region who followed Egyptian burial customs. I love the olive coloration, with its red, yellow or green undertones; occasionally there’s the surprise of a pink-toned portrait. Robust brush strokes heighten the lights and shadows. The palette, credited to the Greek painter, Apelles, consisted of red ochre, yellow ochre, chalk white, and lamp or bone black. Typically the portraits were painted during a sitter’s lifetime and then inserted into their mummy casings after death, a window for their journey into the Afterlife.

Encaustic was used for three centuries to paint the portraits that would be inserted into mummy casings. Different painters approached the face differently--from a light application of paint to a textured surface of built-up brush strokes--but a unifying stylistic element was the exaggeration of the eyes. The most modest of the sitters, such as the young man above (image from the internet), were depicted in plain robes, while the wealthiest were depicted with the trappings of their wealth, such as jewelry, luxurious fabrics, and the complicated Roman hairstyles of the time 

The bottom two photos were photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which features a collection of Fayums. The pink tones of the sitter at left are in marked contrast to the olive hue of the one at right. (The gold-leafed diadem was sometimes applied after the sitter's death to mark her or his passage to the next plane)

The Leap to Contemporary Portraiture

"Wax is an obvious choice for me in painting 
the skin. It's translucent and luminous. 
By applying translucent layers you
  can achieve some of the chromatic richness of flesh."
--Jeff Schaller

During the 2000-year gap in which encaustic was entombed with the mummies, newer paints, notably egg tempera and then, centuries later, oil, came into use. Some contemporary painters working in a contemporary idiom remain true to the tradition of encaustic portrait painting. Using the four-color palette of Apelles, noted earlier, Francisco Benitez paints contemporary sitters. In a different twist, the palette and aesthetic of Kevin Frank's portraits are contemporary, but his study of the Fayums yielded a traditional approach in terms of brush stroke--size of the brush in relation to the size of the panel, for instance--and the loosely rendered background.

Others painters, freed from a history of portraiture in conventional mediums, approached encaustic without boundaries. Paintings got large, or atmospheric, or expressive in color or brush stroke. Chief among contemporary portraiture is the work of Toronto-based Tony Scherman, whose bold alla prima style defines the face in broad strokes with a texture of swipes and drips. Dan Addington's unlikely muse is statuary, and as you might expect, his figures are heroic. Marybeth Rothman and Elena De La Ville use photographs as the image base for their work, which frees them to collage additional images, or to apply pattern and color in unexpected ways.

“Wax-as-flesh has been the guiding concept in my work since the first time I ever used wax in a painting."
--Dan Addington

"I have used the four-color palette of Apelles, which at first was daunting, but later revealed itself to be very suitable for rendering flesh tones."
--Francisco Benitez

Francisco Benitez
Departure, 2010, encaustic on panel, 24 x 18 inches
Photo courtesy the artist's website

The subject, says the artist, is a Sicilian girl painted in a spot overlooking the ocean. Location is an important detail here, given the radiance and reflection of light on her skin. A detail of the work opens this article

Kevin Frank
Above: Paul H-O, 2000, encaustic on panel, 14 x 11 inches
Below: Wendy Whelan, 2000-2007, encaustic on panel, 14 x 11 inches
Photos from the artist's website, with permission

Inspired by the Fayums, Frank considers particular details of those historic paintings, such as brush size and texture, and he renders the background loosely, something you can also see on our Fayum sitter with the gold-leaf diadem. However he breaks the tradition by the position of his sitters: full on or in profile. His palette is contemporary

Tony Scherman
Serena Williams, encaustic on canvas, photographed at Miami Project in the Winston Wachter Gallery booth in 2016
JM photos

Scherman is known for his larger-than-life portraits of figures from history and popular culture. Using flexible microcrystalline rather than beeswax, he paints on canvas with broad, confident strokes, building a textured surface that is dramatic from a distance, with a complex rendering of flesh tone from close up

Detail below

Tony Scherman
Claudia Cardinale, 2014, encaustic on canvas, 48 x 45 inches
Photographed at Miami Project in the Winston Wachter Gallery booth in 2014
JM photos

Here Scherman's approach to flesh is expressionistic. Hints of olive and pink are overlaid with a green that would normally serve as an undertone

Detail below

Jeff Schaller
 Cocktail Time, encaustic on panel
Photo courtesy of the artist

"I use a thinned-down blue to overlay the shadows, which suggests veins. Building this color up over some warm reds gives the skin a blushing, blood-pumping life to the figure," says Schaller. 
I'd add that Schaller's use of deep shadow punctuated by highlights on warm flesh tone--classic chiaroscuro--heightens the effect 

Dan Addington
Shelter Me Sweet Nurse, 2017, wax and tar on panel, 60 x 48 inches
Photo courtesy of the artist

 "Around 2001, my parents-in-law moved to Belgium, so we started going over to Europe twice a year," says Addington. During those visits I was fascinated, and on some occasions truly moved, by the figurative monuments that were all around me. I'm not talking about the museum pieces, but about the anonymous statuary in city squares, parks, and cemeteries. I wanted the volume of my painting to occupy space like those monuments did, but pictorially, and I wanted to evoke something less cold than all that stone. Wax as a material evoked flesh.

“Technically, I use pure beeswax, or beeswax and resin, but rarely add pigment. That's why I often use unfiltered beeswax that still has a golden color to it. I use thinned-down water media to stain the surface, sometimes to give it an overall tone. Wax is applied to the surface, kept warm, and manipulated. It's the element of translucency that most evokes flesh in these pieces. Tar, which is like an organic counterpoint to the glowing wax, is applied and used both as a means to render the image and a material that emphasizes the wax's texture. I don’t want to necessarily paint pictures of bodies using wax. In fact, often it is the tar that defines the contours of the bodies. I want to use the wax because, even if it acts as sky or background it still says flesh, and this idea of flesh would be embedded in the painting.”

Marybeth Rothman
Above: Amelia, 2011; below: Eugene, 2012; both encaustic, photo collage and mixed media; 40 x 40 x 2 inches
Photos courtesy of the artist

Elena De La Ville
Torso/Leaf, paper and wax on wood panel, 24 x 24 inches
Photo courtesy of the artist

As with Rothman's Eugene, De La Ville employs a fauvist palette that allows us to peer through hue to see skin's texture and shadow

Christian Faur pointilist portrait
Photographed at SOFA Chicago, 2009

Using crayons that he hand casts of beeswax and pigment, Faur creates pointilist relief portraits that must be seen from a distance for their full impact (which is why I'm showing this one small, above) as well as a more expressionistic style of portrait in which bits of crayon are integrated into a surface rendered with thick daubs of color and heated almost to the point of melting the image. Faur's work offers an interesting counterpoint to "flesh-colored" crayons, because the range of hues here is wildly chromatic. 

Detail below

Christian Faur, Portrait of a Philosopher (Ludwig Wittgenstein), no date, melted hand-cast encaustic crayons,
35 x 36 inches
This exhibition is at the Kim Foster Gallery in New York City through October 7
JM photos

   Detail below    

Sculpture and Wax

Long a matrix for metal casting, wax has a compelling presence of its own in contemporary sculpture. The sculptors shown here who are using wax are unlikely to define their work in terms of encaustic, nevertheless wax informs the work physically and conceptually. 

Nowhere is this clearer than in the work of Berlinde De Bruyckere, whose typically grotesque but oddly beautiful sculptures of the body, or body parts, are perfectly rendered right down to the veins and pores. 

Berlinde De Bruyckere
Verbinding, 2009; wax, epoxy, and pillow, life size
Photographed at Art Basel Miami at Galleria Continua, 2010

"Verbinding" is Dutch for link, and in the full view of the work, below, you can see how the lifelike hands are joined together, though in a most unlifelike way
JM photos

Robert Gober
Installation views from The Heart is Not a Metaphor, Gober's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, 2014
JM photo

Robert Gober, who has made sculpture and installations in a variety of mediums, has created a quite literal body of work of what appears to be beeswax cast into into hirsute human forms, like the limbs you see here. They are dressed and shod, and each strand of (presumably) human hair has been inserted by hand into the wax. A candle sprouting from the thigh adds a surreal touch to an already surreal tableau

Below from The Guardian review of the exhibition

Vanessa Beecroft
Sculpture photographed at Art Basel Miami at Deitch Projects Booth, 2009
JM photos

Vanessa Beecroft, who has long created tableaux vivants of nude women, has here created a Sleeping Beauty-esque form in unbleached yellow beeswax lying on a bed of her own golden locks. I first saw the work in The Female Gaze, at Cheim & Read Gallery in Manhattan in 2009, in an exhibition in which women artists controlled the narrative of female objectification. Shortly thereafter I saw the sculpture at Art Basel Miami, where it was very much the object of a male gaze, as groups of men stood around ogling it. Still, with its non-human coloring, visible seams and fake hair, it was far from an idealized golden nude, which I assume was Beecroft's point

Detail below

Rashid Johnson
I Who Have Nothing, 2008, wax and mixed media
Shown in Miami at the Rubell Family Collection during Art Basel week, 2008
Photo from the Rubell Family Collection website

Rashid Johnson, whose cross-disciplinary work has documented and commented on black culture in America, has specifically chosen to work with pigmented black wax (along with such materials as shea butter and soap). His shelf-like constructions, one of which you see here, suggest a personal history--his own--within the larger African American culture. Works may take their titles from popular songs, suggested by the album covers. Here the wax functions as symbol of skin color rather than as actual physical representation of black skin 

Detail below
JM photo

Ugo Rondinone
Nude, an exhibition at Barbara Gladston Gallery, New York City, 2010 
Life-size figures were placed on the floor around the perimeter of the exhibition space

Ugo Rondinone confounds our thinking about color and flesh. His realistic casts of models are shown in contemplative poses that are dreamy and romantic. Every pore is visible. The shape of a jawline or collarbone asserts itself under the surface. These models seem to be caucasian, yet the forms are patched with waxes of different hues. The color mix provides a conceptual counterpoint to the Fayum paintings we saw earlier in the article. Those 2000-year-old portraits were created in a multicultural society that enfolded a variety of cultural traditions and hierarchies and represented people whose flesh ranged from rosy pink to golden brown. Rondinone has given us monocultural figures, if I might call them that, which incorporate all of those skin tones at once

Closer views reveal both the lifelike features and the unsettling manner in which the "skin" is patched together--almost in the way a dress pattern is sewn
JM photos

Further reading/watching

Those classical Greek and Roman statues in marble depicting warriors, statesmen, and people from various walks of life have suggested to the modern eye that all of ancient Mediterranean culture was white. We know from the Fayum portraits that this is not so, but the statues in their cool whiteness would seem to indicate otherwise (and subliminally that the pure whiteness of marble translated to the "purity" of racial whiteness) until classicists using digital technology found traces of color on the statues. Classicist Sarah Bond has something to say on the subject, from an HBO feature that aired July 17, 2017.

The "whiteness" of Mediterranean culture is suggested by marble, but that marble was once polychromed, typically in wax and very likely in the skin tones reflective of the region

. True Colors of Ancient Greek and Roman Statues
The polychromed recreations, see one below, are garish to our contemporary eye, certainly nowhere near as elegant as the Fayums, but they are recreations by scholars, not artists, and the recreations are not painted in wax. 


  1. Great article and a privilege to be part of it! Thanks Joanne

  2. Good post! We will be linking to this particularly great post on our website.
    Keep up the good writing.