Saturday, March 31, 2018

Editorial: Fresh-picked Grapes Don't Yield Wine Overnight

By Joanne Mattera

It’s a big encaustic world and there are many voices, all of which make for good conversation and instruction. Diverse points of view, different ways of working, and the range of aesthetic expression bring a richness of texture—metaphoric and actual—to the medium.

But I’m concerned that there are a lot of newbies speaking for and about the medium with an experience and authority they don’t yet have. Just look at some of the YouTube videos out there—“encaustic artists” melting paraffin crayons, advocating the use of damar varnish, painting on pre-primed stretched canvas, using acrylic gesso on their panels. You name it, you can see it. Given the vast amount of information amassed by professional artists working with wax over the past 30 years—to say nothing of the research carried out by paint manufacturers such as R&F Handmade Paints and Evans Encaustics—it is unlikely that a newbie is going to reinvent a rounder, smoother, more efficient wheel after six months of painting in encaustic. 

Back when I was in art school I took a Painting Materials class in which I learned about encaustic. In some ways it was the best course of my college career. I learned to think about the stuff of artmaking as well as the compositional elements that go into a painting and the conceptual underpinnings of what it is we make. The class started chronologically with encaustic, moved on to egg tempera, then oil paint, and finally acrylic. Since we were also challenged to view paintings made with the materials we were learning about, I sought out historic and contemporary works in encaustic: Greco-Roman Fayum portraits and Jasper Johns’s flags; early Renaissance tempera paintings and Arthur Dove's contemporary abstractions (some of which also contained wax emulsion); Rembrandt and his legendary glazes, as well as modern and contemporary works in oil; and finally, work in that then-new medium of acrylic, especially the paintings of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland. It helped to have Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts just down the street and a few progressive galleries a trolley ride away.

Much as I loved that class, erroneous information kept me away from encaustic for the next 15 years. In the class we learned to make hide glue gesso and to apply seven layers of it in successive intervals. It was an interesting process but complicated, to say nothing of stinky. Hide glue gesso, we were told, was the only appropriate ground for encaustic. Daunted by that information, I went back to acrylic. But what if the instructor had known enough to offer information about alternative grounds for contemporary encaustic painting? 

Eventually wax called me back, and my desire to work with it drove me to look into options and to talk with other artists who were also finding their way with the medium. Why not melt wax directly into a board for a ground? Why not use unprimed canvas glued to or stretched over panel? Why not use heavy watercolor paper glued onto panel, or heavy paper on its own? All are viable options now used by artists at all levels. And, of course, we now have gessos specially formulated by manufacturers of wax paint. 

None of us dreamed of teaching when we were learning. And it would be years before I wrote a book on the subject. So my question is this: If you’ve been painting in wax for a month or six months or a year, should you be thinking about—or actually make—a video on how to create an encaustic painting? Should you be teaching?

No, you should not.

And given the various ways of actually making a painting—not just techniques, but integrating technique with intent and content—is one course or one video enough to send you out into the world as an expert? 

Again, no.

And should you be teaching with the very same material you received in a handout from the workshop you just took?

For the love of god, no!

There is a vast body of knowledge about encaustic. Explore it. There will be plenty of time for you to become an expert and teach. For now, enjoy the process of being a student, a novice, an experimenter. All of the experts now teaching spent many years being students either via art school or rigorous self study, or both, and only then ventured to teach. If you take one lesson away from their experience, it’s not about encaustic. It’s that fresh-picked grapes don’t yield vintage wine overnight.


  1. I am grateful that I started a few years ago with your book. I have found that I need to delve very deeply into process and think logically in working with encaustic. I am at the point where I know,from my beginning readings that there are certain things that will not work and if they doror a while, the piece will not last. I have painted and studied in other mediums so I know how important it is to make archival art. I am surprised by much of what I see. I’m lucky I’m curious and become obsessed easily. That is how you learn. Thank you for your book and starting this artist off on the right foot in this fascinating medium.
    ann martin schneider

  2. It is very confusing as a beginner and there is a lot of conflicting information. Finding "professional" instruction or ANY help that isn't YouTube is equally frustrating since there don't appear to be standards.

  3. There *are* standards, but you're not likely to find them on YouTube. Look for "Workshops" in the block just under the header of this publication; click on it and you'll find a list of preeminent teachers by geographic location.