“Little Demetrios was working with his father in the shipyard. His father was pushing a sled containing a small olive wood fire under a copper vessel of liquified beeswax. He stopped at intervals and brushed the joints of the oak planking of the hull with the molten wax. His brushes were a smooth pine branch with wadded lambswool tied at the end. It was Demetrios’ job to load up the brushes with the wax and hand them to his father. Throughout the process small droplets of wax would fall on his tunic. Demetrios, being of an artistic bent, collected the wax and in the evenings would add various colored soils and ash to it, sculpting small colorful figures of horses, pigs and sea monsters.
A red earth wax pig fell into the copper vessel from a sling Demetrios tied across his chest to hold his personal items: a bronze scraper for removing the crusted wax from the handles of the brushes, a small pouch of his mother’s salve to treat his various burns, dried fruit, and a few of his creations. Without realizing it, Demetrios handed his father a brush with the melting pig attached. Stroking the side of the vessel with the accidentally pigmented brush, Demetrios’ father became enraged, turning to his son and chiding him loudly for tainting the wax. The great admiral of the fleet, Themistocles, heard the commotion and went to see the cause of it. Staring at the crimson slash across the hull he knew what an accident of luck and providence it was…” from ‘The Gift of Bees’ by Franklin Cincinnatus
Encaustic is a Greek word meaning to burn in. Modern encaustic is bee’s wax with damar varnish added, making it harder and giving it a higher melting point. In the time of the ancient Greeks it was boiled numerous times to render it stronger. It is believed that it was first used decoratively to paint great menacing eyes on ancient Greek warships. Beautifully executed and preserved encaustic portraits have been found on walls in the excavations of ancient Pompeii. Painting with pigmented encaustic was rediscovered late in the Eighteenth Century and is the medium of choice of many artists today.
Applying encaustic to photographs is a recent development. It was Probably encouraged by the artwork of contemporary artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. I starting seeing some photographs coated with wax around 2005 and decided to take an encaustic class at R&F in Kingston, New York. I was primarily interested in it as a preservation technique, an alternative to glass. However, pretty rapidly, I found it to be an exciting adjunct to photographic artistic expression. At the time I was doing a series of self-portraits shot with a pinhole camera. The portraits, being naturally ethereal and gauzy, were perfect for the addition of the wax. Layers of wax on top of a photograph make them more atmospheric and mysterious. It gives a dreamy softness to the images — taking a simple photograph to another place.
Kevin, The Other Gallery Director, is an artist and a furniture builder and finisher. He has done many different types of wax finishes on furniture and cabinets in the past. It is just over the past three years that he has really concentrated on photography. I introduced him to photography and encaustics simultaneously and he was off and running. It is truly amazing what can be done to an image with colored wax, painting on top of the wax, incising, adding in other materials, transfers, etc.
We started teaching workshops through the gallery about a year and a half ago. It has been very gratifying to participate with other photographers that love the process as much as we do. Every session is full of discoveries and surprises.
Long live bees
A Smith Gallery
Joining us today is gallery director Amanda Smith of the A Smith Gallery located in Johnson City TX. The gallery exhibits the work of both amateur and professional photographers through juried and invitational exhibitions. Amanda is assisted by Kevin Tully serving as Assistant Gallery Director. Izzie and Bea are the official co-gallery cats.
An accomplished photographer in addition to gallery director, Amanda’s work can be viewed at Amanda Smith Photographs.
Thank you Amanda and Kevin for your insightful introduction to Encaustics.