To Be Art, and Not Fade Away

A friend mentioned that she wants to try encaustic painting. I thought I had heard wrong. Caustic? If you paint with something that can eat through the canvas. won’t it be a very brief exhibit?

Turns out I did hear wrong. Encaustic painting, as I discovered from my patient friend, is a way of mixing pigments with hot wax and some sort of resin. The artist then applies the mixture to a surface or uses it as a kind of inlay, the latter especially with ceramics. One dictionary says the word comes through Latin from the Greek enkaustikos, and further back from enkaiein, a combination of en (in) and kaiein (to burn).

Looking at the colors, the etymology makes sense through the centuries. Whatever tones the particular artist has chosen, the colors have a glow about them.

"Blue Sun," by an artist from Canada named Tania (no last name given).

“Blue Sun,” by an artist from Canada named Tania (no last name given), 2012.

The idea of mixing colors with different media is as old as art, almost certainly born of necessity. What did the cave-painting artists mix with dusty, dried, ground-up petals and leaves to make their color stick to the stone when blown over their hands through a reed?

"Reclamation: Veiled Tranquility," by Karen Freedman, 2009. Encaustic on wood panel, 12 x 12.

“Reclamation: Veiled Tranquility,” by Karen Freedman, 2009. Encaustic on wood panel, 12 x 12.

To this day, it’s intriguing to contemplate the seeming contradictions of technique and result. Watercolors often appear susceptible to floating away at any second, making their beauty all the more poignant. Ancient oils, hand-mixed by pre-machine age artists, scraped on with horsehair or daubs of an impassioned knife, show cracks, but cling obstinately to the canvas after 450 years. Frescoes had to be done quickly, while the plaster whose drying would embrace the pigment for posterity was still wet.

That painting can speak to us over eons is amazing enough. That artists further challenge themselves by coming up with ephemeral media — and stubbornly seeking eternity with them — is downright enriching.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr, except for the paintings displayed

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4 thoughts on “To Be Art, and Not Fade Away

  1. Susan says:

    Ah, that Freedman piece is amazing.

  2. Thanks Adam for including me in your post!

  3. adambarr1106 says:

    You’re welcome, but it’s me who should be thanking you. The painting just breathes. Rewards long looking.

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