Plainsong, the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times, modal liturgical music; Gregorian chant, any simple and unadorned melody or air

In the Plainsong series, I embrace the serenity of painting. In the absence of color choice, I find myself more easily able to become one with the process of painting, in its purest state. The resulting state of contemplative spirituality allows me to channel inner energy, flow, and conflict into the compositions of the pieces, seeking to deconstruct and unify my own inner turmoil into a peaceful resolution in my art.

The birth of this series began shortly after the birth of my daughter, the death of my father, a geographical move of my family from southern to northern California, and the exciting but difficult decision to cut back on my career as an OB/GYN physician to give myself more time to paint and be with my family. In the midst of the resultant chaos, escaping to my art studio, where I could blanket myself in the tranquility of monochromatic painting, became a welcome haven.

Within this series, I have begun to paint abstract “portraits” of people who have inspired me. Working in installations of smaller works, these “portraits” are created by painting elements that represent a person’s life and then fusing them together into a larger constellation of works that, when interpreted collectively, reflect that person. Most recently, I painted my best friend from medical school, who was diagnosed with cancer when she was eight weeks pregnant with her fourth child. The paintings created for her include four egg-like shapes, which symbolize her children, abstract imagery of the medical caduceus, to represent the career she gave up for her family, and two tear shapes, which demonstrate the struggle of having to choose between treating her cancer or keeping her baby.

In the process of writing a book about encaustic painting technique, I have been traveling the country, meeting with painters who work with encaustic, and the process has been very inspirational. I am currently working on a series of “portraits” that represent these artists and how they have influenced me. One of these artists paints very feminine, maternal, organic and abstractly figurative works, and since my visit with her, shapes of vessels keep appearing to me in my dreams. The studies I have created for this portrait recreate the dream-inspired vessel shape, which is becoming a recurring theme in my recent work.

Marrying encaustic painting, painting with molten beeswax, with painting in white tones seems a natural union. While white invites comparisons to substances in nature- snow, clouds, water, ice, and alabaster, wax, itself a natural substance, enhances the properties of white, adding translucence, depth, and an airy quality of fragility. The paintings are created using many thin layers of wax, which attract light and refract it, leaving interpretation open to the viewer.

Having recently moved close to Big Sur, the heavenly place I have always called my spiritual center, these paintings feel at home here. In a place surrounded by practioners of yoga, continuum movement dancers, and healing arts facilitators, I know that life and spirit will continue to infuse into my work. As I learn to find more balance and resolve conflicts in a more peaceful way, I will continue to seek the open doors that lead to greater inspiration and experience. Perhaps, as life settles down a bit, bright colors will find their way back into my work, but for now, the Plainsong paintings are a way to close off from the world, open my heart to insight and introspection, give praise for the wonderful blessings in my life, grieve the tragic losses, connect to the environment of my new home, and gently integrate back into my surroundings in a peaceful way, allowing the journey of my life to continue, touched with light, brilliant with reflection, airy like a plainsong, an unadorned melody.


Excerpt from Encaustic & Beyond: A Guide to Creating Fine Art With Wax By Lissa Rankin

“If oil paint is the prose of painting, then encaustic is its poetry.” -Chester Arnold

Encaustic art is in the midst of a revival. It is obvious. For the first time in the history of encaustic, museums are curating encaustic exhibitions, encaustic workshops are popping up across the world, artists are organizing into associations based on the medium, and art collectors and dealers not only know what the word “encaustic” means, they have also begun to assimilate encaustic art into their exhibitions and collections. Easy access to electrical equipment, development of commercially available encaustic products, distribution of educational materials related to the medium, and a fascination with the luminous nature and organic qualities of wax have all contributed to the timing of this encaustic renaissance.

Those of us who work with the medium do so in spite of its challenges- the difficulty in mastering the medium, the fragility of creating works of wax, the ambitious task of trying to manipulate the wax when fusing, the expense of the supplies and shipping, the need for ventilation in the studio, and the task of teaching others about care and handling, exhibiting, and collecting works of encaustic art. Yet, at the same time, there is something extremely approachable about the medium. One of the artists I worked with said, "Even my 9-year old daughter loves to paint with wax." And my mother, who had never painted in her life, picked up a waxy paintbrush at my house and now has an encaustic studio of her own. Perhaps it brings out the pyromaniac in all of us, recalling the child-like fascination we all had with wax. The medium rewards and encourages playfulness and the fun- natured creativity of art. While this book focuses on encaustic as a fine art medium, even hobbyists and craft-aficionados can find pleasure in incorporating wax into their creative endeavors.

It seems to me that there is something else that we share, as artists working in the same medium. By its very nature, artists who work with encaustic have to be willing to relinquish some element of control. The wax has a mind of its own, and while we learn to guide it, we also learn to let it guide us. Art created with encaustic is more likely than not to be abstract in nature. Maybe the difficulty of creating representational work limits its prevalence, or maybe there is something inherent in the type of artist who works with wax that prefers working abstractly. Perhaps that is the poetry of encaustic, and, with the exception of a handful of remarkable painters who create representational art with encaustic, the prose painters are often naturally drawn to other media.

We clearly share a fascination and devotion to the act of expressing ourselves with wax. There is something meditative about the experience, the alchemy of tempering the wax, mixing colors, painting, pouring, or coating with wax, and using heat to stabilize and fuse it. Because the process is laborious and tedious, particularly in the stages of acquiring command of the medium, it is easy for artists to become obsessively focused on process. The process itself becomes mesmerizing, and all too often, I hear artists who work with wax dissecting their process when speaking about their art, neglecting the important issues of the intent, meaning, and message they are trying to communicate with their work. It is easy to do so, since people who view work created with wax are equally spellbound and, themselves, direct questions away from content and into process. Nevertheless, here I am, writing a book about encaustic technique, attempting to break down process into an educational manual, complete with step-by-step instructions and detailed photographs.

In doing so, I am seeking to help artists move past the challenges of the encaustic process, such that they can begin or continue to move more deeply into the content of what they are trying to express. With tips from the experts and easy-to-follow guidelines, encaustic can be approachable for any artist. My personal challenge to the readers of this book is to study and practice encaustic technique, lose yourself in the lushness of the medium, master the process, and then dig deep inside to use the medium to express yourself with your art, rather than defining your work through the use of encaustic. Joanne Mattera, author of The Art of Encaustic Painting: Contemporary Expressions in the Ancient Medium of Pigmented Wax, challenged us all in an essay she wrote entitled “I Am Not An Encaustic Artist,” making the important point that what we say with our art is more important than the medium we use to create it. Laura Moriarty, of R & F Handmade Paints, agreed with Mattera, countering that “an encaustic artist” would be “an artist who is made of wax” and that an artist who uses the term “communicates to me that the artist is more excited about the medium than the message their work conveys.” It is a cogent point we must all consider. Although we love wax, we must move past encaustic to be artists.

The artists who have participated in this book have done so with an incredible generosity of spirit, sharing with me their proprietary techniques, which they have invented through countless trials and many errors to distill a technique into something other artists can understand. In no way does my attempt to show their process in easy steps diminish the incredible complexity they have brought to their work or reduce their art to simple process. Rather, I think you will find that these artists have developed a level of proficiency that separates them from the rest, and once you try it, you will discover that it is impossible to recreate what someone else is doing. Who would want to? These are only tools- just like the paint, the hot plate, the hake brush, and my ever-favorite blowtorch. Once you master them, you will be able to integrate what resonates with you into your own process in a way that makes the technique uniquely yours. The artists who shared their techniques did so with a sense of trust for the community of artists who will be reading this book. They have confidence that you will learn from them, embrace that sense of sharing in your own interactions with other artists, and of course, use these techniques in an individual way, rather than trying to imitate the work of the artists who make their living and their reputation from these techniques. Without these artists, this book would have been a watered-down, narrowly focused, and imprecise version of my own solo experience. For their participation, I am eternally grateful.

In the process of interviewing and visiting these artists’ studios, I have changed as an artist and a writer, and the book has metamorphosed over the years to reflect how I have grown. In the beginning, I wrote this book as a technical manual I could share with students, and my instructions tended to be dogmatic and rigid. It embarrasses me now to think of how little I knew then, but I am proud of how much I have learned. Since then, I have been educated by artists who have been painting with wax for decades, long before there were widely available books about encaustic, workshops about the process, or commercially available materials. Some contemporary artists believe that the rules of encaustic are now defined, with clear-cut “do’s” and “don’ts,” and there is a lot of dialogue and debate within the encaustic community about archival technique. However, I’ve discovered that many professional artists, whose works are included in museum collections, are pushing these boundaries with radiant and critically acclaimed results. After much debate and soul-searching, I now believe that we won’t know the answers to some of these questions for centuries, when we will be able to compare which techniques are successfully conserved in museums and private collections and which techniques have failed to survive the test of time.

Artists tend to be rule-breakers, anti-establishment rebels, and limit-pushers. I respect that, and this book is not intended to limit creativity. On the contrary, I hope this book inspires you to try new things and to experiment with ways that encaustic can enhance your own artistic style. I have tried to set guidelines for best practice, and artists who work with encaustic within the limit of best practice have the best chance of creating art that lasts as long as the Fayum portraits. I have tried to avoid the word archival and instead, have tried to use words like fragility and permanence. While some artists working with wax are very concerned about limiting the fragility and ensuring the permanence of their work, some are more concerned about how working with wax helps them to express their message. While museum conservators and collectors may appreciate attempts to create work that will survive the test of time, curators and individual collectors may have other motivations and inspiration. I caution artists to keep in mind that, as participants in this enthusiastic encaustic movement, what we create today will define how encaustic art is perceived in the future. It will be our legacy that will pave the way for future artists, who love wax as much as we do. I hope that we can contribute work that reflects this movement and inspires the next generation of artists who work with wax. In my own work, I try to adhere to the best practice guidelines I put forth in this book, and I think that, in general, it behooves us, as artists working with encaustic, to consider the notion of permanence when we create art, to encourage museums, galleries, and collectors to approach encaustic art with confidence, rather than caution. But for those of you who are experimenting with working outside of these boundaries, I applaud your creativity, encourage your discovery, and expect that we will all learn lessons from you in the future.

So go forth, wax on, discover your inner lushness, and share with others what you have learned along the way. I believe that, by communicating what we have learned, we all grow from the experience, as I think the artists who have participated in this book have realized from what they’ve collectively gleaned from each other. Most of all, have fun, embrace the playfulness of encaustic, and enjoy painting! -June 2007



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