Cy-Fair Lifestyles & Homes July 2009
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Ancient Art Form Sees Revival Due to
Ready Availability of Electricity
Encaustic painting dates to 5th century B.C.
By Sandra Meineke
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Artist Julia Koivumaa displays an encaustic work in progress. The painting’s base is a glass table top that will be fitted into a square frame upon completion. • In her home workshop, Gwen Plunkett explains the process of burning holes in sturdy cardboard to add texture to encaustics.
he Dark Ages meet the Industrial Revolution in the ancient art medium called encaustic painting. Dating to the 5th century B.C., with examples surviving from the 1st century A.D., encaustic has come into its own in the past 20 years, primarily because of the availability of portable electric heating devices and a wide variety of sculpting tools. As a result, encaustic painting, once a lost art, is again taking its place as a major art medium.
A painting method where color-pigmented wax is melted, applied to a surface and reheated to meld the paint into a smooth or textured finish, the word encaustic comes from the Greek and means “to burn in” or fuse with heat. Melted, colored wax is daubed onto a sturdy backing and spread with brushes and other tools just like the artist would do with oils, tempera or acrylics. Unlike paints however, wax can be allowed to cool and then carved into textures and shapes. The wax can be manipulated repeatedly by heat guns and similar tools that soften the wax, allowing the artist to work and rework the texture until completely satisfied.
Almost any medium can be used as a base for an encaustic painting—wood, canvas, glass, cardboard, grass paper and other decorative papers, for example. Items used to create texture and form are limited only by the imagination. Houston artist Gwen Plunkett has created diverse texturing from buttons, floppy discs and foam pads, while Julia Koivumaa, a colleague of Plunkett ’s and also a local artist, incorporates photographs into her encaustics. “Encaustic is a marriage of ancient and new—digital photography and ancient wax,” Koivumaa said.
Beeswax is the wax of choice for most encaustic painters because it makes the painting more resilient. Natural beeswax has a lot of impurities such as bugs and bark, as does natural resin from trees, so damar crystals are recommended for a cleaner, longer lasting resin. The wax can be polished to a high gloss and can be molded, sculpted, textured and combined with collage materials. Encaustics can last for a lifetime —or several hundred lifetimes, as archeologists are now discovering. The durability of encaustic is due to the fact that beeswax is impervious to moisture and does not deteriorate. Encaustic paintings also do not have to be varnished or protected by glass like oils do.
The textures, colors and styles of an encaustic painting are as varied as the artist ’s and patron’s personalities. The paintings are quite heavy and can be expensive, ranging from $500 to $5,000. “Encaustic is an expensive medium,” Plunkett said. “Most artists mix their own colors because paints are expensive.”
Encaustic can also be a dangerous medium. In addition to the burns that can occur from the hot wax, working with powder pigments can harm the eyes and lungs. The artist must wear a respirator and keep gloved hands in a plastic bag when mixing colors, and every layer of the painting has to be fused.
Experts believe the reason encaustic has experienced a recent resurgence in popularity is due to the increased convenience and safety of heating appliances. The encaustic painter ’s tools include heat guns, propane torches like the kind used to make crème brulee, tacking irons, wood burning tools, pancake griddle or electric skillet and a crockpot, muffin pans and cookie sheet.
Plunkett, a college instructor of design and drawing, became interested in encaustic in the 1990s and now leads workshops across Houston. She will be conducting a class at Lone Star College-CyFair beginning Sept. 4. The class will be held on Fridays from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. for six weeks.  Cost for the class is $120. For more information contact the Continuing Education Department at Lone Star College-CyFair at 281-290-5983, or go to Plunkett ’s Web site, www.gwendolynplunkett.com.
“The class is limited to seven participants because of the electrical power required. There must be a dedicated line for each station and lots of ventilation, ” Plunkett said. “Heat guns blow fuses if there is not enough power.”Koivumaa has worked with encaustics for about 10 years. She was living in Atlanta and painting with water colors when she became interest in encaustic. “I was seeking more of a sculptural medium,” she said. “A sense of touch gives an added tactile sensibility.” She began playing with different mediums and read JoaneMattera’s book, The Art of Encaustic Painting, which she still uses as a reference tool. “My husband and I moved to Guatemala for two years where I was pretty isolated, so that gave me an opportunity to focus on encaustic. ” Her work from the Guatemala years is brightly colored and has a strong South American feel.
Koivumaa uses a blend of encaustic and mixed media in her paintings, including abstract layers of photos. She does sketches for every series, then works off the sketches. Sometimes she will base a new piece off an old painting “if it still has its soul,” she says.
Koivumaa also uses metallic colors made from gold leaf metallic powder and dried oil paints. She doesn ’t frame her paintings because she paints the edges.
Both artists show and sell their work through galleries, the Web and word of mouth. They enter many art shows throughout the year with other encaustic artists across Texas. “Encaustic painters share more openness and dialogue than in other mediums,” Koivumaa says.
For more information about encaustic painting, go to www.TexasWax.com or contact the artists directly at www.GwendolynPlunkett.com or www.JuliaKoivumaa.com.
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An easel in Gwen Plunkett’s workshop shows the artistic effect achieved when various papers are holed with a wood-burning tool and covered with encaustic. •  Julia Koivumaa’s home is a lavish display showroom for her art work. When this series in her living room goes to a show or a buyer, it will be replaced with a newer work.
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“Mother’s Pearls,” top, and “Songs of Decay” by TexasWax artists from other cities were on display recently at a Heights art studio, along with works by HoustonWax artists.
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Encaustic artist Gwen Plunkett displays grass paper that she sometimes uses as layers in her paintings.
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Cy-Fair Lifestyles & Homes magazine features people, homes, and upscale lifestyles.