Encaustics, Light, and Tony Sherman’s Punctum

Encaustic painting is at least 2000 years old. Funeral portrait masks from 100-300 AD (when Rome ruled Egypt) were discovered in Egypt’s Faiyum Valley. And
Coptic Art  encaustics dating from 500 AD were also discovered in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. To the right is a painting of Christ and Saint Mina. This 6th-century icon from Bawit, Egypt, is now in the Louvre. The wax has kept them in near perfect condition.File:Menas.jpg
Encaustic portrait of a lady
(a funerary mask–100-400 AD)

Jasper Johns famliarized the art world with encaustic painting in 1954 when he first put pigmented beeswax to canvas. But since the 90s, this ancient painting process has become ubiquitous and more creatively beautiful than ever. Good encaustic tools and materials are easily available. And the zietgeist of our age seems to be about surface luminosity and sensuality, so this aromatic medium fulfils these artistic passions.

Encaustic is a natural choice for mixed media artists who want to embed images and text between fused layers of wax. I have been working in mixed media since 1995. The ability to embed text as well as image was the main reason I was attracted to it — and of course its luminosity.

In 2006, I enrolled in the spring semester encaustic course at East Tennessee State University taught by Mira Gerard. (Mira is the daughter of Jonas Gerard, the colorful studio painter in the River Arts District of Asheville.)  Mira Gerard is a narrative figurative painter. I was drawn to her loose brushwork integrating realism and abstraction. The focus of my work too was integrating realism and abstraction because of the union of Spirit and flesh at the Incarnation. The figure and Word would continue to be the focus of my work, so I looked forward to learning this new process.

Our textbook was  Joanne Mattera’s The Art of Encaustic Painting. We learned how to make our own encaustic medium; first crushing, then melting damar crystals with melted beeswax and pouring this mixture into muffin tins. Our pigments were either purchased encaustic paints or we made our own using oils or powdered pigments. The beeswax, when melted with damar, is toxic, so we worked in well-ventilated space. (Myrocrystaline wax is an alternative petroleum product which is more flexible and can be used on large scale canvas paintings or can even be added to beeswax to make it more malleable.) Tony Sherman, the Canadian encaustic artist whose figuartive work is huge in scale, uses mycrocrystaline wax (see review of his work below).

I painted directly onto wood panels or added papers to the surface, fusing each layer with a hotgun. (Acrylic gesso does NOT allow the wax to penetrate, and over time the encaustic will separate from an acrylic surface.)  To create a lighter ground, I attached large blueprints obtained from ETSU’s plans for the new library being built that year.

The “crit wall” was our weekly review of our learning process and developing themes.
Encaustic crit/ one weeks work  DSC04595
I was working on two series at that time and continue them today– my Banding Series and Global City Babel SeriesThe two-panel piece (48″ x 48″) Known Intimately in the Mind of One Who Flies (Banding Series) began with a Communications blueprint to which I attached actual numbered bird bands.

Bomer Thristing 24 x 48 300 dpiThirsting (24″ x 48″), seen above in its early stages, was also completed in this class.

This detail shows the incised marks which were either filled with red encaustic paint or left to expose the layers.

Encaustic painting detail

In Babel’s Child I and II (below) I used contour drawings and embedded a snake skin and text about Heart Devices.

Babel's Child I for Seeds LA      Babel's Child detail
Babel’s Child I    24″ x 24″   encaustic, papers, and snake skin (detail)

Heart Devices (Babel's Child II)     detail BBC II Heart Devises
Babel’s Child II/Heart Devices    24″ x 24″   enaustic and paper on panel

c. Babel Down     Banded Bird owned by Hugh Belcher
Babel Upturned 24″ x 24″ and The Nets of God 24″ x 24″ both incorporate either a grid of incised lines or string embedded, metaphors for God’s grace.

Those of you who have read my previous blog posts know that I have been using cold wax medium with oils at my River Arts District Studio. It is less labour intensive, and I do not have to deal with the ventilation necessary when using encaustics. I share my studio space with other artists. Both cold wax and encaustics are made of beeswax. But cold wax is mixed with solvents, thus it does not harden quickly and actually has a flash point of 140 degrees.

beeswax shipment and panels

It is the speed of the process and archeology of layers that is again drawing me back to encaustic painting.

I am beginning work on a series called Til We Have Faces. Each panel is 12 x 12 inches but hung together will fill a room or at least a wall. Pictured here is my 55 pound order of beeswax (it smells so good!) and some of my cradled 12 x 12 inches birch panels.

So much of today’s encaustic work is abstract. Perhaps this why I was drawn to Tony Sherman‘s large scale work which is abstract up close with vigorous and loose brushwork, but it coalesces into compelling figuration.

The postmodern encaustic rage is all about surface beauty and very little deep space. Sherman paints beautiful flowers, fields, and faces with foreboding chiaroscuro–deep space–and a haunting terror. Terror and beauty are seeming contradictions. In his paintings below, Napoleon’s stare, the knitter’s hands in The Terror: Tricoteuse (the Knitter) as she watches the guillotine drop (from his 1786 Series), or Conversations with the Devil, all relate to atrocities and terror, although the images by themselves seem beautiful and harmless.

Napoleon’s First Shave 1995 encaustic on canvas 60″ x 60″

The Terror: Tricoteuse 1998 encaustic/canvas, 213 x 213 cm (7 x 7 feet)

Conversations with the Devil  30 x 40 inch encaustic on canvas

He explains in the interview (video below) that his work purposely uses contradiction to make a statement. His use of scale alludes to a large over-arching truth or ethic as opposed to the small individual choices which are suggested by his layered mark making. He wants to expose the inconsistences and brokenness inherent in human nature and works the overall compostion until “this presence enters the room.”


In his series titled Ciao Gaia, Sherman’s centerpiece (above)  is Ciao Gaia 96″ x 84″ surrounded by Ontario landscapes, Canadian birds and a landscape called Near Sciathos, a Greek Island.

Near Sciathos   48″ x 60″                                   Cyanocitta crista  24″ x 24″

This interview by Sanford Kwinter, who is discussing Sherman’s paintings, asks, 

SK: In almost every one of your paintings, there is an area that is not primarily painted but rather bears the trace of an iron burning through it. What’s that all about?

TS: The removal of the paint. Within the painting you can see an archaeology, the trace and the absence of paint. It does not exist in every painting because not every painting calls up the similar way of arriving at what I refer to as the punctum. The punctum in my work is a notation of the real; its purpose is to reveal the light behind the painting which is the bare canvas. At another level, the punctum also operates metaphorically. The effect of the metaphoric being punctured is very much like the way Hitchcock appears in his own movies.

So, I have been playing God making the picture, and there is a point of revelation that tells me I was always working in a world that was already lit. It is a philosophical statement, a reminder of my presence as something that passes through, leaving a temporal trace. The thing about encaustic is that it lends itself well to this exploration. It’s somewhere between watercolour and oil painting. It uses the light of the surface as a base like watercolour does, or drawing which, as I said, is an irreversible trajectory, but it also allows you to add light through tints. I play with the tension using both forms of light. The one light represents the reversible world where I am God and I can make light and take it away, and the punctum is the revelation of another light behind, which continues to shine through.

Sherman’s work is about our longing and our human need for truth and beauty, perhaps a terrible beauty. He knows we live in a world where terror is lurking in mushroom clouds and autocratic dictators. In this terror Sherman is seeking beauty and “the relevation of another light which continues to shine through”–his punctum.

I love this metaphor–a perfect metaphor for “the true light which gives light to every man” (John 1:9)–the God of paradox and contradictions, who is terror and beauty. Like C.S. Lewis describes Aslan in his Narnia series: “Then Hwin, though shaking all over, gave a strange little neigh and trotted across to the Lion. ‘Please,’ she said, ‘you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else’” ( C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy). 

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4 Responses to Encaustics, Light, and Tony Sherman’s Punctum

  1. Ellen says:

    I just finished re-reading “The Horse and His Boy,” and that line was one of the things I’d forgotten. This is a great post. Like Narnia, I need to re-read it.

  2. Beth says:

    This is an interesting display of art work. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Mike Cate says:

    Thank you for this! Love the work and insights!

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