all about oil and wax

Ok, maybe not all.  But enough.

People who read the labels at my shows frequently wonder what I mean by oil and wax.  No, it’s not encaustic.  Encaustic is a method involving melted wax mixed with pigment, applied to the support  hot.   It’s lovely, but a very different effect — and much more process-oriented — than I’m after.

Way back in art school a technician introduced me to Dorland’s Wax Medium.    Back then I couldn’t afford it, so I made my own from beeswax (cheap, direct from Alberta Honey…thanks dad), turpentine and damar varnish….all three of which had to be heated to the same temperature then mixed together hot and allowed to cool.   This was about as safe  — and smelly — as it sounds.  It made a lovely medium, though, with a soft sheen from the varnish and a gorgeous translucent effect from the wax.  Used thin, I created layers of rich dark colour perfect for the moody, heavily symbolic images I was making at the time.  Used thick, sadly, it was fragile and eventually flaked off any flexible support.

Eventually, though, I set things on fire one too many times and lost one too many paintings to the flakes — just can’t stop loading on the paint — and decided to try the commercial product again.  Dorland’s is quite different, as it includes mineral earths in its formula.   This makes it more opaque;  it’s also softer, more like icing than the hard butter of my home-made version.   As long as I don’t get carried away with the proportions, it’s also archival.   Still, on anything bigger than a couple of feet on a side,  I prefer to work on panel, just in case.

So why not just use paint?  Well.  First,  it’s all about the surface.  The wax both builds body and changes the texture of the paint;  I smoosh it into the paint with my brush then lay it onto the panel in great thick swathes.  The brushes leave tracks.  I can almost sculpt the images by butting the edge of one colour physically up against the next, and it responds beautifully to the scraping and carving techniques I use to draw back into painted areas.    Secondly, it’s the way it changes the colour.   The wax softens colours, renders them slightly opaque, and removes any shine (but adds lustre).   And thirdly, it dries faster.   I can work over an area much sooner than I could if I were using straight paint, but it doesn’t cure so fast that I can’t scrape a layer off or carve through it as I work on a painting over a period of weeks.

South Calgary Spring I, 2009, detail

Here’s an example of what I mean by the brush leaving tracks in this detail from a much larger painting.  You can see how one colour physically meets the next, and down in the lower left corner there’s some carved “drawing”.

2 thoughts on “all about oil and wax

  1. Marina

    Even I am begining to understand some of the terminology and the processes you use in creating your work. Moreover I am impressed with your writing style: the humor, the explanations, the discriptions and letting another side of your personality shine through.
    Cheers, me

  2. curiousbird

    Hi Frances – lovely to find your blog. I am really smitten with the surfaces in your work – thanks for this discussion of oil and wax. I’m gearing up to give it a try myself. First – to find a source of Dorlands nearby…then, dust off the box of oil paints and I’m away.

    I enjoy your writing style as well – Marina is right about that – a real pleasure to browse your blog. Thanks.


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