A Master of the Melt Explains Encaustics

Serene is what I feel when reflecting upon my visit with Rodney Thompson, the December 2010 winner of the monthly ARTAZINE painting contest. His expansive home and studio have been modeled to mirror the sense of calm that epitomizes the artwork and lifestyle of the artist.

Ornaments, etching by Rodney Thompson

Rodney’s winning image was of a Christmas tree adorned with ornaments. I was excited to learn that the image was an etching, one of my favorite processes. Etchings are an early form of art, created during the middle ages and perfected by artists like Rembrandt. The process of creating etchings is lengthy, but fascinating. Future articles at artazine.org will focus on etching. For now, I would like to focus on Rodney’s more recent body of work, encaustics.

"New Earth" encaustic series by Rodney Thompson

It comes to no surprise that Rodney’s etching days gracefully transitioned to encaustics, for which Rodney is most well known. Encaustics have their roots in Ancient Greece and Egypt, where they used melted wax to seal and decorate water vessels.

More recently, however, encaustics have expanded into the Fine Art realm, thanks to a handful of artists around the country. Rodney Thompson is one of those numbered few to bring the word “encaustic” to the forefront of the art scene. His work has been published in several encaustic books, including titles such as “Encaustic With a Textile Sensibility” by Daniella Woolf, Kim Tyler, and Designer-Art Director Carol Inez Charney,  and “Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide to Creating Fine Art with Wax” by Lissa Rankin. Few artists have the chance to be such an integral component to the creation and expansion of a new and unique art form.

Rodney began his encaustic journey with a workshop in the Bay Area in 2000 with R&F Paints. Since then he has traveled to all corners of the country teaching workshops and sharing his expertise on the encaustic process.

Rodney’s home and studio, a work of art in itself, is adorned with paintings, encaustics, and hand-made furniture, all created by the artist. The grand tour opened my eyes to the strength of the medium, lending itself wide open to the creativity of the individual artist. In fact, recently I have seen wax and Japanese paper works by artist Nancy Lynn Toolan, and was curious to know if this was considered encaustic. Rodney explained that the term encaustic includes any work of art that has been created using melted wax as part of the process. The possibilities are endless.

The first word that comes to mind when I hear wax, is melt. How will does encaustic withstand heat? As owner of one of your pieces of work, or as a gallery, I would be concerned with the wax melting. Rodney quickly put my concern to rest, explaining that encaustic wax is a calculated combination of beeswax and damar resin, a crystallized tree sap, creating a durable surface, heat-safe up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, you would not want to store an encaustic piece of work in the trunk of your vehicle or hot storage unit during a Redding summer day. But in a well-controlled environment, the pieces will withstand. Feeling resolved, I couldn’t wait to see his studio and learn more.

Inside, it’s open. Large flat surfaces and high ceilings, open space, well organized materials, woks filled with cooled wax, one hot and melted, ready for a demonstration. I was in heaven.

The first thing Rodney showed me was how the encaustic medium is created. Rodney makes his own encaustic bars, a process in itself. To ensure purity, after the beeswax and resin are melted together, the mixture is poured through a fabric sieve, to filter out impurities, and cooled into bars, ready to be re-melted and applied to the chosen surface. A genius at furniture making, it is no surprise that Rodney and his wife own their own artist panel business, designing and selling encaustic panels, both flat cradled panels as well as other specialty panels they have developed, to artists around the country.

Rodney is currently in the midst of creating a series for a show in Park City, Utah, featuring the artists in the book, “Encaustic with a Textile Sensibility.” I am thrilled to see the artist at work.

The creative process begins with a blank panel. Layer by thin layer, wax is painted onto the surface. It is then heated with either a heat gun or blow torch, to bind the newly applied layer to the cooled layer beneath. As the wax cools, it becomes opaque. I ask how the wax transitions from opaque to almost translucent in his finished pieces. The answer is in the cooling process. The transparency arrives as the wax cools. I kept stepping on my words as I pointed out how the wax “dried” – a typical painter’s response. Rodney patiently reminded me that the wax application is a cooling process.

The natural tendency is for the wax to cool with texture. Rodney however, stretches the medium to achieve the glossy surface by using a blow torch. The torch re-melts the wax, creating a smooth surface.

Between wax layers, Rodney embeds objects ranging from electrical components, tea bags, incense sticks, coffee filters and naturally tinted sand and dirt. He also draws and paints between layers of wax using encaustic paint, oil sticks, and artist wax crayon, to create atmospheric depth.

I asked Rodney how he was able to achieve the transparency in the papers he used. It is almost as if the paper itself practically disappears, leaving the paper fibers to stand alone. The answer is simple, actually. The wax fills the empty space in the composition of the paper, just as you would observe transparency of paper when submerged in water, which allows the fibers in the paper to amplify.

Encaustics are extremely economical and clean, in that there is little or no waste when using the medium. When the artist is finished, he simply turns off the wok and allows the wax to cool, with paint brush submerged. When ready to work again, all he has to do is turn the wok back on. Once melted to the correct temperature the wax is ready to be used again and again.

I feel honored to have had the chance to meet Rodney at his studio and home. What a fabulous opportunity to meet someone who is in the forefront of such an earth-friendly, innovative, and creatively expansive medium.

Rodney is available for private or group encaustic workshops that he teaches from his studio. For more information about Rodney and the encaustic process, visit his website, http://www.rodneythompson.com or http://www.artazine.org.

Thank you, Rodney, for sharing your talent with the world.

Raette Meredith is a mother, an artist, and a web site designer. She is the founder of Artazine and Artazine.org, an extensive directory of arts instruction in the north state.

ARTAZINE hosts a monthly visual arts competition online for regional artists. The artwork is juried anonymously by local arts instructors, and professionals. Learn more about the monthly visual arts competition at www.artazine.org

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

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