Encaustic painting has captured Jo Sheppard's interest since 1990; she incorporates it into her large scale oil paintings, and since researching the possibilities of encaustic online she has experimented with using the medium in its own right. The new series of landscapes going on show in November to December at the Cank Street Gallery are small scale encaustic paintings that demonstrate the versatility of the medium.
“The medium is very flexible. Layers of encaustic can be built up, you can pour, flick, splat, introduce collage, encapsulate images,” says Jo Sheppard, “The possibilities are endless and for this reason I have found working with wax very addictive.”
Encaustic art has a long history and is one of the world’s oldest art forms.
Fayum portrait of Aline
The Fayum portraits, dating back to the Coptic period, are portraits painted on wooden boards attached to Egyptian mummies, showing naturalistic Greco-Roman influences. Tempera, oils and fresco increased in popularity in the middle ages and although there were certain exceptions (such as with Diego Rivera), the use of wax fell out of favour until Jasper Johns reinvented the technique with his flag paintings in the 50s and 60s.
I was first introduced to using wax during my degree in 1990. I was working on a series of highly textured Mediterranean cityscapes.
Jo Sheppard, 'Ammonite'
My tutor recognised that wax would be the perfect addition to my mark-making repertoire. The wax pot was thrust into my hands and I was ordered to ‘go play’.
I have revisited the medium various times over the years, but particularly more recently and by researching the process on the internet I have become truly aware of its versatility.
I like to use a mixture of microcrystaline wax and damar tree resin as my painting medium. To add colour there are various options: oils, paint sticks, dry pigments, chalk pastels or oil pastels, depending on the required effect.
Jo Sheppard, 'Autumn Light 4', encaustic
Encaustic works require the use a blow torch or heat gun to fuse the layers into one another, otherwise the painting would flake and be neither stable nor archival. This is one of the reasons that working with wax can be very frustrating… one momentary lapse of concentration and you can ruin a day’s work as your slaved-over surface melts into a soggy puddle!
The medium is very flexible. Layers can be built up, you can pour, flick, splat, introduce collage, encapsulate images, work with image transfer, work intaglio, sgraffito and intarsia.
Jo Sheppard, 'Vermiculate', encaustic
The layering is key: applying numerous thin layers, you can capture the transparency and luminosity that is idiosyncratic of this medium.
The finished piece, once the damar (in the wax) has cured, can be burnished to a sheen which can take on ceramic quality.
Jo Sheppard, 'Treescape', encaustic
You can also employ a more painterly approach, building up opaque layers mark by mark, or go sculptural by allowing the wax to cool a little and add a thick tier which can be sculpted and carved as it cools.
With such flexibility, my current series of landscapes vary greatly. Many are process-driven as I explore the versatility of the medium.
Jo Sheppard, 'The View from Here', encaustic
Others may be mostly in oils with a nominal addition of wax when a particular effect is desired.
The possibilities are endless and for this reason I have found working with wax very addictive.
Jo Sheppard, 'Towards the Sun' , oil and wax on canvas, 1020 x 300 mm
The biggest problems with wax are the mess and health and safety. It’s a very messy process. The wax gets everywhere and can be hard to remove. It’s very important to work in a well ventilated area as the fumes can be quite toxic. Then there are the simple logistics of working with hot wax, heat guns and blow torches!
Jo Sheppard, 'Oh Ophelia 2', encaustic
Encaustics capture moments in time and to some extent are self-determining, as layers are constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed again until an outcome is reached.
Each piece undergoes its modifications, whilst I try to exert some degree of experimental, creative control, with its changes permanently sealed forever in time.
Jo's encaustic paintings and landscapes can be seen at the current exhibition 'Woodland Wanders: an exhibition of encaustic paintings by Jo Sheppard' at Cank Street Gallery in Leicester city centre, which runs until the end of December.