Arts and Entertainment

Encaustic painter waxes expressionistic

It might be pleasant to disappear into a Tom Fehsenfeld encaustic painting.

The lush landscapes at Kurt Lidtke Galleries glow with layers of translucent wax and rich textures that seem to invite touch.

The works are abstractions of Fehsenfeld’s Bainbridge neighborhood.

“My inspiration comes from small, local geographies,” Fehsenfeld said, “my farmhouse encircled by garden, orchard and woods – and the few miles of countryside within walking distance.”

Expansive vistas of rolling hills or a single crab or crow might be the focus for encaustic wax paintings on boards that range from three by four feet to just 12 by 15 inches.

Fehsenfeld often begins with a cadmium vermilion underbase and then layers the cooler colors on top.

The warm tones glow from beneath the cool, and Fehsenfeld further heightens the vibrancy of the warm tones by setting the board into a box frame painted on the interior with cobalt blue.

It’s a subtle effect, because the gap between board and frame is less than an inch.

But because blue is the complementary color for orange – the color with the most contrast – placing them side by side, even in small amounts, makes each look more vivid than alone. In Fehsenfeld’s landscapes of undulating hills, the effect can be like the glowing yellow light just before sunset.

The encaustic medium, unlike straight oils and acrylic, is translucent, and well-suited to building up layers. Instead of the muddy surface that can result from overworking oils or acryillics, Fehsenfeld’s paintings are delicately layered, in pleasing contrast to the robust texture of the wax.

Fehsenfeld keeps a coffee can with beeswax “cooking” all the time. The medium to cut the thick wax is turpentine. He uses a propane torch to melt the wax off the board, or make the surface malleable to texture. He keeps the torch lit.

If fire, turpentine and boiling wax sound like a volatile mix, Fehsenfeld says after 15 years of handling the media, it is second nature to keep them separated. The problem, he notes, can be ventilation, but the row of fans and open door help.

A particular painting might be worked upright with palette knife or brush on a table modified into an easel, or layered flat on sawhorses.

“Every painting needs a slightly different technical approach,” Fehsenfeld said. “I can work thin or thick; it depends on the imagery.”

Fehsenfeld is leery of depending on the medium for too much.

“You can have all the technique in the world,” Fehsenfeld said, “but texture for texture’s sake is not a worthwhile painting. I make lots of false starts. For every painting you see finished, there are all the ones I’ve thrown away – which is about a thousand.”

While Fehsenfeld has studied at the New York Studio School, he researched encaustic technique and history on his own.

“I traced it to Hellenist Egypt,” Fehsenfeld said. “I did a lot of research and experimentation. It’s still endlessly challenging.”

Fehsenfeld can trace his aesthetic roots in part to the abstract expressionist gestural brush stroke, with a footnote to painters whose major concern is color, like Mark Rothko.

He notes, however, that as a determinedly rural painter, his challenge is not influences but sustaining himself in isolation.

His attraction to rural imagery is the legacy of a childhood spent in the Maryland countryside, Fehsenfeld says.

A recent trip to County Cork, Ireland inspired one of the show’s strongest paintings, “Hills Toward Cork.”

The gently rolling hills are outlined by thick green hedges that are perfectly suggested by the textured wax, while the cloudy sky and lightly-browned hills remove the work one crucial degree from sweetness.

The exhibit is a first one-person show for this artist, who has shown for years on the East Coast.

“I was waiting for the right venue,” Fehsenfeld said. “Just the right circumstances.”

* * * * *

Tom Fehsenfeld shows encaustic wax paintings at Kurt Lidtke Galleries in a first Bainbridge one-person show through Nov. 25. A companion show runs simultaneously at Winslow Way Cafe. Call 780-4202.

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