Arts and Entertainment

Bainbridge artist explores encaustic painting

Susan Najarian in the studio. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Susan Najarian in the studio.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Many people dabble. Encaustic artists dribble.

To reduce the ancient art of wax painting to mere drips, however, would be to discount its rich history, not to mention its subtlety and versatility.

“It’s sort of endless,” Susan Najarian said.

The Bainbridge artist, whose own history includes stints as a graphic artist and a teacher, took up encaustic painting three years ago, marveling at the possibilities.

Greek shipbuilders used hot wax to fill cracks in their boats, subsequently adding pigment; the form evolved into iconography. Egyptians, too, created mummy portraiture, examples of which date as far back as 100 BC.

American painter Jasper Johns brought a modern sensibility to encaustic painting in the 1950s; one of his most well-known works, “Flag,” is encaustic and oil over collage.

Unlike the ancients, Johns and contemporary encaustic artists have the benefit of electrical appliances to aid the prep and process.

“I’ve become very handy with the power tools,” Najarian said.

Najarian has worked on plexiglas but typically constructs her own wood frames; a solid surface is a necessary base for the hot paint, which consists of pure beeswax melted together with damar crystals, a solid form of the tree resin used to give shellac its strength.

Encaustic paint is sold pre-pigmented, just as oils and acrylics are. But Najarian mixes her own, much of the fun coming not just from th continual waft of beeswax – a scent she said is perfect in a cold garage on a Northwest winter day – but from the emergence of the vibrant brights she favors.

She keeps several cans of wax going at around 250 degrees over a griddle-like cooker. For color, she adds everything from pastel sticks to dry pigment to oil color.

“That is when it becomes paint, in essence,” she said.

Using a natural-bristle brush, she begins by priming the surface with a layer of white, to mask the frame’s wood tone.

From there, it’s anything goes, as Najarian depicts varied subjects in a range of moods and hues. There are children’s dresses and overalls etched into vibrant pink, orange and yellow backgrounds; shoes, wheels, bicycles and birds grouped in surreal combinations; and white birch trees set against the sky.

Tones run from muted, moody black-and-white to rich, bricky rose to jeweled green and ocean blue.

Najarian’s three children are frequent subjects; photographs of their faces become collage elements. Another love is the blackbird, which she photographs singly or in groups in trees and on telephone lines.

She then photocopies their images, uses acetone to transfer the copy to tissue paper, and brushes the paper directly onto a primed board. The paper disintegrates, leaving a faint texture and an embedded image behind.

“The thing that’s so wonderful about encaustic, unlike oil, is that as soon as it’s dry, it’s finished,” she said.

Encaustic painting is a process of layering. As soon as the mixture leaves the heat source, it begins to solidify. So after Najarian brushes the paint on, she keeps it workable with the aid of a blow torch or heat gun.

She applies more layers of paint, the heat source and subsequent cool-down fusing each brush of color to the one beneath it.

“And then it gives you this sort of dreamlike effect. You get a depth to it,” she said.

Favorite accessories are a batik tool, with which she makes dots or raised circles on the surface, and a linoleum cutting tool, lightly heated, to draw images into the surface. Into these grooves, Najarian rubs oil paint to amplify the outline.

Encaustic paint gets hard quickly, and it does, Najarian said, have a mind of its own. That’s part of what makes it so durable over time.

But it’s also forgiving. She can always warm up and re-work an area. And in cases where the artist finishes a piece and decides it just doesn’t work, she can take another well-used tool to it, a scraper.

“I scrape a lot. Do a lot of scraping,” she said. “It’s sort of fun, though. The mistakes create some wonderful effects.”

One afternoon, Najarian was sitting at Blackbird Bakery, where her paintings are hanging until the end of the month. A woman she’d never met approached.

“Are you the artist?” she asked. “I love your stuff. I have coveted it for years.”

Which of course, delighted the artist, who purposely keeps her prices reasonable so that she can get the paintings out there.

For now, though, her primary goal is to keep at it.

“I do want to sell them,” she said. “So that I can buy more wax.”

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