Studio Saturday: Encaustic Art and the Best Day Ever

My first impression of encaustic art was that it was incredibly beautiful, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to start working with wax. Was it really that amazing? The short answer is an emphatic yes, as my colleague and I discovered on a recent field trip to the studio of artist Nancy Tobey, who showed us the light, and a lot of lovely melted wax, providing the Best Day Ever making encaustic art.

Recently, Cloth Paper Scissors managing editor Barbara Delaney and I set out for Western Avenue Studios and Lofts, a complex of work and live/work artist studios in Lowell, Massachusetts. We had asked Nancy if she would take us through her encaustic process, and we were instantly fascinated and impressed with her techniques. Both Barb and I came away with a deeper appreciation and love of encaustic. Annnnnd we got hooked. There’s no going back now.

Nancy’s studio showcases her incredible encaustic and mixed-media art, which is vibrant and energetic and engaging.

Nancy Tobey art studio
The walls of Nancy Tobey’s studio are a backdrop for her gorgeous mixed-media and encaustic artwork.
Western Avenue Lofts
Spending the day at Western Avenue Studios and Lofts with Nancy Tobey was such a treat!

Nancy began by warming the substrate (a flat Ampersand® Encausticbord) and brushed on a few coats of encaustic medium, alternating brushstroke directions each time and fusing the layers with a torch. Fusing heats the encaustic paint and medium, allowing them to bond with the layer underneath. Without this step, the layers can chip off or delaminate altogether, and you really, really don’t want that to happen.

Fusing encaustic art piece
Using a torch, Nancy fuses layers of encaustic medium to make her encaustic art piece

Nancy then showed two techniques for creating image transfers. For one, she cut out an inkjet print of one of her black-and-white drawings and burnished it face-down onto the encaustic wax layer. She then wet the paper and rubbed it off, leaving only the image—I’m sure you’ve done image transfers this way for mixed-media art, but I had no idea the same method could done with encaustic!

For another technique, she drew onto deli paper with pencil, burnished that face down directly onto the wax, and removed the deli paper. Each transfer technique offered a different look, adding a lot to the piece.

Transfer methods for encaustic art
Two different transfer methods yield two completely different looks.

Nancy said she’s been working with encaustic art for about eight or nine years; she’s also a glass artist, and says the crossover was helped by the fact that “I love working with fire.” She handles a torch like a champion, preferring it to a heat gun to fuse her encaustic layers because she likes the control the torch offers, allowing her to target details on her piece.

Encaustic art is perfect for artists who like to work intuitively, like Nancy. As the piece progresses you can add color with encaustic paint and pigment sticks, do some mark making, add paper and fabric, create texture, make the surface bumpy or smooth, and more. She says she likes creating a history in a piece by building up layers, and it’s extraordinary to look at a piece and see through to what you created an hour ago—the dimension just blows you away.

Nancy continued to work on her piece, creating marks and then covering the entire piece with black pigment stick. Although this layer looked somewhat frightening, there was nothing to worry about.

Rubbing a pigment stick onto encaustic art
Pigment sticks go on like buttah and add dimension and color to encaustic art.

When you rub the pigment off, it remains only where you’ve scraped or dug into the wax, revealing the patterns. Nancy used a stylus and pastry crimping wheel to make marks, but she has a whole arsenal of tools she loves to use. Fusing this layer not only bonds it to the one below, but when the encaustic medium melts, it also encapsulates the marks, so the pigment doesn’t smudge when the next layer is applied.

Layering and mark-making with encaustic art
With the pigment stick removed, the marks are clearly visible, as are the layers underneath.

Encaustic paint and a pigment stick were added, as well as splatters of vivid yellow, hot pink, and white encaustic paint. The torch was used to move some of the splatters: “I use my torch like a paintbrush,” she said. “I like that I can move the lines around.”

A straight razor was used to scrape off fine shavings of encaustic paint. This smoothed the surface and also revealed other colors underneath—it’s all about those layers.

Scraping technique for encaustic art
After adding splatters of encaustic paint to her piece, Nancy used a razor to remove fine shavings of the color.

One of the last techniques she incorporated was rubbing in a little PanPastel with her fingers, which framed the piece nicely. Then came the ultimate finishing touch: flakes of gold leaf. When she pulled out that jar, brushed the leaf over her piece and burnished it, it was truly magical. Here is Nancy’s gorgeous piece:

Encaustic art by Nancy Tobey
Encaustic art by Nancy Tobey

After that wonderful demo, Nancy walked us through doing a piece, incorporating many of the techniques she had just shown us.

Splattering paint on encaustic art
Barb splatters encaustic paint on her piece.

We got a feel for how to brush on encaustic wax, make marks, paint, add collage, and layer on pigment stick.

Brushing on encaustic medium
Here’s me, awkwardly brushing on encaustic medium.

We also added gold leaf. How could you not? With Nancy’s expert guidance nothing was intimidating—even using the torch was easy after watching her. She also showed us how to give the piece a bit of shine when it had cooled down by rubbing it with our hands.

Here are the pieces Barb and I did (Barb’s is on the right, mine’s on the left):

Encaustic art incorporating collage
Look what we did!

It didn’t take long before the light bulb went on and I understood the powerful allure of creating encaustic art. To see the beauty of the layers and techniques unfold as you work is amazing, and your brain works overtime thinking of even more techniques to try. We are so grateful to Nancy for being our guide and teacher through this fantastic day.

If you’ve never done encaustic art, I highly recommend you give it a go. It’s creatively satisfying in a different way from other types of mixed-media art, and I have a feeling you’ll fall for it as much as we did. Start with the September/October issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, which is our encaustic art issue. Among the articles you’ll find an encaustic art primer, which gives a great run-down of basic techniques and equipment, plus fantastic projects that feature a slew of exciting techniques.

We have lots more where that came from—books and videos that offer lots of tips and techniques for encaustic art. Take the plunge, you won’t regret it!

To see more of Nancy Tobey’s beautiful artwork, go to nancytobey.com.

September/October 2017 Cloth Paper Scissors magazine
Don’t miss the September/October 2017 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, which has several encaustic art projects and tons of information on the process.
Storytelling Art Collection
You’ll love Cathy Nichols’ approach to encaustic, collage, and storytelling, and her Storytelling Art Collection is a great place to start!
Encaustic Revelation by Patricia Baldwin Seggebruch
Discover great encaustic art techniques from top artists in the eBook Encaustic Revelation by Patricia Baldwin Seggebruch.
Expressive Collage Workshop: Encaustic with Imagery by Crystal Neubauer
Learn how to add images to encaustic art with the video Expressive Collage Workshop: Encaustic with Imagery by Crystal Neubauer.

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Blog, Mixed-Media Techniques

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