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Blow Torches As a Tool to Make Art

Wax Works West is a state-of-the-art Encaustic studio in the heart of Corralitos.

Hitting wax with a blow torch is one of the most satisfying activities in the world. Under the lick of a flame, the colors go shiny and slick, melting into each other in fascinating ways.

It's a passion that three local artists discovered years ago while experimenting with the ancient art of encaustics, or painting with hot wax.

On Saturday, 10 wax-curious women flocked from all over the Bay Area and county to wield blow torches and paint brushes in an all-day "Encaustics Basics" class at Wax Works West in Corralitos.

Opening in 2006, Wax Works West is a state-of-the-art encaustics learning center, and the only encaustics studio in Santa Cruz County.

The beginners class is one of many classes co-taught in the loving, methodical style of the three artists who run the studio: Wendy AikinJudy Stabile and Daniella Woolf

"We're kind of like one brain," said Aikin of the trio's harmony in teaching and running a successful educational art studio using their various skill sets.

By 10 a.m., "Encaustics Basics" is gathered in the upstairs of Wax Works West's immaculate studio. Colorful papers and wax supplies hang on the walls, along with the awe-inspiring work of the teachers and past students, which we all eye, hoping to create something half as cool to take home.

The background hums with several fans and ventilation ducts that null the potential risk of toxic fumes, should the wax be heated above its flashpoint degree.

Around the room, 10 well-organized work stations await us: each equipped with four blank canvases, a blow torch and a 200-degree plate holding four colors of melted wax.

Our instructors for the day have provided coffee, bagels and tea to distract us from our blank canvases long enough to give us the "basics." They take turns teaching us in a fluid, never-boring tutorial that is punctuated by the raucous laughter mentioned in a cautionary note on their class schedule.

We learn the safety procedures (how not to flambet your paper towels or neighbor with your blow torch) and the history of encaustics—the method dates back to about 80 A.D. to the "Fayum Portraits" of Cairo which hung on people's homes while they were alive and then stored on top of their mummies after death. 

"If it's not rigid you run the risk of having the wax pop off," said Stabile, as she iterates the two rules for choosing surfaces to paint on: they must be porous, and they must be rigid. Eco board, bone, ceramics and cement are all fair game.

We crowd around Woolf as she demonstrates applying the first base of translucent wax to the eco board, and then layer after layer of thin pigmented wax. 

"It goes on like butter, and then dries instantly," she says.

Between each application, Woolf hovers over the surface with a blow torch to fuse each layer to the layer before it: encaustic art can include just a few layers of well-thought color or hundreds and hundreds of layers of wax.

If anybody had been the least bit squeamish about operating the blow torch you would have never known; by the end of the class we were firing them up like we were born with torches in our hands.

"Encaustic is extremely forgiving, you can rework it any time," said Woolf. 

It's also very hard to control, a lesson in letting go and allowing the wax do what it wanted to do. At first, it was easy to gob too much wax on and clumsily fusea little too deep, burning through several layers, but by the fourth eco board we had all created at least one masterpiece we were proud to take home. 

"That's what I learned today, that there's a heat zone for controlling [the wax]," said Caron Dunn who teaches at Castle in the Air in Berkeley.

"I've taken other workshops and this one was far superior. In five minutes of this workshop I got more than all day in the other one I took," Caron Dunn. "I liked the way it was taught."

The classes are taught in step-by-step increments, with each new tutorial building on what we had already learned and had a chance to play around with. We learned how to add textiles and paper into our wax layers, and how to add details with encaustics tools and brushes.

"I sort of just started putting color down and more color down and more color down and I didn't like it, so as you can see, I melted it," said Sidra Morgan-Montoya, 17, of Irvine.

Morgan-Montoya is a budding artist who has been collecting recycled materials to use in her mixed media sculpture. She plans on using the encaustics techniques to bring together the different materials she's finding to work with.

Each class also provides a syllabus with resources for studying up on encaustic techniques and possibilities, as well as a full list of materials for starting your own studio in your own home.

Visiting artists and instructors come through Wax Works West on a monthly basis, and include "Advanced Encaustics" with Laura Moriarty, "Making Faces" with Charlie Levin, "Experiments in Wax" with Cathy Valentine, "Three Dimensions" with Miles Conrad, "Wax and the Altered Book" with Jody Alexander, and "Encaustic Monoprinting" with David A. Clark.

For a full schedule of classes click HERE.

See a current Encaustic + Paper exhibit at the Artworx Gallery at Santa Cruz Stoves and Fireplaces, now through October. Opening night is August 31 from 5:30 - 8:30 p.m., with an encaustic demonstration at 6:20 p.m. The Artworx Gallery is located at 1043 Water Street in Santa Cruz.

Judy Stabile August 15, 2012 at 06:20 PM
Thank you do much for the beautifully written article. It wasa pleasure having you in class. Judy

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