Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Et voilá

This, I think, is more or less the completed version. Perhaps I will make some more fiddly bits in the center, or some swooshier parts around the lasso, but I won't tell you--you'll have to come to my open studio to find out. Which will be May 20 and 21. Park Slope Open Studio Tour. Starting now with the advance publicity.

I recently received a question about my wax technique, so I am posting the answer here, so that the world may be enlightened. For the last several years I have been using a beeswax medium that I make myself; it is similar to Dorland's Wax Medium, but the Dorland's is expensive, white, smooth and bland. Mine is made by melting pure yellow beeswax over a double boiler (actually a tomato sauce can standing in a pot of boiling water), and mixing in Damar varnish (Damar resin dissolved in turpentine) and pure turpentine, to make a soft yellow paste, about the consistency of room-temperature butter. The Damar resin adds toughness, so that the painting doesn't melt in hot weather; the turpentine is what makes it soft, unlike pure encaustic, which has to be applied with a sautering iron. It is lumpier than the Dorland's, smells like candles and turpentine, and occasionally has bits of bees still in it.

I mix this paste with my paint on the palette, with the palette knife, and usually put it on the canvas with the palette knife as well. The wax does four things; gives the paint a matte surface when dry, makes the paint dry faster, gives it a bulky texture, and adds a certain amount of translucency. The yellow of the beeswax slightly alters the color, but not much.

When painting in a lot of layers, I will sometimes add a certain amount of stand oil medium (oil, turpentine, and Damar varnish) to the upper layers of paint, with the wax medium. This makes it increasingly soupier and more translucent, and adds a slight sheen. If I use only the stand oil medium, without the wax, the surface of the paint will be shiny and reflective, and you can see down into it as though you were looking into water.

Occasionally I will use both mediums on different parts of the same painting. This creates a radical difference in optical qualities in those different sections. I did this in "Poppies," using the wax in the sun and the sky, and the oil in the poppies, to create the feeling that the sun and the flowers were occupying two different realities. I wanted the flowers to be dark, deep and bottomless, and the sun to be glaring and opaque.

And now, on an entirely different note, I just came across the Ken Wilber quote that describes what I'm trying to do with my painting.

"Schopenhauer had a theory of art that said, in effect: bad art copies, good art creates, great art transcends. And by "transcends," he meant "transcends the subject/object duality." What all great art has in common, he said, is its ability to pull the sensitive viewer out of him- or herself and into the art, so completely that the separate-self sense disappears entirely, and for at least a brief moment one is ushered into nondual and timeless awareness. Great art, in other words, is mystical, no matter what its actual content."
Or, as I wrote last year:
my paintings should work to subvert linear logic, in the manner of a Zen koan. Ideally, a viewer should look at one and think, first, "wow, that's beautiful," and then, upon examination of this beauty, think "wait, what IS that, exactly," and then, upon trying to figure it out, mental circuits should temporarily jam, leaving a second of mental silence which opens the floodgates for the vastness of creation to enter, assisted by the deep beauty and cogent vibrations of the painting, and voilá! Enlightenment.
It is, of course, not for me to say whether I'm succeeding or not. However, I will say that all this mucking about with wax and linen and composition and technique is in service to this notion of creating a physical object with this kind of spiritual force.

What it seems that most people don't understand about painting is that a painting is NOT a 'picture'. A picture is merely a symbol that connotes an idea; no special technique is required to get this idea across. A stick figure will suffice. A great painting, in contrast, is engaging the viewer on a level that is much deeper and broader than any one particular concept, such as "house" or "sun" or "flower." At the very least it is punching you in the gut with the overwhelmingness of BLUE or SUN, much more assertively than simply reading the word on the page.

In that way, I think that painting has much more in common with music than it does with written language, except for really great poetry. It's trying to get you to transcend your rational mind, and see the world from all perspectives at once.


jackadandy said...

Serena, thanks for this super post. The wax technique sounds exciting! Do you use this a lot? I'd love to see it on canvas some day...

And I couldn't agree more with you and Wilber about what great painting does. I have a special species of impatience with visual art that requires me to "read" it like it was linear-logic text. Phooey on that! If it needs that kind of explanation to make it meaningful, why not just skip the painting and WRITE the damn thing.

Good visual work IS like music in that it should first be sensual, visceral, vibrational---yes, even mystical---with intellect to follow.

Beauty is the way in---remembering, of course, that beauty ain't always pretty.

serena said...

Hey Dandy! I suspected we had the same approach to art--this is why we get along. It saddens me that so many people in the art universe fail to understand this at all.

I have been using the wax technique almost exclusively since about 2001-2002. It evolved when I was living in Mexico, pushing the limits farther and farther to arrive at my real voice. I'd brought a bunch of beeswax with me, and one day I just started scraping the stuff across the wood panel I was working on then, more and more and more, until the surface was practically sculptural. The effect is almost like an organic or geologic process--it eliminates the tedious obviousness of linear brush strokes.

Anonymous said...

could you please write the detailed recipe for wax medium? thank you