Ancient technique of painting with wax heats up again (with video)

A Valley artist uses molten wax to express her creativity.

Colleen Monette prepares a piece of wood by applying a thin coat of warm wax and resin. The wood will serve as the base for a sample piece of encaustic art.

Colleen Monette prepares a piece of wood by applying a thin coat of warm wax and resin. The wood will serve as the base for a sample piece of encaustic art. Photo by Donna Lasater.

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DAYTON — What’s old is new again. Encaustic painting, the ancient art of painting with hot wax, is enjoying a reawakening in popularity.

The medium is the specialty of lifelong artist Colleen Monette.

“It’s one of the oldest art forms. It’s been found on top of sarcophagi in Eygpt, all done with beeswax,” Monette said.

Upcoming classes

Colleen Monette’s next class will be Sept. 21-22 at Monica Stobie’s studio, 610 N. Touchet Rd., Dayton. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. each day.

For more information call 206-241-9084 or click here.

Over several careers she has successfully done all kinds of creative work, but she’s always been an artist.

“I think I was painting in my mother’s womb. In first grade, my teacher said ‘you’re going to be an artist.’ I’ve had very creative careers. But I didn’t know what kind of artist. So I did a little bit of everything. It takes awhile to find the artist in you. It was several years before I’d say I’m a working artist. It was so scary.”

She had a long career in visual merchandising with Nordstrom in downtown Seattle and lived in Burien, Wash., for 23 years. A local antique store was closing and she wondered if she could run a flower shop there.

“I was a visual merchandiser, so I did the flowers for the store. The next thing I knew, I was a florist,” she said. “I ran the flower shop for six years.”

In 2010 Monette decided to move to Walla Walla. She misses the water and the views of Puget Sound, but she loves the dogwoods here in the springtime.

Encaustic painting was an idea that interested her, but it didn’t start well.

“I got a catalog from the Pratt Institute. Then I took a class, and started collecting wax hands and old doll heads. The first class, I thought, ‘This is horrid.’ It was hideous.”

But she kept at it. Monette took six weeks of classes at Northwest Encaustic and began to hit her stride. Painting with hot wax offered her possibilities she hadn’t considered.

“It took several years to find my voice and find what I want to talk about. I have a real connection to nature and keeping things in earth tones,” she said.

She loves nature and has a focus on the colony collapse of honeybees, which is especially meaningful to her work with wax. Monette also uses leaves and bark often in her artwork.

Monette paints the wax on a hard surface, such as unfinished wood. She’s experimented with working on paper or fabric, but the wax will crack when it dries and the pliable surface bends. She’s now working with 3-D encaustic, making larger forms, like sculpture.

The ancients often used the wax for portraits — “Incredible portraits, which I cannot do; beautiful work,” she said. “It’s certainly not a new art form.”

Monette said the medium probably originated with boat builders making repairs with wax, “then some creative guy added dried pigments and then damar to dry, seal and clear it.” And the art of painting with wax was born.

Monette has a room in her home dedicated to her art. On the center art table, she uses an old pancake griddle to heat the wax.

“You can make your own pigments, but it’s more toxic — you don’t want to breathe the dried pigment,” she said. Monette buys the encaustic medium with pigment already added.

“You don’t have to clean your brushes,” she said, as the wax merely hardens around them until the next time they’re needed. If an oil painter left their brushes in the paint, they would soon be unusable, she said. But wax is more forgiving.

She brushes the hot wax on, then uses a heat gun or a propane torch to burn it in, fusing the layers together. “If you don’t fuse it together it will pop off,” she said.

Monette uses punchinella, or sequin waste, to add texture to pieces. Stencils, tissue transfers and other items can also be used to create more texture.

She uses a mesh form to attach the wax medium to other objects, like sticks or Styrofoam. Plaster gauze is another tool she employs. “It’s not just for broken arms anymore, it’s for fun,” Monette said.

Monette went to school at Eastern Washington University but didn’t finish. “I have no regrets yet,” she said. “I love my life.”

Monette has practiced yoga, which she finds exhilarating and exhausting. She loves her antiques and collections of historic items. And although she says she’s not very good with discipline, she finds time for art.

“You do what you want to do. I can’t imagine being in a job I don’t love,” she said.

Karlene Ponti is the U-B specialty publications writer. She can be reached at 509-526-8324 or karleneponti@wwub.com.

Video

Encaustic painting basics

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