Ask the artist
Ask Fletcher Dean
I literally go where the art wants to take me. I know a lot of artists work purposely in only one subject or one theme – they might do only abstract art, for instance – and maybe my art would feel more cohesive if I did that, too. But I’m simply not motivated that way.
My photography is mostly – but not exclusively – landscape photography. My encaustic, however, ranges far and wide. I enjoy the process of starting with a blank board and allowing whatever I’m feeling at the moment to direct me. Some days the board says I’m an ocean landscape – sometimes it says I’m a giant circle of confusion and color. And I’m fine with that.
What first pulled you into encaustic as a medium?
A couple of things initially intrigued me about encaustic. Because you’re often laying down multiple layers of beeswax, the work has the opportunity – if you do it correctly – of seeming to glow from within. My favorite encaustics to view – work by other artists, that is – has that ethereal quality. The pieces have a three-dimensional life that’s hard to match with other mediums.
The other aspect of encaustic that I adore is the texture. It’s difficult to convey texture in photography so when I saw the flexibility to add texture with encaustic I was blown away. It adds a dimension that I find endlessly engaging. So a lot of my pieces play off texture – sometimes intentionally playing smooth against rough – to evoke emotion. Encaustic also allows you to add texture within the piece, which I find amazing.
Some encaustic artists use only pigmented wax, some use other mediums. What’s your process when you’re in the studio?
I’ll use whatever I have on hand! I’ve fully embraced the ‘mixed’ part of mixed media. Sometimes I’ll finger paint with oil sticks directly on prepared wax. Sometimes I’ll use soft pastels. I’m enamored – perhaps too much – with the shellac burn process. And lately I’ve been using a lot of pan pastels and playing around with India inks. But I’ve thrown in wire, photos, art papers, sand, and even chalk into the work if it moves me. I’ve even added LED lights. That’s one thing I love about encaustic – there isn’t one right way to do it.
Now, there are a couple of things that don’t work from an archival perspective – like wax over acrylic paints or failing to fuse your work down. And I discovered – the hard way, I might mention – that encaustic makes a very poor cement for embedded objects! But there’s a lot of latitude to what you can combine into encaustic.
Are there any encaustic artists who influenced you?
There are dozens of artists – encaustic and otherwise – who’ve inspired me. If you aspire to be better, you have to look at other artists’ work and learn from them. I learned early on as a writer that one of the best ways to perfect my craft was to simply emulate what others were doing. So I’d follow a couple of writers who I thought were very good and I’d study their sentence structure, their word choices, the rhythms and cadences of their work. And I’d try to put that into my own work. And, after a bit, you develop your own style and your own sensibilities that fit you.
Art is the same way. So I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from encaustic artists like Laura Harris, Julia Fosson, Shawna Moore, Alanna Sparanese, and Shari Replogle. I enjoy seeing the way they both construct and compose their work and discovering what works for me and what doesn’t.
Does any of your work relate to social issues?
Occasionally. But usually not from a primary-motivational perspective. What I mean is that I don’t think I’ve ever started a piece saying, “I want this to be statement about climate change.” Or, “I want to create a piece about poverty.” Some artists do and I’m a firm believer in the power of art to make connections and help deliver messages across the entire range of social and political issues we’re facing. I have a lot of respect for that type of art and that type of activism from the artists themselves.
But my own creative process isn’t like that. I go where the art takes me. There have been times when I’ve ended up with pieces that speak to social issues, usually environmental. For instance, after I’ve put on the first layers or wax or pigment, it’s become obvious to me that – for whatever reason – this is where the art is going. It’s going to say something about the environment.
I recently sold a piece that was very much about coal mining, for example. I grew up in the coalfields of Appalachia and I saw firsthand the devastating effect unregulated mining had on the environment. That worked its way out through this particular encaustic painting. After the first layers, what I began to see emerging was this picture of stunted pine trees above a dark and empty landscape – one that had been mined of its very life. Was it a social statement? Yes. Was it intentional? Maybe. Probably. But it arose more from the subconscious.
You’ve only recently taken up encaustic. Is that a challenge at this stage of your life?
Sometimes I wish I had come to it sooner … but I’m thankful to have this as an outlet for expression and connections. Like other art – photography, is a great example – there is a lot to technique to master and I’m definitely still on an upward curve with encaustic.
By contrast I’ve had 40-plus years to learn and absorb photography skills. Holding a camera in my hands is as natural as holding a fork. And I’ve internalized all those details like aperture and depth of field. They’ve become in-grained so, when I’m in the field, they’re second-nature to me. And that allows me to focus on things like composition and light. I don’t fight the equipment, in other words.
Encaustic has its own learning curve that I’m still coming to grips with. On the other hand, part of encaustic art is that it’s so unpredictable that it often takes you places you didn’t expect. For instance, changing the ratio of pigment to wax – or changing the way you layer in certain pigmented wax – will alter the way it presents itself after fusing. Some pigments are heavier and tend to sink; others are lighter and have a frustrating way of popping to the surface when you don’t want them to!
The most gratifying encaustic pieces I work on are the ones where I don’t think consciously about technique, where I don’t fight the equipment.
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