Encaustic Painting’s Carefree Perfection

Originally published January 21, 2013

When I was in kindergarten, I loved, loved, loved my coloring book. I was the kid who never colored past the line, and was aghast whenever it happened.

Starting with the square,
I went up-down-up-down with the crayon in carefully overlapped, even and parallel strokes. I don’t recall how I handled the triangle but I do remember being flummoxed by
the circle.

With the crayon following the left arc inside the circle, I realized I had a great big problem on my tiny, little hands as I approached the center. Ack, I should have stuck with an up-and-down stroke! My pristine coloring book was
now scarred by my own doing. At five years of age, I was already a perfectionist.

I glanced at my classmate’s coloring book to my left and couldn’t believe my eyes. Careless scribbles of varying thicknesses and intensity, many passing beyond the contours of shapes. I was horrified. I imagine this classmate is now a high-level executive at some Fortune 500 company whose key value is being able to see the big picture and make broad stroke decisions in a flash. This classmate also likely hacked away at her doll’s hair like my smart, left-brain older sister once did, whereas I lovingly brushed my Barbie’s long curls around my finger.

Possessing this attention to detail served me well in my years as a graphic designer but even in everyday life, whether it’s wrapping presents, setting the table or fluting the edge of an apple pie, I know I do things with a precision that’s hard to let go. Indeed, it’s often a curse. I can agonize over minutiae, and in my art, an eighth of inch can feel like a football field.

Maybe that’s one reason why I enjoy encaustic painting. It forces me to
let go. The wax begins to harden as soon as I lift the brush off its heat source. I work quickly. Many times back and forth, back and forth, I dip
the brush into the hot, colored wax and spread its load onto the wooden canvas. Fusing between layers with my blow torch, there’s only so much
I can control and yet, many pleasant surprises are the result of happenstance. That’s when I step back to look at the big picture – bumps, scratches and all – and have a word with the 5-year old in me that’s still coloring inside the lines.