Guest Post: Keith Kavanaugh

Whatever is painted truly… possesses both the subjective sentiment, the poetry of Nature, and the objective fact.

-George Inness

I’m a landscape painter. Encaustic is my medium of choice, perfect for a subject full of potential for the expression of ideas and emotions – and itself a product of nature.

A Brief History
Originally, my background is in music. My first degree is in Jazz Performance and I’ve been active on the Kansas City scene for more than 20 years. During my schooling in Boston I had a year of art history and frequently visited the wonderful museums in that city. A year after completing my studies and moving back to Kansas City I returned to school for a degree in Fine Art and Design.

I spent the next nine years in the graphic design world, away from painting, and somewhere along the way saw my first Jasper Johns piece up close – a flag with strips of newspaper embedded in the wax. It’s surface and translucency were unlike any I’d ever seen. I began experimenting with beeswax collage and assemblage shortly after that, discovering it has many of the characteristics I love about oil, without the fumes. And the immediacy of acrylic without the constraints.

In 2001 I leased a studio space and continued working with wax and collage while also painting landscapes in acrylic. After about four years I finally merged the two into my first encaustic landscape and haven’t touched acrylic or oil since.

Influences
 As we all do, I look to many artists working in various mediums and subjects for inspiration. Johns, of course, for his use of wax. That led me to Rauschenberg. Kurt Schwitters has been an inspiration for many years. I look to Giacometti for his use of line in painting and drawing. Franz Kline, Larry Rivers and Jim Dine for the energy of their brushwork. Richard Diebenkorn for the same reason, especially in his early landscapes, but also for the layering of color in his Ocean Park series.

My work is strongly connected to the tradition of landscape painting through the American Tonalists of the 19th century. They were masters at conveying fundamental truths about nature difficult to express through words. It’s often atmospheric, bordering on abstract. They didn’t so much depict the landscape as take us inside our own experiences and remind us of our connection to the world. It’s not unlike the way we experience music. George Inness and James A. McNeil Whistler epitomize the Tonalist movement.

Their are many oil painters today who represent those same ideals. For me, Douglas Fryer and Michael Workman offer a modern interpretation of that tradition.

Last, there are artists working more abstractly in encaustic whose work is strongly connected to landscape and nature. Alexandre Masino does beautiful work using an encaustic monotype process. And Marcelo Tanaka and Anne Stahl both walk a fine line between abstraction and landscape.

My Process
Source Material
 I try to balance working from actual places through photo reference, and improvising from memory. The best pieces come from the right combination of the two. Nearly all of my work deals with the region around my home in rural Jackson County, Missouri. It isn’t unique or extraordinary but as I’ve driven, cycled and walked through the area for 20 years a certain beauty, personal to me, has revealed itself in these unremarkable places. When the light or weather are right I drive around the area and shoot reference images, usually with a camera phone. I prefer an image that isn’t technically very good so I can’t get caught up in the details of the place.

Back in the studio, I wade through the images and choose some I think might be successful. Images that work as photos often don’t work as paintings. Photography takes you to a place in a different way than a painting does, so you have to look past the photograph for that elusive element that will make a successful painting.

The image is manipulated in Photoshop where I can experiment with composition, cropping, color balance and contrast. It’s similar to doing drawings or small studies in preparation for a large work. I’ll do several small sketches to get a feel for the image and find trouble areas or elements that need more manipulation. When the drawings work I’ll move to a small panel, around 9″x14″ and do a quick encaustic study. Then, if everything feels right I’ll continue to a larger panel for the final piece. Lately that’s been 24″x39″.

Preparing the Panel

Priming the panel with wax medium.

I make my panels using 1/4″ furniture grade birch plywood braced with 1/2″ birch. The braces are clear-coated so the finished piece can hang without a frame if desired. Masking tape protects the braces until the painting is completely finished.

My medium is simple: one part carnauba wax to roughly eight to ten parts filtered beeswax. With a heat gun on high I warm the panel, brush on a layer of medium and heat it until it’s liquid and smooth, and bonded to the wood. When it’s partially cooled I scrape the panel down with a potter’s loop tool until the layer of wax is thin and consistent. The wood surface and grain are left visible so I have a midtone on which to start the painting.

Drawing

The beginning of a loose sketch.

I’ve worked from prints of an image occasionally but have found that displaying it on computer monitor is a little closer to reality because of its illumination. Using black and white China Markers I do a very loose sketch on the primed panel. On a large panel I may use a grid on the image to help get elements positioned more quickly.

Underpainting
Scraping an early layer of underpainting.

Like many old masters, I loosely block in the values using an encaustic earthtone and white diluted with medium. The heat gun keeps it flowing like oil. In fact, I keep the heat gun going nearly the entire time I’m applying paint. Periodically, I’ll stop, scrape parts of the painting where the paint is thick or texture is building up. The scraping isn’t to remove all the paint, but to smooth it so the next layer will flow easily over it. If I leave the texture on each layer the thickness of the painting quickly becomes too great. My desire is to build up many thin layers.

Color and Layering
The first layer of color over the underpainting.

When I’m satisfied with the underpainting I begin to add color, continuing a cycle of applying paint, scraping and fusing. Along the way I’ll bring parts of the drawing back with the China Marker and I’ll use a variety of tools to scratch and alter the surface, making it more aged and interesting.

After many cycles of this, the piece should be resolved enough that I close the laptop. It’s too easy to get stuck on the photograph and lose sight of the painting. I’ll rely on memory and experience to finish the piece. Sometimes this means major changes, moving or eliminating things or even changing the time of day or weather. More often it’s minor changes to color or contrast or the surface.
Additional color layers.

The last step is a final fusing. It’s a delicate balance to heat it enough to finish with a somewhat smooth surface, but not so much that it obliterates the brushwork and marks, or make puddles in the wax. I want it smooth enough that it can be buffed occasionally with a soft cloth. While I prefer thick wax around the edges, I now scrape them to a thin bevel to prevent chipping if the work isn’t framed.
Final layers

To my eye, the piece has a chance of being successful if it meets the 30-3-3 rule I’ve read from artist Michael Workman:
  1. At 30 feet away the painting should grab your attention.
  2. At 3 feet away, it should tell a story and create a dialog with the viewer.
  3. At 3 inches away, it should reward the viewer with interesting texture and paint application.

Beyond that, I hope it will stir something in the viewer’s experience about our connection to the world. A tall order. And a lifelong pursuit.
Finished for now.

Equipment and Materials

My studio.
Paints by R&F Paints
Various electric griddles used as palettes and brush warmers
Toastmaster electric pan for medium
Various sizes of chip brushes trimmed to personal preference
Potter’s tools, ice pick, plastic putty knives, palette knives and more

Artist’s Note: The painting used in this article is a demonstration piece begun at a Waxcentric workshop in December 2012 and completed in January 2013. The amount of layering and time spent on each stage is less than normal because of the time constraints.

Visit me at keithkavanaugh.com and on Facebook.

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