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Durable painting technique was used on mummy cases

  • 20090924-135812-pic-245661636.jpg
    Al Zagofsky/Times News Artist Shirley Thomas of Lehighton applies molten pigmented beeswax medium to a wooden substrate to form an encaustic painting. She will demonstrate encaustic painting on Sat. Sept. 26 at 4 p.m. in the Anita Shapolsky Art Foundation.
Published October 05. 2009 02:55PM

Artist Shirley Thomas of Lehighton will demonstrate encaustic painting on Saturday, Sept. 26 at 4 p.m. in the Anita Shapolsky Art Foundation, 20 W. Broadway in Jim Thorpe.

The demonstration and exhibit of work is part of the foundation's Master Artists at Work Series and is also being offered in conjunction with the weekend's Carbon County Art Odyssey.

Encaustic painting, also known as hot wax painting, involves applying a heated medium composed of beeswax, damar resin, and pigment to a solid surface. Many layers are applied, each heated to fuse with the underlying layer, to create an iridescent appearance.

References in the Odyssey, such as "The Cyclops have nothing like our ships with their crimson prows," suggest that the early Greeks began replacing tar with encaustic to seal their wooden ships.

The mixture of beeswax strengthened with damar resin not only caulked their timbers, but the lacquerlike material which could be pigmented, allowed the Greeks to paint several of their ships a frightening shade of red.

Encaustic paintings were used to decorate Egyptian mummy cases from 100 to 300 A.D. Some of these paintings still survive, a testament to the durability of the technique.

Thomas will set up a complete encaustic painting work station. This will include a temperature controlled hot plate for melting the encaustic mixture, heatable trays for melting the medium Thomas uses a muffin tin brushes, pigments and a hot air gun.

She usually prefers working in her yard, as that prevents the build up of fumes, but she says more likely she just uses it as an excuse to be outdoors.

Thomas spent her formative years in pastoral sections of Virginia and Kentucky and, even today, the outdoors continues to inspire her.

Art wasn't her first love. It was music an odd couple love of classical and country.

"My mother loved classical music, so that was something I learned to like," she said. "We were near Nashville, the home of country music and I liked that too."

With love of writing and music, she wanted to write plays and sing in them. In her senior year in high school, she took her first art class and it was a sea change.

"The senior year art class was just a revelation to me," she said. "I felt like I had died and gone to Heaven. It was so magical and exciting. I had discovered something that I had not known and that I thought was the most wonderful thing I could imagine."

She loved art but saw no future in it, so she studied writing in college. For the next 20 years, she administered contracts with artists. She craved the creative opportunity that she saw them having.

At mid-life, Thomas decided it was time to come up with a future. She called it her 40-year plan.

"When I became 40, partly to set some goals for myself, and partly as a joke, I made a 40-year plan, such as a business person might make a business plan," she said. "It included putting more art in my life."

She signed up for art school at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In four years, she graduated to become a certifiable starving artist.

"I slept on factory floors in Philadelphia," she noted. "I went to art receptions just to eat."

Thomas had her vision and soon, it was at her own art receptions where she was eating. She had exhibitions in Philadelphia, in universities in Pennsylvania, across the Eastern U.S., and in the Italian cities of Florence and Venice.

"I do abstract paintings and sculpture," she said. "The work is, broadly speaking, about condition and how that relates to value."

"Encaustic painting wasn't offered where I went to art school," Thomas said. "I always had a sense of it. I attended a workshop, learned how to do it, and continue to do it.

"Encaustic painting is very process oriented with many steps to creating the image or effect," she explained. "It is not like oil or acrylic painting, where you have a brush and the paint and you do something on the canvas. It's not that direct with the encaustic. You apply the molten wax with the pigment."

Thomas dips a brush into the molten wax mixture and quickly brushes it onto the surface. Within seconds, it has cooled and dried. She places sequential layers down, and after each application, dances a hot air gun over the wax mixture to fuse it to the layer below.

With each layer, the colors become increasingly "sensuous," she calls it.

"Wax presents a very sensuous surface," Thomas said. "More sensuous than oil. You can touch it and feel that it is extremely smooth. In other places, you can feel the texture. Normally, you do not want to touch paintings-but these look so sensuous with the light reflecting off different spots."

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