Most painting materials are intuitive for an experienced artist. Give a painter something in a tube or a jar, some type of support to work on, something to apply the material with and something to make it malleable, and even if they haven’t used that medium before, they’ll figure it out. But that isn’t really the case with encaustic paints.
The art of painting with a molten blend of beeswax, pigment and resin has a history stretching back thousands of years; those luminous Fayum mummy portraits date to the first-century AD, and artists like Jasper Johns brought it into the 20th century. But while encaustic painting has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years – especially in the mid-Hudson region – most artists today haven’t really been exposed to working with encaustics. Maybe it’s the specialized equipment necessary: A heated palette to keep the paints molten and a heat gun to rework the surface aren’t really the type of thing that one picks up at the art supply store on a whim to experiment with. And then there’s that word: “encaustic.” Sounds vaguely…well, caustic. A little dangerous.
That is where a little knowledge comes in handy. R & F Handmade Paints in Midtown Kingston is basically the go-to source for product and knowledge when it comes to the two things on which it focuses: encaustic paints and pigment sticks. It’s one of maybe two commercial manufacturers of encaustic paints and one of just a handful that make the pigment sticks. Among their competitors, none really matches R & F’s quality, because its small-batch production and use of the highest-grade raw materials means that a lot of attention is paid to the details.
“People are sometimes surprised at the effects you can get with encaustic paints,” says Darin Seim, president of production at R & F. “Because it’s wax-based, you can put down a layer and it doesn’t need to dry; it’s either cool or hot. As it becomes cool, you can layer on top of it multiple times, then scrape back into it if you want, or just keep building layers up.” The wax in the paint means that encaustic paintings are moisture-resistant and can be reworked indefinitely, even years later.
The R & F facility on Ten Broeck Avenue, a renovation of a late-19th-century industrial property, also houses a retail art supply shop, a gallery featuring encaustic works and a studio space for workshops with 12 workstations, where R & F holds multi-day intensive workshops on a regular basis and one-day “mini-workshops” once a month to introduce fundamental encaustic (and pigment stick) painting techniques.
A Mini Encaustic Workshop will be held Saturday, February 13 from noon to 4 p.m. The cost is $65. Class capacity is 12. The instructor is Cynthia Winika, a former paint-maker at R&F who still teaches many of the workshops there while maintaining her own multi-media artistic practice in Gardiner. The Mini Encaustic Workshop is meant for artists who are curious about the medium but don’t have any previous experience with it. The topics covered will include health and safety, how to get started and the basic techniques and applications of encaustic painting. The workshop could also be taken by someone who has the basic knowledge but would like to take a refresher course or just work in an environment where there is an expert instructor available to answer questions.
The next monthly “Saturday Lab” at R&F will be on Saturday, February 20 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with artist Wayne Montecalvo. The cost is $65. Class capacity is 12. The Saturday Lab is intended to give artists a taste of what’s possible when using the R&F paint lines. Montecalvo will demonstrate techniques in pigment sticks and encaustic paint and how the two can be combined, then participants can work on their own with the instructor available to offer a refresher on basic techniques as requested. The workshop is intended for beginner-to-intermediate students and may be repeated at a future date should someone wish to.
The versatility of the medium can be seen in the art on view at R & F. The only thing in common linking Natalie Abrams’ frostinglike ribbons of dimensional wax on her pieces in the gallery to local painter Kevin Franks’s Realist paintings on the walls – the wax in the paint buffed to a shine that makes them appear to glow from within – is their use of encaustic paint.
With such visceral materials produced there – using the creamy pigment sticks is like painting with pure pigment and your hands – it’s no surprise that the founder of R & F, Richard Frumess, has said that he was drawn into paintmaking because he was “imbued with the romance of materials.”
When he first began making encaustic paints in his Brooklyn basement studio back in 1988, Frumess was just looking to ensure a steady supply of encaustic paint for his own use at a time when there were no commercial manufacturers of it. When he began making paint to sell to retailers, he called the business “R & F Encaustics,” combining his initials for the name, reasoning that the enterprise would have more credibility if people didn’t know that it was just him working on his own. To be able to afford the venture, he would ask pigment suppliers for double sizes of their samples, and worked a second job as a framer to cover costs.
He added the line of pigment sticks at the suggestion of his friend and fellow artist, Carl Plansky, who later founded Williamsburg Oils, which are among the few items carried at the R & F retail store not made on-site. Frumess formulated an oil stick that was different from what was already on the market, with enough natural wax that the paint could be poured into a mold and maintain its shape, but not so much that it would sacrifice the texture of the oil stick. When he introduced pigment sticks to the market in 1990, they were available in 31 colors; today they’re at 93 and counting (the next closest of their competitors is at around 50).
R & F pigment sticks are packaged as quickly after they’re made as possible, which maintains their soft, creamy texture. The bigger manufacturers making several thousand sticks a day add driers and allow a skin to form on the sticks in order to make packaging easier for them. At R & F, a typical day’s batch is only 300, says production manager Seim. “We’re the smallest of the companies that make paint sticks, but we’re the top of the line.”
The business has been in Kingston since 1995 – first on Broadway, and then moving to its present location in 2006. And visitors are always welcome to tour the paintmaking operation during regular hours, although groups are asked to call ahead.
Mini Encaustic Workshop, Saturday, Feb. 13, noon to 4 p.m., $65, limit 12. Saturday Lab mini workshop, Saturday, Feb. 20, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., $65, limit 12. R&F Handmade Paints, 84 Ten Broeck Avenue, Kingston; regular hours Mon-Fri, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Sundays; (800) 206-8088, www.rfpaints.com.