Interview with encaustic painter Sarah Petite

“I’m sure I could say that having discovered abstraction, I feel like I’ve kind of come home. I’m in my own skin now; I’ve found myself, which is kind of a homecoming. As I say, every painting is something new and something old. Any painter who is honest admits to quoting himself all the time, and with an abstractionist, you get a repertoire of marks, and points of attack, and ways of thinking, and ways of sketching in your head.” – Sarah Petite


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Mark: On the line, live from the Barracks, we have Sarah Petite. Welcome to the show.

Sarah: Thank you.

Mark: You’re at the Barracks right now?

Sarah: Yes I am.

Mark: You’ve been there all week – it’s been an interesting week I’d imagine, so far. Tell people what you’re doing. What is it that you’re practicing at the Barracks this week?

Sarah: I’m a painter and I paint with encaustic paint, which is kind of unusual. It’s an ancient medium which is going through a bit of a revival right now., but I’ve been painting with it for the last quarter of a century. It’s made out of beeswax and pigments. They are mixed together and melted and put in little cans on a hot plate. You dip into them with a brush, but when the paint is cool, you can do interesting things with knives and cutting away and filling and scraping and doing things that look a bit like little inlays, and that’s just one of many techniques that I use.

Mark: So is that to produce a sort of three-dimensional texture to the painting?

Sarah: Well I like texture a lot and encaustic is particularly good at the kind of low impasto that you can see light across and it’s very beautiful, but much of the painting is smooth the way most paintings are. You get these little colour passages – you put five coats of paint on and then you dig in as if you were making a wood cut to print with. These paintings are on plywood. So lay on five coats of paint of roughly the same colour and then you cut your design out with an exacto knife – say it’s a little square or something – and you dig it all out with woodcutting tools, just as if you were making a wood cut or a linocut. Then you dip into the hot paint in another colour and fill it (paint it into the square) and then you take an ordinary scraper like you clean paint off your house with and you run across it to get down to the level where the join is. Then it looks like a little inlay. [Laughing] Does that sound fairly clear?

Mark: Well it sounds like a combination of carving and painting, quite literally, actually.

Sarah: The thing about encaustic paint is that other kinds of paint are wet when you’re working them and dry when it’s time to hang them on the wall. Encaustic is hot instead of wet and cool instead of dry. When it’s cool, you can do those kinds of things with it. I also have a heat gun and I make beautiful textures with a trowel. That’s what I’ve been doing most recently here on this painting I’ve been working on. I can do stencils with duct tape, I can make impressions with little pieces of metal, I can do all kinds of things as long as they make the painting look more and more beautiful.

Mark: So how much of a margin do you have once you put the paint on – how long do you have to wait for it to cool down before you can do the second part of the work?

Sarah: A minute or two, depending on the ambient temperature. It’s very quick.

Mark: Speaking of the ambient temperature – is the fact that it’s so warm this week causing you some problems?

Sarah: The Barracks are lovely and cool to work in, for one thing. I was mentioning to someone that some mediums are very sensitive to the humidity. Encaustic is not at all. It doesn’t tear, but the ambient temperature affects a great deal the working of it. It goes from very dummy to very brittle but I’ve learned how to work around that and it works just fine. I was tempted to take my painting and set it on a table in the sun because radiant heat from the sun is the thing that really melts it. At this level, you can do wonderful things with the trowel and working it and pushing it around. But it would take about half an hour to wait for it to be that temperature.

Mark: Even with as warm as it’s been?

Sarah: Yeah. But it’s radiant heat from the sun. I tell people, do not hang it where the sun will come in the window. The interesting thing is where the sun hits the really dark colours, they can be dripping within minutes, but where it hits the pale colours, they remain quite stable. [Laughing] So that’s what I tell people and I hope they obey me.

Mark: Have you done that trick before, putting a painting out in the ambient sun and doing the work through it?

Sarah: Yeah I have. Down at our summer place I do it quite a lot. I set it out there and depending on the darkness of the colours, within minutes it looks all shiny and puddly. You can get some nice textures. Then you very carefully take it into your cool studio so it can stabilize.

Mark: So you mentioned that you’ve been working with this medium for a quarter century – that obviously has attracted you very heavily. What is it about this medium which is so fascinating to you?

Sarah: I don’t know – I tend to get hooked on things like that. I was curious about it. It’s a very ancient medium and 25 years ago, there was very little in the way of instruction because it wasn’t trendy then. The New York expressionists, not Jackson Pollock but his friend Jasper Johns, for example, they used encaustic a fair bit. They usually combined it with oil. But it comes and goes over the centuries. When oil painting was invented, everybody stopped doing anything with encaustic. But the ancient Greeks and ancient Egyptians used to use it. So it goes back that far.

Mark: Is it because it’s a difficult medium to work with? What causes it to come in and out of favour?

Sarah: Probably because it’s a little more demanding than others, but I think probably it’s just a question of what’s popular at the time. And I think oil painting really took off when it was invented in about the 16th century or something. And now, they’ve gone such a long way with acrylic painting that most of my painter friends work with acrylic because it’s very handy to use, it behaves more or less like oils, and I’d better stop there because I’m not an authority on all that stuff!

Mark: So you went specifically to encaustic as your main medium?

Sarah: Yeah. It’s what I’ve been working with entirely. Having had no instruction and just working from painting to painting, I’m like 25 years into being self-taught. There are happy accidents – things that happen when you’re working on something that you weren’t expecting and any artist will tell you that a happy accidents can turn into a new technique. You harness it and say “look at that – I didn’t know that was gonna happen… next time I can have more control and make it happen.” With encaustic, every few months there’s a brand new thing. The thing I mentioned about the digging and filling and scraping is kind of a staple – it begins most of my paintings, it’s worked very well for me. But there are all kinds of other things that take over when that first stage is done. The brushing arm – you dip a natural bristle brush into what you might think of as melted crayons, right? And you paint. And the brushwork is beautiful. It has a really nice lustre to it. Then you can take the heat gun and do little melty things. It’s great fun to work with.

Mark: Clearly when this was invented, way back when, they didn’t have a heat gun – what other modern additions have you been able to make to your practice?

Sarah: Well they would’ve had a bed of charcoal for keeping their pots or their little palettes hot while they’re working. What I’ve got is one of these deep-dish hamburger grills that plugs in and you can get them at yard sales – everybody’s getting rid of them now – but it has to have a lid because that way you can warm your colours up more quickly. And at home I have an exhaust fan just to keep fumes out of the way. The fumes aren’t too bad, really – I don’t see any here, for example – you just keep the heat down well enough. But you put the cover on, plug it in, and within 45 minutes you’re ready to paint and they stay hot. Instead of heat guns, they had the sun, of course (the ancients, that is) so they were probably doing this thing that I think is a new invention and isn’t.

Mark: Putting it into the sun?

Sarah: That’s right, yeah.

Mark: I kind of wonder if some of their studios had large mirrors, or focusing lenses.

Sarah: Oh, I wonder. I don’t know about that – I don’t see any record of that but apparently – I may be wrong on this, but you know the Parthenon, in Athens? It has this frieze of pictures around I think it’s a peristyle – under a roof so it was in the shade, and it was all these warriors and princesses and stuff marching along. I’m told that these things were painted – they weren’t white marble – and I think it was probably encaustic paint. Well the Parthenon has been all broken up and none of it remains, but I think that’s the theory. That they painted their statues; they weren’t just white marble, and they probably painted them with wax paint.

Mark: Is there a sense of your work being ephemeral because of that vulnerability to heat, or that they age in a certain way?

Sarah: I don’t think so. Under the right conditions there have been encaustic paintings that have lasted thousands of years. There are some encaustic paintings on wood that came from an oasis in Egypt – the Faiyum Oasis. They were funerary portraits, and they’re still intact. They’re really wonderful things and there are hundreds of them. They were encaustic paint and they’re still ok. Don’t put them in the sun and don’t put them where the temperature goes way below freezing, ’cause that’ll crack it, but other than that it’s a perfectly viable paint, at least as much as an oil painting which can get little cracks in it, or watercolour which can fade in the light, so I don’t worry about that.

Mark: Over 25 years I’m sure you’ve explored a lot of topics, but is there a preferred style or subject of your paintings?

Sarah: Yeah, I really saw abstraction coming at me. It really seemed to be in my bones from seeing bits of images and things up until then about four years ago, but I didn’t know how to break into abstraction. So I went back to a special theme of mine which I like, which is the classic game boards. I used to make little games, encaustic on wood – I’m looking right now at a little chess set that I made. And there’s something about the geometric qualities of game boards, and the fact that they are abstractions in themselves, that I saw as a way to break myself in, to learning how to think as an abstractionist, and it worked. I did about 3 years of game board interpretations, you might say, and then found myself drifting away from it, but using a lot of what I’d learned as I went along. Now they are largely geometric – I’m crazy about triangles it seems, and squares, and checkerboards and things like that. And I work with composition, and balance, and colour. But the ghost of the game boards are sort of sitting on my left shoulder, kind of keeping me going. Every so often things start to look like a game board that I’m painting.

Mark: So the theme this year is New Ground, I believe, for the artists. Has that affected your ideas? What sort of things are you planning to do?

Sarah: Well, new ground – yes – that’s the theme. Every painting I do is new ground, and I think the other part of that was sort of sense of place. I’m not sure what I said when I applied but it seems to have worked. I’m sure that I could say that having discovered abstraction, I feel like I’ve kind of come home, I’m in my own skin now, I’ve found myself, which is kind of a homecoming. As I say, every new painting is something new and something old. Any painter who is honest admits to quoting himself all the time, and with an abstractionist, you get a repertoire of marks, and points of attack, and ways of thinking, and ways of sketching in your head. I guess everybody’s life is a combination of looking for home, and keeping life vital by doing new things.

Mark: When you’re working on looking at something new, is it a matter of starting with a word, or a sentence, or an emotion, or something or do you let it come out of the artwork itself?

Sarah: I think probably the thing I most commonly do is look over the paintings I have done pretty recently. Sometimes it’s something from a few years back. I try to revisit whatever it was that made me think of that. So I think, “I like such and such a painting, so I’m gonna do it again but I’ll try taking this in a slightly different direction.” So altogether the paintings kind of communicate with each other, where each one is sort of a parent to the next one. But you know, you double back and you say “wow, I like that painting I did two years ago. Why don’t I do something like that again?” only the paintings I’ve done between that one and this one will have kind of bent me in a different direction so you’ll have a combination of things that go together.

Mark: What about your colour palette? I’m curious as to whether this kind of painting lends itself to a particular palette or you yourself have found a palette you work with best?

Sarah: Well the curious thing about painting palettes is, when I look at things that I did many years ago, when I was first learning about encaustic actually, and in the old days with oil paints, very large palettes ___. My hot plate holds about 20 tomato paste cans full of paint and I would sometimes dip into all of them for a painting. With the abstraction, and with a greater emphasis on various textural procedures, I’m finding that if I keep the palette small, it is more effective. So 4, maybe 5 colours. Those 5 coats of paint I spoke about are almost always rather a dark, sombre colour, because a lot of that gets scraped away and it becomes a bit of background that illuminates brighter colours when you put them on, so that’s always one of the colours. But I allow myself 4 in addition to that, so the painting has more power and force, I think. It’s a melty paint, so the colours in layers sometimes you get little nuances in there, too. Blue and red makes brown, or purple, and they will come together a little bit.

Mark: You’ve described yourself as a painter, but I’m wondering if sculpture has also become a part of your vocabulary, and if you have tried it without the paint?

Sarah: Well for the paint itself, the term is impasto, and some painters, strictly the ones with oil, sometimes their paintings are an inch thick – the paint really sticks out. I wouldn’t call myself sculptural in that sense, but the latest batch of paintings I’ve done are not exactly sculptural, but they are cutouts that aren’t rectangular things in frames. So they’re two-dimensional but have really fine shapes to them. The latest batch that I started last summer – you cut out an interesting, usually I seem to be drawn to sort of trapezoidal shapes, and you cut that out, and with your jigsaw, you cut an interesting line. I can’t describe it but it’ll be a configuration, and then you’ll attach it at the back with mending plates when you’re done. It looks a bit like a puzzle with pieces in it, and that becomes sort of the boss line for determining the composition of the rest of the painting. The paint can sometimes – the line is a barrier, sometimes it’s a river across… the whole rest of the painting reacts to this line that will not go away. I’ve gotten some really nice results with that. So in that sense, there’s a bit of sculptural in that. I’m looking at my little chess set that I made, and I’ve also been making some little small 12-inch cryptics with some of my abstract motifs on them, so there’s a little three-dimensional in there.

Mark: I’m afraid we’re all out of time – I’m prettysure we could talk for the next several hours on this and I welcome and encourage anyone to check out your work in the Barracks. Is there a place online where people can check out and follow up your some of your work online or elsewhere where it’s being displayed?

Sarah: Yeah, I’ve got a website:

Mark: Ok, perfect.

Sarah: Yeah, they’ll have fun looking at that.

Mark: I have been talking with Sarah Petite who is an encaustic painter currently one of the artists in residence down at the Barracks – please check them out down there.

Find the audio podcast of Sarah’s interview here:

The Lunchbox Interview: Sarah Petite (Encaustic Painting)


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