Wax and the Photographic Image
Artwork that is born from intensive hours in the studio requires a wide set of skills to ensure that the work reaches an audience. These skills serve as the framework that supports the life of the professional artist. Additionally, artists need time and know-how to find a way to connect with fellow artists and curators. Seeing these connections as merely a gateway to finding venues for artwork would be cynical. It has so much more to do with fostering engaging dialogue, being an active member of an art community, and seeing those connections lead to real understanding in one’s own work & the work of others. For the artists, the richness of the community originates from the work each artist does in the studio, keeping the artwork alive despite innocent distractions and difficult obstacles.
Last November, artist David A. Clark shared on the ProWax Facebook page: “I don’t live in a place where there’s a lot of options for hiring a photographer that knows how to shoot art, so I have to find a better way to do it on my own. I am a firm believer that I can educate myself to do better.” He went on to share several tips he learned from a photography consultant; 90 comments later, many artists had added to the conversation with their own expertise, several of whom have backgrounds as professional photographers. I learned several new things as I read the thread. What follows in the lists below are my own notes on information gathered from that conversation, as well as additional clarifications from artists Elena De La Ville, Patricia Dusman, Karen Freedman, Sarah Rehmer, Patti Russotti, Krista Svalbonas, as well as from David A. Clark.
It takes multiple passes over the same information on photography (ISO? f-stop? white balance?) for me to retain the knowledge. I know that shooting in Manual mode allows me more control over the image, but I hesitate to leave Auto. Although I can make videos, somehow the technical work of capturing one image of my artwork seems so much more daunting since I know that once an artwork leaves my studio, a photograph of it may be all I have left. I have several bad pictures of artworks I’ll probably never see in real life again. I learned the hard way that there really are standards for images of artwork: during a graduate portfolio review, each reviewer commented on the same poor qualities of a photograph I’d taken of a piece. In a photograph of my artwork, I must capture the spirit of the physical piece I see before my eyes. When I’ve been able, I’ve used a professional art photographer. However, it’s time to really learn how to photograph my own work.
This could easily be a much longer article, several articles, or even a book!– however I have edited information to what is helpful to me in hopes that it enlightens fellow photography novices.
The Art of Creating an Image of Your Artwork
Just as it takes time to acquire painting, sculpting, or any number of studio skills, it similarly takes time to become proficient at creating photographs of one’s own work. This is especially true if camera use & photo editing are not familiar to an artist. Ideally, the best time to practice creating images of your work would be when there is no imminent deadline.
After some discussion, most artists in ProWax agreed that Adobe Photoshop Elements provided sufficient control over image editing (straightening, cropping, color correction, light balancing, etc). Some artists who are more experienced with photo editing software still prefer the full Photoshop program, but concede that Elements is fine if that’s all that’s available. Lightroom, Phase One, Aperture and other pro-photographer software is best used by artists who want to shoot tethered, meaning the camera is connected directly into the computer to see one’s images on the screen as they are taken. Tethering the camera to the computer is used more by professional photographers than by artists taking pictures of their work.
Camera, Lighting, & Artwork Setup
Workflow for Creating Images of Your Artwork
The following workflow is a suggested framework. Without a workflow, each time you create images of artworks, you will have random habits for working your files, and you run the risk of losing important digital information. You may use this as a guide and modify as you gain experience. Only you can create the best workflow for yourself.
Getting This Information in Real Time
Among many talks, demos, lectures & panel discussions offered at The Eighth International Encaustic Conference (Provincetown, MA June 6th – June 9th, 2014) two classes will explore this topic in depth: “Preparing Images with Photoshop” by Elena De La Ville, and “Digital Imaging for Artists” by Patti Russotti.
Online Resources for Software & Photographing Art
As a regular feature in the ProWax Journal, this month’s Artists & Community is Milisa Galazzi’s (MG) interview with Natalie Abrams (NA) about her McColl Residency. (The video below was taken during her residency at McColl.)
MG: Tell me a little bit about how you picked the McColl Center forVisual Art as your Residency. What, in particular, interested you about McColl in the first place? When did you apply and when did you go? What was the application process like?
NA: There were a variety of reasons I applied to the McColl Center for Visual Art. One reason was that they draw world class artists. Internationally recognized artists such as Mel Chin and Dread Scott were in residence just before and after me. While I was there the exhibition in the first floor gallery had been curated by Cynthia Reeves and included work by Janet Echelman. The caliber of artists MCVA draws is outstanding and the facility is gorgeous. I also applied because it was local, and having never spent a significant amount of time away from my partner, it allowed me to experience a residency without that added stress of separation.
I applied in the fall of 2011 and was in residence over the summer of 2013, from April into late August.
The application included a three question Letter of Intent, work samples and image list, biographical narrative, artist statement, resume and references. The questions for the Letter of Intent were along the lines of, ”What do you hope to achieve while in residence, how will this be significant to the development of your work, and how will your residency benefit from being in an urban environment with frequent public interactions?”
That last question is important because, in contrast to a lot of residency programs, MCVA is located in downtown Charlotte with the galleries open three days a week with additional required open studio days. While an artist can choose to close the doors and, technically, not interact with the public (except during open studio Saturdays), the reality is visitors knock on studio doors asking questions, ask to come in; there are frequent tours through the facility, and there are a variety of other interruptions. It is not a quiet, isolated studio experience. That being said, I found those experiences of interacting with guests and visitors to be wonderful, allowing me to develop relationships with people who are truly interested in art. Those conversations also really helped develop my ability to discuss my work.
MG: What did you do while you were there? How did you choose this particular work to work on? What supplies did you bring?
NA: I had intended to spend all my time at the MCVA transitioning my work from wall hung pieces to freestanding sculptural work. I’m interested in creating reef installations with my current process, but to do that would require the introduction of armatures, a different base set up and crating system. I was able to work out the basics of converting to freestanding pieces, but didn’t spend near the amount of time on it which I had expected. In reality, I worked on other projects which sprung up while there which were equally beneficial.
In my proposal, I chose to focus on developing installations because I’d become increasingly interested in them over the previous couple years, and very much wanted my work to develop in that direction. I don’t have a studio space which will allow me to work on that scale, so a residency was a natural next step.
Being local, it made bringing my materials much easier. I brought all my wax and wax working tools, lumber and some specialized woodworking tools and a few other miscellaneous things. I also brought a couch for people to sit on because I wanted the space to be inviting. I’ll be going on two residencies this year, one in Florida and one in New York, and what I’ll take for those programs will be completely different and much more minimalist.
MG: What was the most beneficial part of the Residency for you? What was the most difficult? What you are most proud of when you think back on your experience?
NA: I would say the entire residency was beneficial for me. Not coming from an art background, it was really fun to be in a communal atmosphere with other artists as opposed to the solitary studio practice I normally have. The presence of other artists working in different mediums was fascinating, and gave me an opportunity to learn, discuss, get feedback and critiques. The most difficult part was going back to a solitary studio practice. I think there should be support groups for people leaving residencies.
MG: If you could do the whole thing over again from start to finish, what, if anything would you change?
NA: In the future, I’ll be a lot more self-sufficient.
MG: What else would you like to say?
NA: Know what you want to work on going in, but be flexible and open to experiences which may present themselves. Know what kind of a situation you’re going into, so you can be prepared. Don’t make assumptions. Ask questions ahead of time. If you have specific requirements, make sure the facility knows that and can accommodate. If there are things you need in order to pull off your project, make sure someone is addressing those needs, whether it’s the facility you’re going to or yourself.
Residencies truly are what you make of them, so make it everything you want that experience to be.
I packed a huge amount of art supplies before heading south in 2007, the year I moved to San Miguel de Allende. I was uncertain what would be available to me here. It was a good thing I did.
As I got to know the galleries and studios in San Miguel, I asked about the paintings I saw that were described as encaustic. There were three or four Americans painting with encaustic in a familiar way, with translucence and vibrant color. I encountered work by several Mexican artists using wax, and their work looked nothing like the medium I was used to seeing. I met with one of them to talk about materials and learned that much of what was listed on the gallery labels as encaustic was created from his family’s fifty-year-old, hand-written recipe book, with ingredients such as beeswax, paraffin, carnauba, copal resin, tar, and white spirits or turpentine. Artists I met from other parts of Mexico talked of similar recipes, many being taught in Universities.
The finishes on encaustic paintings produced by local artists are often matte and opaque. The paint is laid on quite thickly, and deep cracks are not uncommon. Some of the prepared material they are using is similar to cold wax, and it’s being fused with heat. When copal resin is used, it gives the encaustic a darker color, and it is sticky and has a strong smell. It takes more heat to melt copal, and it is usually softened with spirits, which is potentially dangerous when heated. The finished product is quite hard.
Another point I’ve noticed here is that paintings made with encaustic are not promoted as such. Encaustic is rarely a theme…it’s simply a medium. People who come into a gallery or studio may ask if the artist is working with wax, but they tend to comment more about the work, with an appreciable depth of curiosity about message and intent.
Although encaustic has been used in some form for many years in Mexico, it hasn’t come to the point where encaustic is a buzz-word, like it is in the U.S. Because of the questionable safety of ancient encaustic recipes, many artists have avoided its use. With expanded access to information on the internet and in workshops, interest in the medium is increasing. Unfortunately, except on the internet, the materials can be difficult to find. Our tiny, neighborhood art supply store has started to carry dammar resin crystals and refined beeswax, but the ready-made paints and mediums are still unavailable.
I have been teaching bi-lingual workshops in my studio, where I do my best to instill better safety techniques and introduce the simple formula of beeswax, dammar resin and pigments.
Q: What business practices do you consider essential to your life as an artist?
A: I’d say for me… keeping tabs on information: deadlines (fellowships & grants), galleries I’m interested in, calls for entry that would benefit my practice… that kind of thing. Also: I need better financial record keeping. On the back burner but very needed: updating my inventory list.
San Francisco Bay Area
A: Keeping the documentation/inventory/website up. Keeping promises and contracts with galleries or commissions.
A: Integrity….in every aspect.
A: Being a good art citizen would be at the top of the list. Being honest and cultivating relationships with colleagues that give me honest feedback. Keeping track of information. Getting out and being seen, and more importantly heard. And not being afraid to make the ask.
David A. Clark
Palm Springs, CA
A: I agree with everything everyone has said. The things that top my list:
. Organization: Of projects, time, priorities, studio setup, finances, files, images–everything
. Honesty across the board; relatedly, don’t sell out of your studio if you’re gallery represented
. Reciprocity: Someone does a favor for you; at some point you find a way to return it. Doesn’t have to be quid-pro-quo, but you need to acknowledge the good faith, kindness, information, energy or time that another has offered you
. Being visible: go to openings, make studio visits, blog, write, comment on Facebook. Create and live your presence
. Don’t be afraid of blowback from people who don’t like what you have to say. That means bracing yourself for the negativity of those who are invested in mediocrity
. Know when to take the lead and when to follow
. You can’t do it all–though you try, you try
New York, New York
A: Yes to all above!! And… Really important to keep news, resume, workshop dates, etc updated on your website.
Kansas City, MO