Why I Love to Paint With Encaustic

Artists love their tools, their media. Every one has reasons, the way a tool fits into the hand, the way it can attack or caress the surface, a way the medium flows, or offers resistance. Many artists use encaustic, and write about all the wonderful qualities it has. Below is a piece that shows some of what I love about working with this magical medium, and why I stick with it even as my vision shifts.

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Barnacles, encaustic on wood, 16” x 16”

Encaustic is a sensual medium. Its base is beeswax, and it has the fragrance, when heated, of sweet honey. It is heated on a hot surface until it flows like melted butter, or like heavy cream. I can paint with it directly using a warm brush, use a special tool to draw with it, sometimes even pour it. I can in fact do anything I can think of, the caveat being that I need to RE heat it to be sure it attaches physically to whatever is underneath.

Encaustic has body. In art school they always talked about the “body” of the oil paint. Encaustic has this quality big time for me. I can build it up in layers, stencil shapes onto it, draw and carve into it, push things into it (see Barnacles, where I pushed a shell into the built up wax), add things like bits of sea glass or sand or powdered pigment or - all kinds of things!

Encaustic is flexible; With it I can make mistakes. When I was making huge charcoal drawings in the 1980’s, one of my favorite qualities of the charcoal was that I could easily erase it! I could wipe it off with a cloth, and adjust where I put a line or a shape. With encaustic I can scrape off a layer or more of paint, or cover over the whole painting and then reveal some of what’s going on under that. I can build. I can excavate. I can smooth the surface with heat.

Encaustic is luminous. I have a few cherished memories of places that I loved to hang out as a young child. One such spot for me was right under the tiffany lamp at my grandmother Sophie’s house. Whenever I sat there I felt warm and cared for by the feeling of the color and light shining onto me. Sometimes encaustic looks just like stained glass.

Encaustic can get out of control. That may sound odd, and why would I like that quality? In my life I love having control. I hate when things (as they often do) get “out of control.” But with hot wax? I love that part of it - that I can heat the wax to be like I want it to be, but sure enough, it has a mind of its own. It will flow somewhere unexpectedly, or do wonderful things that are a total surprise, that I could not have planned. Working with it allows me to work in a trancelike state, to be in the “zone,” where I don’t know what I am doing, but the wax knows. SOMEthing knows. SOMEone knows.

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Red Horizon, encaustic on wood, 10” x10”

Travel to Hawaii

I had two big travel dreams that seemed to go back to some distant vision of what “far away” meant. One was Alaska. One was Hawaii. As it got close to planning the Hawaii trip, I tried to recall more of why I wanted to go there. Logistics are hard and I needed a new reason. I thought and thought, and then I remembered a friend, perhaps in college, telling me that the Hawaiian Islands had a fragrance and the spiritual presence of a goddess, and that once you were there you would not want to leave.

Sure enough, she was correct. There is a feeling, at least where we went on the Big Island, that is indescribable. I will share a few photos, and a painting inspired by a walk over black lava rock to the “black sand beach” of Pahoa.

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encaustic (pigmented beeswax and damar resin) on wood, 18”x18”

Travel part 1

I am musing about travel, and why it seems so important to me now, why I dream it and love it.

My childhood was spent in a small apartment in University City, on the edge of St. Louis. As a family we  traveled only once during my first 18 years or so, to a farm in the Ozarks of southeast Missouri. It was called "Mae and Belle's Farm." I was told that I begged to return. Here is a photo of me at the farm. Clearly I liked being there. I can still recall the feeling of being around so many trees.

I wanted to see the rest of the world. "Digging to China" with a small shovel got me nowhere, but I was able to travel vicariously via my stamp collection. I no longer have those gorgeous stamps but I do have a vivid memory of a stamp of a giraffe in Mozambique, and one of a Camaroon woman carrying a jug on her head.

One of my favorite images. I knew that the world must be bigger than my neighborhood!

One of my favorite images. I knew that the world must be bigger than my neighborhood!

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My Aunt Mildred told us she had traveled solo "around the world," which I and my sister did not believe. I treasured my castanets from Jamaica, but assumed that’s what she meant by around the world - to Jamaica. Only in the last decade or so did I find an old photo of her on a camel in Egypt!


Years ago I asked myself what my big dream was, as a person, and as an artist. Every time only one answer came up. The answer was not fame and fortune. It was not getting my work into a hotshot gallery or the Hirshhorn Museum. The answer was travel. I hardly knew what it meant, but there it was, over and over. Finally, well over a decade ago, my husband and I began to “travel.” Already in love with New York City, we crossed bodies of water to see new lands and new cultures. We went to Prague, to Costa Rica twice, to Paris, to Vieques three times….. and in the last 2-3 years to Alaska and Hawaii. There is a part of me that is ravenous - the little girl part that got as far as the farm in the Ozarks and still wants the whole world - and the grown up woman artist who is is GETTING the world and is feeling nourished and inspired by every little bit.

Shifting Sands: Some old some new and some in between

I am getting ready for a solo show in the Hall Gallery at Artists and Makers. There are so many myths about what artists should show (new work that shows a clear new direction) and what they should not (older work from last year or the year before.) But what artists? and where? and why? and who makes these rules anyway? Who do they serve? Do they aid creativity and fun and sharing the gifts we artists can give?

I won't write out all my thoughts here. There are many, and I have no clear answers at all. But I can feel the pressure of old myths around exhibits, and at the same time resist, and explore (and show) the shifts in my work from last year, the year before, from earlier this year, and even this very month!

The exhibit title is "Flow." I will be hanging a range of paintings, and maybe the shifts will become clearer to me. Where is the point where bits of sand and shell became rose petals and sand flowers and then became circles of bubbles and then suggestions of pink and purple azaleas in my neighborhood?  Is there such a point, or does the art flow on its own to where it needs to go? And then an outer shift, a trip to Hawaii where I expected to soak up more sand inspiration but was drawn continually to the flora. I can see what looks like something new - the bursting seed pods, the bright orange petals. More form, more reference to something specific. But new? More important to show? Or are these seeming shifts about my continually changing perspective on the forms and textures and energies in nature?

"FLOW" will be up in the Hall Gallery at Artists and Makers from April 6-April 26. The Opening Reception is Friday night April 6, from 6-9 pm. A special "open studios" weekend will follow on April 7-8, and I will be there a good bit of the time. Address: 11810 Parklawn Drive, Rockville MD. Entrance is in the back of the building. Enter far right to be near my exhibit. Parking behind and near the building.

Open Studio Reflections

My Open Studio and Small Works Sale was a huge success!! The sales, framing and business wrap-up is finally complete. Such an intense time there in December, with the big event on Saturday afternoon, a house concert here on Saturday night, day 2 of the Open Studio on Sunday, and then off to New York City two days later. Intensity was the name of the game that month! On the way back from New York I realized that my studio had not been touched since the weekend before; all was still in place. And voila! a great idea: I sent out a late night reminder to my closest neighbors, just in case they had forgotten how easy would be to come by the very next day, Sunday.

It all worked beautifully. Three Open Studio days across two weekends allowed people plenty of flexibility. Many friends and neighbors came, despite the cold weather. People I hadn't seen in years drove from as far as Baltimore. We had long three person conversations, often between people who didn't know each other, about how we see the world, personal vision, the deeper sources of art, religion and spirituality.

Since then we have been to Hawaii, to NYC three times, and finally I am back in the studio. Below are some of the images of work sold (two small ones, and two 18"x18") ) during the Open Studio, and a few of my happy collectors.


It's the season of artists holiday open studio sales. I am thinking about this, my enthusiasm and my hesitation. I think the latter stems from an old not particularly useful belief that genuine art making has nothing to do with art "marketing." Nevertheless, my enthusiasm appears to be constant.

The truth is that my work belongs in other people's hearts, homes, and minds. I understand that now - that we artists don't create just for ourselves, but whether we know it or not, we create to communicate with other human beings. In my case, for the last 15 years my art has grown from a deep response to the natural world - from rainforests, country landscape, oceans, seashells, and sandscapes, to the flora in my own neighborhood. I take in things with my eyes and with an indescribable sense of reverence.

I have heard and read that what keeps a painter going, and going, is the desire to reach something unreachable. I think that is true in my case. I can see bits of what the artist in me is wanting, but only bits. And now, with nature as my inspiration, I am never able to reach what brings me that sense of awe and reverence. God, the universe, the ineffable, whatever it is called, remains inexpressible.

Below are a few images of my recent work, and some of the flora that have inspired me. Thank you for reading, and please join me at:


an art exhibit, small works shop + open studio weekend

DECEMBER 9, 12-3pm, + December 10, 2-5pm

At Marilyn Banner Studio: 7502 Flower Avenue (Rear), Takoma Park, MD.