Made of pigmented beeswax and resin, encaustic is unusual in that it is must be heated and is applied in a molten state. The medium dates back to the ancient Greeks, but it fell into obscurity until the early 20th century, when the availability of portable electric and gas heating tools made it easier to melt the wax. The incredible versatility of encaustic — it can be reheated and reworked endlessly and is used as a sculptural medium as well as a paint and in collage and assemblage — has made it well suited to the materials-oriented, mixed media approach of many contemporary artists. However, it’s not a paint that one can spontaneously apply, like a crayon, at least not without risk: “A Brief History of R&F Handmade Paints,” a booklet published by R&F, notes that artist Al Held burned down his studio in the 1950s while using encaustics.
Richard Frumess, founder and principal of R&F Handmade Paints, first became interested in encaustic in the early 1980s, when the owner of the New York gallery that represented him suggested he explore the medium for his paintings. The wax-based paint had been briefly resurrected as a medium by the American modernists, but it had once again lapsed into obscurity by the time Frumess discovered some encaustic paints on the shelves of a downtown Manhattan art store called Torch Art Supplies. Torch, the only store in the world still selling encaustics, hadn’t made the paint since the 1960s. Frumess was hired in 1982 with the express purpose of re-formulating the paints.
Using a mallet and a chisel to whittle down the blocks of pigment, his kitchen stove to melt the wax and countless blenders to mix the bits of pigment into the melted wax, Frumess eventually developed 30 encaustic colors for Torch. When Torch closed in 1987, he started his own encaustic paint business in his Brooklyn studio basement. He sold the paint in a handful of art stores in New York, Paris and Denver and moved the business upstate in 1990. In 1995, he started renting space in the Millard Building in Kingston, before purchasing and renovating the current location — an 1890s brick building once occupied by Standard Oil — in 2006.
Initially, encaustic was a tough sell: when R&F Handmade Paints attended the National Arts Materials Trade Association (NAMT) show in 1990, “no one was interested in encaustic,” Frumess recalled. He started making oil pigment sticks, which was an easier sell. It’s a medium can be applied directly — unlike the blocks of encaustic, which must be melted down on heated palettes, applied to a surface with the use of various tools, and cooled. The pigment sticks became the company’s more popular product. “Eighty percent of the effort was in encaustic but it only accounted for 20 percent of sales,” he said.
Today, those numbers have flipped, and encaustic paint is on the verge of becoming a mainstream arts-supply product. For years, R&F sold most of its product direct to artists online, but now it’s focusing on getting its encaustic paints into the stores. The paint is sold at national art-store chains Dick Blick and Jerry’s Artarama, but it is about to become available in many more stores and chains thanks to partnerships the company has formed with two other art materials suppliers: Boston-based Ampersand Art Supply and Sculpture House, a supplier based in Princeton, N.J.
With Ampersand, R&F has devised a special gesso for encaustics that will be applied to Ampersand’s clayboards. The two companies have also developed the “encaustic center,” a three-unit display showing R&F’s encaustic paints, the gessoed panels and specially designed tools for R&F’s encaustic paints developed by Sculpture House. Ampersand’s products are sold in 800 art supply stores across the country, so the collaboration will vastly expand the market for R&F encaustics. The encaustic center display unit will enable stores to move encaustic out of the specialty section and into the main area. R&F has also redesigned its packaging, which will further highlight the product.
R&F’s national reach is remarkable considering the company has only 13 employees. (The other principals besides Frumess are Jim Haskin and Darin Seim. Laura Moriarty runs the workshops and gallery, and the paint-makers are all artists from the area.) “We’re going great guns — not because the economy is turning around but because we’re taking a niche market out of its niche and making it mainstream,” said Frumess.
The company’s reception at NAMT’s most recent trade show, held in mid-April in Indianapolis, was a 180-degree turn from 20 years ago. “Suddenly the stores were really interested,” Frumess said. The company has hired artists’ reps on the West and East coasts as well as in the Midwest, a move he expects to result in a significant expansion of the business this year.
The story of how encaustic became a recognized art medium has everything to do with the grassroots movement that R&F created over the years through its workshops and exhibitions. By offering workshops and hosting shows, R&F developed the knowledge of the medium among artists, created the demand for it, and showed how people were innovating with it. It presented encaustic as an exciting, flexible medium that could be used not only in painting but also in conjunction with sculpture, photography, collage, ceramics and other media.
The workshops in particular were key, said Frumess, given that painting with encaustic is “a very involved process” about which there was little literature and virtually no instruction in the schools. Frumess taught the first workshop in 1995 at the Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale. That was followed by the setting up of workshops in-house taught by dedicated staffers who refined the format and developed an expertise that branched into different aspects of encaustic. R&F trained encaustic teachers, and once the website was up in the late 1990s, it advertised their availability online and in a newsletter that was sent out electronically. Word of mouth was also a major factor in spreading interest.
In 1999, R&F got invited to teach out in Sausalito, and its national program of workshops was born, with classes taught in places as far-flung as Seattle, New York City, Atlanta, Texas and Chicago. The students started teaching their own workshops. Workshops spawning workshops, which resulted in exhibitions around the country of encaustic works, “started coalescing into encaustic networks,” said Frumess. He ticks off half a dozen names of organizations, representing encaustic artists in New Mexico, New England, Chicago and other regions of the country. Groups like the International Encaustic Artists, based on the West Coast, now host their own conferences; the IEA also has an annual retreat that attracts 400 to 500 people.
The publishing of The Art of Encaustic Painting, by Joanne Materra in 2001, the first book on encaustics since 1947, also helped publicize the medium. In 1995 R&F started showing encaustic artists in bimonthly shows in a gallery at its facility, launching its first bi-annual juried international show of encaustic art two years later. Curated by high-profile, nationally known artists, that show in turn has spawned other encaustic shows in the Hudson Valley, including one at the Samuel Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz.
The company has also offered collaborative workshops with the Center for Photography in Woodstock and Women’s Studio Workshop, showing how encaustic could be used in conjunction with photography and print making. The CPW encaustic workshop has become a fixture of the educational program and has been taught in Jackson Hole and Newfoundland.
A web of artists
As artists apply encaustics in their own work and develop their own techniques, R&F is a place where they can show their work and teach their own methods. The relationship R&F has with artists is an important feeder to its business. For example, Francisco Benitez, an artist from Santa Fe whose figurative paintings using the ancient Greeks’ four-color palette are currently being exhibited at R&F’s gallery, taught a workshop based on the techniques he has developed to create luminosity and form. Benitez was also R&F’s contact person for Sculpture House: he adapted tools sold by the supplier for his encaustic work, which helped inspire the new line of tools specifically for encaustic commissioned by R&F.
R&F attends the College Art Association conferences in an effort to promote encaustics in the schools. The company offers workshops to students at the high schools and colleges in the area, providing free studio space to any student participating in a workshop.
In May, R&F received an award from the University & College Designers Association, which lauded the company not just for rescuing the encaustic medium from the dustpan of history, but also for its contributions to the community at large: creating jobs for artists in teaching, training and producing waxes and paints; its influence, support and promotion of artists; offering free studio space to young students; and fostering a workplace environment UCDA Foundation president Richard Jividen described in the notification letter as “creative, nurturing and productive.”
“We’re an unusual company,” Frumess acknowledged. “We built it with education, and we make a top-of-the-line product.” Obviously, the product counts for a lot, but the company’s growth would not have possible without its dense network of relationships —with artists, other art materials suppliers, arts organizations. “The word on my epitaph is ‘collaboration,’” Frumess concluded.