Tangled Forest by Paul Garbett

Story by Patti Vipond

Encaustic painting is not for the faint of heart. Almost every step in the process of working with melted wax mixed with colour pigment carries some hazard.

A hot plate keeps the tins of encaustic paint warm and liquid, but too much heat burns the wax. Burned wax emits toxins. So, the temperatiure needs constant monitoring and the room needs good ventilation - just in case. A propane torch or heat gun is used to 'burn in' each layer of wax paint, fusing layer upoon layer. But toom much heat dribbles the work away, and it is ruined. The artist has to work quickly, brushing the encaustic paint onto the support's horizontal wooden surface before the wax dries, and it dries frustratingly quickly.

Therefore, why attempt encaustic painting when the risk of r oil or acrylic painters is minimal? Encaustic artist Paul Garbet has an answer. 

"It's the most frustrating medium I've ever used - it can get very messy very quickly," says Garbett, whose artistic career geared up after moving to Muskoka four years ago. "It's a tricky substance, especially if you are used to using oil paints where you have a lot of flexibility. With this, you don't. I've struggled with it, but I love it. It is scultprual, textured and versatile. You can carve into it, scrape and scratch it and embed things for a collage. I'ts a great medium."

After an entrepreneurial career creating branding and design plans for corporations and galleries, including the prestigious Loch Gallery in Toronto's Yorkville district, Garbett is now turning his attention to marketing his own work. His paintings, focusing on landscapes and animals, are currently showing at Red Canoe Gallery in Port Carling, and commissions for his work are increasing.

Garbett's interest in the medium began 10 years ago after viewing work by a Canadian encaustic artist.

"It turned me on, so I bought brushes and made my own wax of oil and microcrystalline which is a petroleum-based wax as opposed to the encaustic traditon of beeswax," explains the self-taught artist. "There is more plasticity to microcrystalline. I mix it with oil paint but the pure way of doing it is to mix it with powdered pigments. That is kind of dangerous because the powder gets airborne and it's very toxic. The colour isn't as vibrant as with powder pigments, but I'm fine with it."

Garbett began painting Tangled Forest in 2012 and finished it recently after a break to tend to other paintings. The encaustic landscape seems to have a Group of Seven influence, and its origin backs up that observation. Inspiration for the piece arrived atop of a high cliff by the site of a former fire ranger's tower on an Algonquin Park trail. 

"It's a composite of that trip to Algonquin," explains Garbett, who hopes to return to the park this summer despite a full schedule. "Sometimes I use photos and sketches of a place, but for the most part, my landscapes are never an actual spot. It's more of a feeling and that's the case with Tangled Forest. I will take specific photos to remind me, but I'll go with what I think is the better representation. I love the Canadian experience of the north. I think a lot of it is much more about the feeling you get from it as opposed to what is in fromt of you."

Tom Thomson and the artists of Canada's Group of Seven have inspired Garbett, both through their work and their national importance.

"I love the Group of Seven, though some people are tired of hearing about them," he says. "But essentially, their style and what they left us is some of the most brilliant painting in Canada and still holds a place in our hearts. If you look at these artists collectively, there is this energy they all share that comes form their experience in the north. But stylistically, they are very different. They were trend-setters, painting in an approach here in Canada that no one had ever seen before."

As an artist, Garbett resists labelling his work as being one style. He prefers to capture the true essence of anything that stirs his soul and take the medium to places uncharted. To that end, he sculpts his work with knives, razor blades and drywall tools as well using a brush. The characteristic translucence of wax paint allows many veils of colour to be burned in and opens up creative possibilities.

"Wax can have a transparent, translucent feel where you are looking through a lot of depth," he says. "Light penetrates it. You get a beautiful iridescence, a radiance."

Though encaustic artists are relatively few, and most create abstracts instead of representational art like Farbett, the artist has noticed more encaustic works hanging in galleries lately. He hopes the public will becaome familiar with encaustic painting, if only to cut down on explanations when studio visitors find him with a paint brush in one hand a heat gun in the other."

"A lot of people don't even know I'm painting with wax," he chuckles. "If they see me painting, they ask me what in the world I'm doing."