Artists Using Cold Wax Medium

Teaching, Beyond Technique

by Rebecca Crowell (Adapted from a blog post from 8/2/2011)

Rebecca Crowell workshop

Until fairly recently, I’ve thought of my workshops as primarily focused on technique and basic information about cold wax medium, with some philosophy, art principles, and information about abstraction added for good measure. But the artists who take my workshops have often brought up other issues of personal challenge and growth, and I’ve made similar observations of my own. So I’ve come to some insights about deeper aspects of what happens in class.

The highest compliment I receive about my workshops is that they are life-changing. In the past this has floored me…how can that be?? But I see now that while the technical information I teach is plenty challenging, the emotional and mental demands of the work are also very powerful--at least for artists unaccustomed to process-driven, intuitively developed painting. For most artists, art and life are intertwined. So what I’m hearing is that this way of working has effects upon the person’s whole being, in subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways. While every instructor brings information, advice and inspiration to class, the transformation that these students speak of is a result of their own hands-on experience with intuitive process.

People often comment in class on the difficulty of abandoning preconceived ideas, and allowing each step in the painting to reveal itself. For many artists, working without a plan is a daring leap into trusting intuition, and requires a flexibility that feels out of character. It helps considerably that cold wax is a very “forgiving” medium—there are no mistakes. Changes can be made as quickly and as thoroughly as the artist desires. The rewards for loosening up and working intuitively become apparent as the painting develops, and the process itself fuels curiosity--what will happen next? The delight in discovery, the joy in artistic play is something many people have not experienced since childhood.

A related challenge is pushing past initial stages of the painting, being ruthless in non-attachment to precious areas of paint. Trying to build a painting around one area that works early on is a sure recipe for a stiff, overly controlled end result. When an artist gets beyond the need to control outcome from the beginning, confidence grows. It becomes clear that the most exciting things happen when there is plenty of paint, lots of layers—when there is deep potential built into in the work. While they are subtle, I believe the parallels to bigger life issues here fuel the passion many of us find in this creative process.

Through this exploring and experimenting, seemingly random or accidental effects will gradually become more predictable and can used with intention. This requires patience and practice. Taking the first steps in a workshop can be a revelation, but true understanding of this process happens over time. Recently an artist in one of my classes exclaimed, “I get it! It’s all about patience!” Another transformative realization, with wide implications.

A related issue is the desire for finished work at the end of class. I don’t encourage this as a goal—I believe it is counter-productive to understanding the process and possibilities of the medium (some of which will become evident only when the painting dries more thoroughly at home.) But if someone is intent on this idea, I tend to stand back. I’ve noticed a couple of fairly predictable outcomes. One is that the artist abandons the idea, frustrated by fighting with wet, muddy paint. This letting go is actually a breakthrough --it brings the artist back to the beginning, to trusting the process and letting the painting unfold in its own time. In other cases, a painting will seem finished in class, but within a few weeks of getting it home it will appear less so, and be reworked and revised. Then, there are those rare times when a painting does reach a finished state in class. When this happens, it seems to come out of grace rather than striving...another lesson that relates as much to the bigger picture of life as it does to painting.

The group dynamic of a workshop can also be very important on an emotional and intellectual level--generating inspiration, information, encouragement and energy. The people in my classes range from professional artists, to those re-entering the art world at retirement, to beginners looking for an entry point. Yet these distinctions seem unimportant in light of the sharing, openness and encouragement that prevails. It's refreshing and stimulating to break down categories of who has what status and success in the art world, and to simply see what can be learned from each other.

All of these ideas and lessons are difficult to integrate deeply and consistently, and I work on all of them myself in my own painting practice. Yet the mental and emotional tension of these challenges provides essential energy in the studio—the moments of joy and frustration, the knowledge of insights, the depth of experience. Sharing these struggles with students is the connecting undercurrent of a workshop, running beneath and alongside the demos of technique and practical information, and the general camaraderie of the group.