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Sheary Clough Suiter talks about painting with encaustics

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Unfinished piece by Sheary Clough Suiter, June 2017 - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Unfinished piece by Sheary Clough Suiter, June 2017

Local artist Sheary Clough Suiter first had the opportunity to work with encaustic painting at a workshop in Girdwood, Alaska. At the time, she specialized in acrylics, working in nearby Anchorage with no plans to suddenly shift medium. But when she got home, she ordered around $1,000 in paints and supplies and started renovating her studio.

"The most famous historical [encaustic paintings] are the Fayum portraits," she says. "They are the death masks that were painted for mostly wealthy Egyptian citizens... That's the face they would take with them to the next world." The portraits, of which around 900 exist, date as far back as the first century CE.

Encaustics are paints made from pigment suspended in beeswax and, often, another stabilizing ingredient like damar resin, which is made from tree sap. The encaustic paint is melted and painted on. Suiter uses heat to finish her paintings, favoring a torch in her own home, but using a heat gun when she teaches encaustics at the Bemis School of Art at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. The resulting layer of paint is hard with a somewhat glossy finish, thanks to the resin, and Suiter's pieces tend to have a luminous liveliness to them, owing to her preference for vivid colors.

GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell

Because encaustic paintings are so dependent on layers, Suiter can also take them down in places, carving away thin stripes or thick chunks to expose earlier textures. She also incorporates oil pastel details in her pieces where necessary.

For inspiration, Suiter draws heavily from nature — she and fellow artist Nard Claar travel frequently, and she's always taking photos and sketching to capture details for later use. But her works are usually less representational and more abstract, open to interpretation.

"I work intuitively," she says. "I work in response to the colors, and the shapes, and the melting of the wax. I enjoy... the mystery of where the medium might take me. This is kind of cliché, but it's true... The process becomes a conversation with your piece."

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