HAMILTON - Encaustic, a paint made from beeswax, resin and pigment, is a messy medium that produces a smooth result unlike other forms of painting.
It can require sticky beeswax, harmful fumes, toxic pigment and propane torches, but the finished work can have a shiny surface and glassy depth utterly unlike oils or acrylics.
Pam Caughey, a Hamilton abstract painter, likes the layers possible in the technique.
It dates back 2,000 years to the Greeks putting wax on the sides of their ships to waterproof them, she said. Egyptians made encaustic portraits to accompany the mummies of pharaohs and other important figures into the afterlife.
She uses it for a modern purpose - nonrepresentational art. Her work has been shown at the Missoula Art Museum, the Holter in Kalispell and more. She's currently showing large-scale abstract encaustics at the Radius Gallery on Main Street, where she's represented.
There are numerous ways to make an encaustic. Caughey's personal process starts with a blank birch panel and applies several layers of clear melted beeswax to create a base.
To begin texturing the surface she pulls out a tub of tools - rolling pins, sandpaper, razor blades, small saw blades. Or she'll take a hammer, lightly mind you, to an old watch band or a piece of metal placed on the wood.
"It's the unexpected marks sometimes that can be very cool," Caughey said.
Once she's made an assortment of indentations and scratches across the surface, she paints over it with a pigment stick, filling the gaps made by those tools. She then wipes off the oil paint, leaving a clean surface with black marks criss-crossing the wood to work off of.
"These earlier stages are nothing but creating a history. Maybe none of this will show in the end. This is what starts the creative process for me," Caughey said.
She grazes a small propane torch across the entire surface to fuse the paint and the wax, a crucial step that holds the layers together and leaves a glossier shine.
She might repeat the texturing process several more times before even applying color, whether in oil stick, oil paint or encaustic paint.
She makes the medium herself in her home studio, outfitted with a ventilation system and heating elements. She melts resin in an electric frying pan at 220 degrees for several hours and combines it with beeswax. She then puts them through a sieve lined with cheesecloth to remove bits of plant matter from the resin.
That mixture is placed in a metal tin with dry pigment and melted down.
Once she's satisfied with the textured base, Caughey starts out by making large brushstrokes - "creating chaos" as she refers to it.
"I could take every color in my palette and throw it on here and try hard not to think too hard. It's hard because it's counter-intuitive. It's very hard to pull colors and things that don't look good together, or a composition that may look horrible, but what happens is by doing that it'll set off all these warning bells," she said.
After she's made a purposeful mess, it triggers a problem-solving composition process - building up more layers, scraping them away, and adding darks and lights.
"It works for me, and what I love about this medium is it is a layered medium," Caughey said.
Each layer has different marks - if she tries something she doesn't like, out comes the razor blade.
She's brought home works from galleries and museums and done just that.
"It may be OK one day, but not OK the next," she said.
"It could be OK but if I feel like I could do better, I don't want to accept something that's just 'good,'" Caughey said. "I feel like at this point in my life I have nothing to work toward except the truest expression, one that I'm totally at peace with."
Caughey got her bachelor's degree in science and returned to school at the University of Montana to get her Master of Fine Arts after her children were grown.
She says that as you get older, the content of your art changes, and she prefers the route she's taken.
"I have to say that even though I could've pursued art as a younger person, if I had a choice I would definitely do it later," she said.
She's painted for 30 years, starting in realism and working her way through semi-abstraction to abstraction, which she prefers to painting the natural world.
"People think abstract art is a lot easier than other forms, but I think it's the opposite," she said.
"Nature to me is perfection, and the times that I've tried to capture something with paint, it's always disappointing to me."
In 2008, she saw a work by abstract painter Nicholas Wilton at a gallery in Bigfork. An employee told her it was an encaustic, which encouraged her to try out the medium. She's happy with the path it set her on, even though the initial inspiration was based on bad information.
"I later found out that, many, many, many years later, that the painting I had seen was not encaustic at all," she said.
Caughey began working on large-scale encaustic paintings last fall, including the works at Radius that measure 36 by 36 inches.
She felt like one wasn't finished, and revisited it after taking a workshop with Wilton.
"The emphasis of his workshop was on two conversations that need to happen in a painting," she said.
One was the "loud conversation," conducted by bold lights and darks readable from a distance.
The other is the quiet conversation - the smaller details that draw a viewer's eye when up close.
After returning, Caughey revisited a large-form encaustic called "Journey," up now at the Radius Gallery, and began reworking it with layers of larger, bolder strokes. She posted photos of the transformation on her website (pamelacaughey.com/blog) that shows its developing from a subdued piece dominated by white to its kinetic final form, heavy on blues and thick lines.
She says the next works will be more refined and more subtle as she works with the loud-quiet concept further. It's a new direction for her, one that makes her uncomfortable, which she doesn't mind. She sees it as a natural part of her process.
"Who are you? What am I as a painter? And the only way I'm going to find out is if I keep doing it, and keep messing up, and keep throwing painting on top and scraping it away, and that whole process is a revealing of yourself," Caughey said. "That's what I find fascinating about art. It is about you and your life and what you're trying to say. Sometimes you don't know until you've done it."