Colorful Layers

Encaustic artist Marc Kundmann creates rich paintings with pigmented hot wax

By Debra Lawless

When we think of fine art, pancake griddle, blowtorch and beeswax aren’t exactly the words that come to mind. Yet these are precisely the tools encaustic painter Marc Kundmann uses to create his vibrant paintings.

Working during the morning in a light-filled studio on Bradford Street in Provincetown’s West End, Kundmann, 52, paints with pigmented hot wax in a technique that creates rich paintings with a texture you can touch and see.

“Something about the way the light hits the wax makes it glow,” he says.

Encaustic is a Greek word meaning “to burn in,” and it is a process that may have begun in the fifth century B.C. Later in Egypt, encaustic funeral portraits were placed on mummies.

In the past decade or so, painters have rediscovered encaustic crafts. The Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill will host its ninth international conference on the medium in early June and the Provincetown Art Association Museum offers workshops.

Instead of a canvas, Kundmann begins with a hard birch panel. He sketches a light image in charcoal, then brushes on a layer of clear molten wax mixed with Damar resin. The resin raises the wax’s melting point and makes the painting very durable. Next, he flakes oil sticks into individual pots of wax to create his colors. A griddle keeps the wax liquid and doubles as a palette. Unlike some encaustic artists, Kundmann works with the panel held vertically. “Painting on wood, it has a bit of tooth,” he says. As he builds up the layers of colored wax on the panel, he gives the work-in-progress a few blasts of a propane blowtorch that makes the wax run and fuses each layer to the one below. Every scrape of a palette knife reveals the various colors of previous layers of wax. He also carves into the wax to create texture.

The “immediacy” of encaustic painting, which he turned to in 2006, appeals to Kundmann. “When I was an oil painter, I tended to overwork stuff,” he says. “The painting would get mushy. I’m not a very patient person. I can layer with wax, but quickly.”

And oh, the colors! “Posse” is a pair of 20-by-16-inch canvases depicting five men walking on a street. Kundmann’s palette in these particular paintings includes a deep terracotta orange that shows up on some of the men’s legs and bare backs. The long shadows of an endless summer afternoon stretch along the asphalt.

Provincetown’s light has been famous for more than 100 years, since the painter Charles Webster Hawthorne first came to Provincetown in 1899 and established the art colony. Hawthorne was struck by what he dubbed “a jumble of color in the intense sunlight.”

“The light out here gives you the license to be dramatic,” says Kundmann, who was born in Chicago and lived in Minneapolis until 1997. “You just witness some things—some combination of color and light. It seems unreal.”

You can learn to paint so easily here.”

In Provincetown, Kundmann has studied with, among others, Robert Henry, who himself studied with the famous abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann for three years in the mid-20th

During his nearly 20 years here, Kundmann’s art has evolved. He began as a plein air artist, and early on painted solitary figures and boarded-up houses. Kundmann often uses small boats and houses to stand in for people. In “Three’s a Charm,” three dinghies line up along a shore. What is their relationship to one another? Are they children? Two parents and a child? A love triangle?

“Humans are amazing,” he says. “There’s something mystical; you always want to know more.”

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