Artist Jasper Johns and his iconic encaustic flags

Barb Toland Featured Artist

Today I'm going to let you in on a crazy thing about me... I'm a middle child.

<<insert scream or wry sense of knowing my pain here>>

That's right — the one who was always in hot water for something, even if I didn't do it! And when those around me were quiet, I was always wondering what kind  of trouble I just might be in lol.

One thing about being a middle child is that in general, we sometimes feel pulled in multiple directions by life. Which is something we're going to focus on today — especially when it comes to our artsy, creative brain.

Btw, you don't necessarily have to be a middle child to feel that way. The more alive your creative spirit is, the more you might have difficulty staying focused.

I have happily enjoyed watercolor painting for the majority of my artist adventure. But once I gained skill & confidence with that, I started feeling the *oh so familiar* middle child tug to branch off into something else.

Thus far I've dabbled in oil pastel, gouache, watercolor pencils & probably some others. But the ONE that I've fallen head over heels for is encaustic. 

If you aren't already familiar with it, encaustic is a medium consisting of beeswax & a touch of tree resin. You melt it in a pot, and by adding various other pigments & ephemera, one can create an encaustic painting and/or mixed media piece.

Here's a link to a blog post I did about it if you'd like to learn more.

Also, to see some encaustic work firsthand, here's my collection of larger encaustic pieces.  Be sure to look at some of the close ups, so you can really see some of the details of the encaustic wax. You can see it really well with this piece: Waterlilies: Ode to Monet, especially when you click on some of the close ups.

Also below more examples of encaustic pieces I've created in the past. They combine a print of some of my watercolor work, and then are overlaid & worked with the encaustic wax, creating more texture. (I've also included several close ups so you can see more clearly the texture of the encaustic wax):





"Salut to Day's End" and "Tree of Life"
12" x 12" Encaustic, mixed media
mounted on cradled wood panel

(These 2 pieces are for sale at $125 each + shipping.
If you'd like to purchase, send me a msg.)

Have I mentioned? I LOVE LOVE LOVE encaustic!!!!

Don't get me wrong — I also am totally in love with watercolor, along with the other mediums I've talked about.

So therein lies the rub...

I enjoy working in watercolor and encaustic. Plus watercolor pencils, oil pastels & so many others have wiggled their way into my heart — that I just can't decide narrow it down to just one!

And you know what? For quite a while now I thought I had to choose, so I could focus my energy & increase my skills on one particular medium.

After struggling over the past few years trying to decide, I've given up the fight! And I'm so friggin' relieved lol. The more I work with multiple mediums, the more I've discovered how delightful they are, and how much they inform each other when I let them dance together!

Today we're going to focus our attention on an amazing artist, and in particular his work in encaustic. And, because of my middle child tendency for lack-of-focus, it was such a relief for me to discover that in one of this artist's most well-loved encaustic pieces ever — he combined his love of encaustic, with oil paint & collage. So I feel like I'm in pretty good company ;-)

This prolific & famous artist who did a number of encaustic pieces back in the 50's & 60's, is none other than Jasper Johns.

He's currently still on this earth, and quite successfully working as an artist, although I don't think he works with encaustic much anymore. His flags were probably his most well-known & loved work from those encaustic days...

Flag , 1954
by Jasper Johns
42" x 60" 
Encaustic, oil & collage on fabric
The Museum of Modern Art, NY

I'll share some close ups of this piece in a minute, so you can get a better feel for the enormous amount of texture & sculptural effects an artist can get when using encaustic.

But first, let's spend just a few minutes talking about Mr. Johns & his background.

He was born in Augusta, GA in 1930, and then raised in & around Allendale, SC.

As a young adult, he studied at the University of South Carolina for a few semesters, but like so many emerging artists of that time — he decided to hitch his star to the lights & glamour of NYC.

He said of his childhood in the south...

"In the place where I was a child, there were no artists and there was no art, so I really didn't know what that meant. I think I thought it meant that I would be in a situation different than the one that I was in."

Now that's not so true today, there are many wonderful artists thriving & living in the south. But in the 1950's, he felt isolated in the rural south for his creative nature, and needed to plant his dream in the furtile creative soil of the Big Apple — along with so many other creatives of that time.

So at 24 yrs old, after experimenting with his art & rubbing elbows with other artists in NYC, he created the encaustic piece "Flag".

He was one of several artists during the 50's & 60's who took everyday images, subjects & symbols of that time, and made them into works of art, all while leaving the interpretation of the piece completely up to the viewer.

He went on to create a whole series of flag paintings thru the 50's & 60's.

So here's some close up sections of Flag where the beauty of encaustic, I think, really shines:



Isn't it amazing???!!!

Here's a description of his experience, from MOMA's website...

“One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag,” Johns has said of this work, “and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it.”
Those materials included three canvases that he mounted on plywood, strips of newspaper, and encaustic paint — a mixture of pigment and molten wax that has formed a surface of lumps and smears. The newspaper scraps visible beneath the stripes & forty-eight stars lend this icon historical specificity.
The American flag is something “the mind already knows,” Johns has said, "but its execution complicates the representation and invites close inspection."

What a beautiful piece chock full of texture & layers. Makes me want to dig out some old newspapers & some fabric, and get to work!

If you want to know more, I encourage you to take a deeper dive by checking out this 20 minute Youtube video of Jasper Johns & his work.

Knowing you love art as much as I do, don't worry if you can't narrow it down to just one medium to collect or create.  You can choose to buy (or make) them all!

Jasper Johns did. Plus, like I have found thru experimentation & exploration, you just never know when they'll decide to dance together ;-)

As always, I'd love to talk art & creativity with you. If you want to chat about this or anything else artsy you have on your mind, scroll down & leave a comment. I'll be sure to talk art with you!

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