Talking about encaustics of industrial landscapes with CAW member Kellie McDermott

IMG_3216Kellie McDermott is working around the clock on her upcoming exhibit,Luminous Landscapes, at the McConnell Arts Center in Worthington. In addition to her studio, she has a temporary set-up in her basement with all the necessary supplies. With pools of wax melting in a muffin tin on an electric griddle, Kellie joked that she has co-opted her mother’s kitchen gifts for her art practice. She uses these melted, pigmented waxes to create encaustic works depicting industrial landscapes, a subject matter that has fascinated her since childhood.


Save the date for the opening reception of Luminous Landscapes
Thursday, March 5, 6-8 PM.

What was your first foray into working with encaustic?

Before I knew it was encaustic, I was in college my senior year (at CCAD) only about six weeks away from my senior thesis show and I felt like everyone else knew what they were doing. They had their themes, their oil paints, their sculptures and I still had no idea what I was going to do. I was panicking. So one night in my tiny apartment on campus, I was sitting on the floor at my coffee table sketching. For a while I had done sculpture so I had a bunch of slabs of slate laying around. I started doodling with charcoal and some ink on top of the stone. I was very frustrated because it looked terrible. I took a candle that was burning on my coffee table and just dumped it over the whole thing. To my surprise, I was really excited about the way the drawing was coming through behind the transparent wax. From that moment of huge despair, I had that aha moment. I started practicing on little, tiny panels with charcoal and inks with wax over it. From there, I developed a more solid technique and created an entire thesis show based around architectural streets and cityscapes using the wax and charcoal.

Please describe the process of encaustic.

I start with a hard board panel to support the structure of the wax. If I am doing a smaller scale [piece], I have a hot plate melting a muffin tin filled with beeswax and Damar resin. The wax needs to be hardened by that resin. I tint [the waxes] with either powder, oil or encaustic pigments. As they melt down I’ll apply layers and layers of wax using natural bristle brushes – usually working light to dark. Then I will start carving in some details with my paring knife before adding more details with wax. Finally, using an encaustic stylus pen which is like a hot inkwell pen, I go in and pull out the fine details like the telephone lines or very sharp shadows. Every time I do a layer of wax, I use the industrial heat gun to seal it back in. Encaustic really means “burning in.” Fusing each layer of wax to the previous layer makes it stable.


Do you consider the process of encaustic more like painting or more like relief?

Maybe in the past it was more painting, but now I am using it more as relief. I go back and forth – addition, subtraction. So it’s pretty much fifty-fifty. I’ve watched tutorials on YouTube about how to do encaustic, because I am pretty sure I am doing it completely wrong. Their whole thing is to work on a very small-scale and make it as smooth and glasslike as humanly possible. To me that goes against the material. If something has such beautiful texture and can be worked with in such a tactile way, why not pull that out? Why subdue its natural tendencies?

You create mainly industrial landscapes, what attracts you to this subject matter?

I grew up in West Virginia and my small hometown had that early 1900’s “stopped in time” feel. The old architecture and original buildings weren’t kept up; they had broken down. I really was attracted to that from a very young age. Along the river and along a lot of the roads, there were always these massive factories and refineries. I was mystified that you had this beautiful countryside and this lovely river and then across were these billowing smokestacks with fire spewing out. Every fifteen minutes or so there was another and another and another. I found the contrast really striking. I have always been so fascinated by abandoned spaces. Always having the story of what was there before – the legacy of the building and what it meant.

Your work employs fairly high contrast – how do you strike the right balance between light and dark?

There isn’t a lot of nature in the encaustics. I try to show it through the sky and the light – have that be the nature of it. How do I know when it’s done? I usually go way too far and take my trusty paring knife and start carving the layer off. There is something called too dramatic, and I go there every time. I take it over the edge and I bring it back in.

Road to Chillicothe II by Kellie McDermott

What do you mean by “deconstruct the details”?

A lot of time I use my photography as references and I find that if the image is too clear or too detailed, I will get mired in the little windows and structures. I will start noodling too much on the individual elements instead of looking at it holistically. Sometimes I’ll just smudge out entire areas, not really abstract them, but deconstruct them. Instead of getting so into the small details, the focus can be more on the feel of the entire piece.

Why do you usually work in series?

By the time I figure out what I’m doing with one composition or one color palette, I want to explore a little further and see if I can make it better the next time. Essentially every time I start a new piece it is a new experiment because I have no idea what the wax is going to do, where the colors are going to take me, or how they’re going to mix together. The first one is the experiment and the second one is making sure I’ve covered all the bases. And if I really like it, I’ll do a third and fourth, but usually no further than that. Then it’s just redundant.

You finish the image around the edges of the panel. Why do you do that?

I like the idea of having a structural piece. I like the visual appeal of it. I’ve always done it, without questioning it. I treat these more like objects than paintings. Especially the way I carve them and really dig into them.

Road to Chillicothe I by Kellie McDermott
Window Wall by Kellie McDermott


Your upcoming exhibit, Luminous Landscapes, will open at the McConnell Arts Center in March. How do you approach a show? What is the biggest challenge about exhibiting a large body of work?

The biggest challenge is deciding what to paint. The important thing with a big show like this is keeping a balance between the different compositions, color palettes, and styles – and to show a variety of pieces that still have the same concept. I usually take a blueprint of the space and start laying it out, deciding what sizes where. This is basically for me to decide how many pieces and what sizes do I need. Is my color palette too blue? Is it all yellow with one strange blue piece? It is a lot of background preparation to find the right balance.

Visit to view more of Kellie’s portfolio. In addition to her upcoming exhibition at the McConnell Arts Center, she is planning to exhibit at the newly remodeled exhibition space at the Columbus Airport. That show will run from May through August 2015.