A recent two-day artists’ workshop in “wax-resist techniques” provided loads of food for thought not just about this artistic process but also about the importance of thinking ahead to what you are trying to achieve…and how to get there.
Illustration: Tulum, Yucatan Mayan structure in ink wash (Higgins waterproof black India ink) with wax marks, charcoal, Conte crayon, and Char-koal pastels by Black Elephant Blog author
It is normal to fall back too readily on what we think we know and on what we expect to see, and this blocks our ability to learn new things and see things in new ways– which is so fundamental to art, innovation, business success, and progress. As Ed Catmull, the author of Creativity, Inc. (Random House, New York, 2014) writes, “the best managers make room for what they do not know… not just because humility is a virtue but because until we adopt that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur.”
As a newcomer to the wax resist technique, however, I found myself falling back onto old habits and ways of thinking. Without a doubt, these were blocking my ability to internalize and apply these new approaches. The wax resist approach, like any other truly artistic approach, benefits from taking a great deal of time studying the subject first.
“This process insists that you have a goal or else you get into trouble,” warned the instructor. “The wax is not forgiving,” he said. “Everything you don’t plan” comes back to bite you.
The process involves repeated washes, first with plain water, and then ink washes, and a lot of intervals of drying the paper.
Illustration: Drying the paper after one of the ink washes (after an initial waxing of the image)
This activity needs a large workspace that is forgiving of water drips and ink splashes! The stipulated paper dimensions in this workshop were large too, so as to better capture details with the wax. This paper takes a beating, with multiple washes, and being hung to dry on a line after each wash (often after some time on the floor so that still wet ink wouldn’t run down the page.)
What is difficult to realize ahead of time is the repeated and gradual nature of the process of building up the darks and the clever use (not over-use as in the example here) of the wax. This is not about painting or “rendering”, but it takes a while for the novice wax resist-user to grasp this.
Illustration: Photo of some of the materials used in the ink wash and wax resist project
Now that class is out, there’s so much to practice. Fortunately, the necessary supplies are readily available–such as Gulf Wax which can generally be found in a grocery store. It’s the thought process that is more difficult to acquire. It takes time and guidance, persistence, and, for the best results as demonstrated by our instructor, clearly some enormous talent that few of us can assume.
This workshop was an extraordinary learning experience relevant to much more than art. It underscored the huge gaps in our thinking processes when it comes to learning how to re-perceive what is right in front of us. Such ability to reframe the obvious in new lights (and darks) is key to achieving anything artistic, let alone the sort of breakthrough innovations we increasingly acknowledge are needed for (nothing less than) the future of the planet. Strategic and design thinking come together in use of wax resist in this process, as well probably in other applications, such as watercolor painting.
Illutration: Watercolor and pen and ink sketch of Mayan structure at Tulum in Quintanaa Roo, Yucatan by Black Elephant Blog author
For goals of still larger scale, such as enabling a global transition to a low-carbon economy, how to create environments that can accelerate our ability to grasp these ways of thinking will be the subject of future posts. The experienced artist who also is an effective teacher has a crucial role to play in the transition to the needed new thinking.