Swirls in his Coffee

Murmuration at Shift through Aug. 30.

"I Found You My Love", Encaustic, 20"x30", 2014

“I Found You My Love”, Encaustic, 20″x30″, 2014

 Kevin Piepel is all in on his intricately worked encaustic paintings.

For the past five years Piepel has devoted himself to perfecting encaustic techniques, employing five different torches to coax layers of colored wax “like cream swirling in black coffee”—until he reaches a moment when he knows the work is done.

I allow the paint to drip off the edges, resulting in an organic, undulating edge revealing the evolution of each painting in strata of colors”

“I allow the paint to drip off the edges, resulting in an organic, undulating edge revealing the evolution of each painting in strata of colors,” he said. “ I use my torches as an oil painter uses brushes.”

His torches range in size from a tiny, jeweler’s instrument to a large, utilitarian torch—typically used for brush clearing—that can produce an impressive, three-foot blue flame.

His largest torch has reduced his initial wax-melting to mere minutes and significantly aided the beginning stages of his work. Still the labor is intensive and physical—not to mention on fire. Kevin said his practice of meditation has helped him to quiet his mind after a few hours of heavy concentration so he can stay connected to the lava-like flow of wax.

“It takes an incredible amount of concentration,” he said. “If my mind starts chattering too much I’ll use techniques like signing lyrics over and over,” he said. “The words don’t really matter. It’s just something to use so that my higher self can respond without the verbal mind trying to interfere.”

In the past, Kevin has also used wood working, pottery and etching tools to sculpt or incise into multiple layers of his wax surfaces but this time he pared it way back by simplifying his process to use only wax—three hues each of white, blue and green wax—and sticking just to torch work.

“Typically in the past I’d make two or three paintings and perhaps one of those wouldn’t work out. But this time it was 11 paintings in a row that all work.”

My mind fell silent,” he said. It was as if seeing a previously undiscovered species. The mass of birds swirled and twisted in the sky. The flocks expanded and contracted like sentient plumes of smoke.”

His subject matter may have played a part. Kevin said he was “mesmerized” a little over a year ago after watching a video of thousands of starlings in their customary, undulating flight pattern over a river in Ireland.

“My mind fell silent,” he said. It was as if seeing a previously undiscovered species. The mass of birds swirled and twisted in the sky. The flocks expanded and contracted like sentient plumes of smoke.”

Kevin immediately thought the birds in flight would make a good subject for a show—and he discovered the arcane word “murmuration,” which describes the much-studied starling flight pattern that scientists have attributed to the way in which each bird mysteriously follows the lead of another so that they know exactly when to turn and sway in the sky as rapidly as skaters twirling on ice.

The imagery of starlings swirling in flight quite suits Kevin’s customary swirls of wax in his paintings.

“The patterns and the imagery that I’m making are symbolic of life forms,” he said. “These forms are very figurative and they do their own things together—they interact like characters on a stage.”

I thought, I love this. I don’t know what to do with it and can’t control it but it was fun and so I took it from there.”

Previously, Kevin had worked in other mediums. He holds both a BFA in printmaking and a BA in studio arts from the University of Washington and at one time he pursued a course in graphic design with the idea of becoming an illustrator. But life interceded and he veered into widely varying work at Daniel Smith, Microsoft and Group Health before fully coming back to art.

When he discovered encaustics through an invitation from Shaun Doll at Northwest Encaustics to try it out he was hooked. “I thought, I love this. I don’t know what to do with it and can’t control it but it was fun and so I took it from there.”

Now Kevin doesn’t worry so much about control because he understands a key element in encaustic painting is to allow the wax to have its way, with a nudge here and there, and then to preserve its most beautiful expressions.

Said Kevin of Murmuration: “I think it’s kind of the culmination of everything I’ve been doing with encaustics. I’ve purified the process so that it’s just flames and wax and tight symbolism and as a tight a color palate as I can get but still have the work be kind of lavish. I’m happy with the refinements I’ve made.”

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