Debra Gaines’ new challenge, ancient technique

"Quiet Mooring," a mixed-media encaustic. — Photo courtesy of Debra Gaines.

Change might be one of the only things we can guarantee in life. Most artisans find change in small increments as they hone their craft. But Debra Gaines, a photographer whose name is associated with flowing Island landscapes that feature dramatic light and shadows, has shifted to a different medium and mixed-media technique: encaustic painting in combination with photo images.

Ms. Gaines explains the ancient art form, also known as hot wax painting, which incorporates colored pigments with heated beeswax applied to a surface, usually of prepared wood.

She begins by mounting a photograph on a gesso-coated board. “The photograph is sometimes the whole background, and sometimes it is just an element of it. I then take purified heated beeswax — and with or without color, place it over the image. I like to incorporate other elements as well, like sand or a scallop shell that gives it more texture. Finally, I paint on the top of it, as the paint brings out more detail.”

Ms. Gaines, who with her husband, pastel artist Warren Gaines, operates Debra M. Gaines Fine Art (open by appointment), is organizing her studio so visitors can come by and see her work in process.

She sounds enthused. “I was looking for more of a challenge,” she says. “I came across the encaustic method when I was with my daughter in a Philadelphia museum, and saw work that successfully merged photographs and encaustic. It spoke to me.”

Her new skills were learned working with Leah Macdonald, a encaustic artist and teacher who divides her time between the Island and Philadelphia. In their intensive sessions Ms. Gaines learned “the important steps in the process and all the things that could go wrong.”

She continues: “When I photograph for encaustic it is with a different eye. Typically or very rarely would a photograph that I take for encaustic be presented as a technical photo. I have to visualize a finished piece, but that is the most difficult thing about encaustic as I can’t always visualize it as I am still acquiring the skills.”

What hasn’t changed is her wonder for open spaces and light. “What I love about the encaustic method, what really drew me to it,” she says, “is that it highlights the luminescence of an image, and that is what I love about photography. It is all about the light.

“I also like the suggestive quality of encaustic, where as with photography things are distinct. With encaustic you can highlight areas and it gives the artist license.”

Rarely does she depict people in her photographs, and the same is true of her encaustic work. “I am branching out from [Island specific subjects], which is a great thing about encaustics…Not to be cliché, but some people buy things based on their memories — like ‘Oh that is South Beach,’ or ‘That is West Tisbury,’ but with encaustic they are drawn to the image.”

Ms. Gaines has embraced the new artistic form, without neglecting her photography. She does double duty when she is out finding images to photograph, setting up for both processes. It is a balancing act made tougher by the fact that the encaustic art process is a much lengthier one.

To help with her time-management skills, Ms. Gaines has had to make some major changes to have more time for creative process. She and her husband are only exhibiting at the Artisans Festival in the Grange Hall in West Tisbury, Louisa Gould Gallery in Vineyard Haven, and at Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs.

“I also swore off taking any assignments this year, portraits or family sittings. That was a big decision as it is a big source of income, but I wanted to focus on the art and not on assignments.”

And clearly, it’s a direction that Ms. Gaines is happy to follow: “The challenges are inspiring. Encaustic is a technique that allows me to emphasize the third dimension, and that’s a goal of photographers — to be able to create a depth of field on a flat surface.”

Opening reception at Old Sculpin Gallery on Sunday, July 24, 5 to 7 pm, featuring the work of Debra Gaines, Ben Scott, Marston Clough, Brian Fitzpatrick, Bob Fitzgerald, and Teresa Yuan. Show runs through Friday, July 29. Old Sculpin Gallery, Dock Street, Edgartown.