Theresa Stirling creates modern art with an ancient technique
Montanans love beeswax. We seek it out in our salve products for the endless effects it has on our skin, protecting it against irritants while remaining breathable. It’s antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory, and now, thanks to Washington-based artist, Theresa Stirling, beeswax is the art on our walls.
She paints with molten beeswax, the natural wax produced by honey bees. This ancient art form is called encaustic painting and dates back 2,000 years, to the days when Greeks applied coats of hot wax and resin to weatherproof their ships.
The medium has come a long way from protecting ship hulls. Today, Theresa’s nature-inspired paintings decorate the walls of homes and businesses all across our great country.
We caught up with Theresa days before she was set to travel to Montana to guide the installation of her four-panel 160” x 160” ceiling mural for a Yellowstone Club residence in Big Sky:
Encaustic: The Process
I paint with beeswax. I heat it to 180-200 degrees Fahrenheit so it’s molten or melted beeswax, and then I slowly apply it to board, which is my substrate. The style that I’ve really found my voice in is known as photo encaustic. I typically paint over an image, although that’s not always the case. I have an image glued down on the board and then I apply the hot beeswax over that. I use clear medium, which means there’s a little natural resin or tree sap in there, and I use some that’s pigmented with oil paint or encaustic pigment sticks. I then apply fire to the beeswax once it’s down, working horizontally, taking care to fuse each layer to the one below it for adhesion and structural integrity. Most of my pieces have between 10 and 20 thin layers of beeswax. Wax has the appeal to me, in that you add layers but you also spend some time subtracting layers—excavating, revealing what’s below. Its luminous look is unlike any other medium.
Cold Wax Painting Technique
I’ve recently started working with cold wax, and it’s just a little different. It’s got the consistency of a paste. Once the mineral spirits dissipate, it hardens. Typically, you’ll find painters either gravitate to cold wax or hot wax. I’m now combining both, and it gives me greater flexibility and longer workability with some of my colors. It also offers more interesting surface patterns with fire. If I put down cold wax and oil and then pour some hot wax onto that, it sets up this texture on the surface that’s almost like stucco on a wall. It’s completely organic.There is fluidity and texture manipulation that you can get, and surface patterns that crackle. Sometimes I spray shellac to it and get what they call a “shellac burn,” which is visually interesting.
Using the Blowtorch
When I paint poppy pods or any organic imagery, I paint in the darker tones first, hitting those with my black pigmented wax and then working in those wonderful earth tones—the browns and the mushroom hues. What’s interesting is then you have to hit it with fire, and if you’re not careful, the fire can make everything run. There’s a learned touch to working with a blowtorch and wax. That finesse reveals itself over time.
The studio is a welcoming place. It’s awash in sunlight with lots of windows. It smells sweet like honey and beeswax. I listen to music most often. Lately, I’ve been listening to Jack Johnson and Chris Isaak. When I’m deep into a project, sometimes I break it up by listening to podcasts. That’s allowed me to lose myself, think about things, as well as focus, which sounds kind of odd but it seems to work. Podcasts have been a great way to round out how I look at the world—listening to other people who have perspectives on creativity or bringing mindfulness forward. The beach and paddle board are right down the studio steps, so there is always an excuse for breaks in nature.
Theresa & Montana
I have spent time in Montana fly fishing in the Bitterroot Valley and I have good friends who lived in Missoula, so I enjoyed college football games. The last few years, showing art and doing commission work have led me to Bozeman and Big Sky mostly. I haven’t seen enough but I’ve enjoyed the places I have been and will continue to spend a fair amount of time [in Montana]. I love it here.
I really enjoy the process of collaborating with the collector or designer for the space that the art is going into. For example, if it’s a space that can read well with a moody piece or darker tones, then we can really thread that needle. I’ll often submit a few suggestions or images and then I’ll do a variation of that. In the case of the ceiling mural that I recently did for a family in the Yellowstone Club, they had a vision and a dream and they shared that with me. I collaborated with my designer, and we worked it up graphically and gave them a choice of 10-15 images. Then I painted a version of what they agreed to, knowing that it will always be a painterly version of what we’ve settled on. That’s where I hope my work continues to flow. It’s meaningful, intentional, and deeply important work, with a sense of place or that tells a story.
It’s incredibly important to be good stewards, first of our household, then our community, and the wider world. My kids have helped me get back into caring for animals. We currently foster kittens for our local Humane Society. I really appreciate the endless love and support that we can give to the voiceless. Proceeds from art to help animals is a great loop. We have three cats, one dog, two bunnies, and two hens. We are what the Humane Society might call a foster failure family. I also invite teens to visit the studio and freely plunge into a project. It is so lovely to see them focus and unfold. I’ve also done some community DIY classes, more for bringing people together. My work has also been recently commissioned for a new Liver/Organ Transplant Wing at Swedish Hospital Seattle, to soothe patients and families during a fragile time. I’ve recently done small, gift pieces for grieving families, using a loved one’s ashes in the beeswax art. It’s deeply meaningful work, and I absolutely love what I do.