‘Like Photoshop, but IRL’: Ancient techniques create modern art from graffiti in Manayunk

A pair of Manayunk artists use “encaustic painting” to turn their photos into something new.

Encaustic painting — which created these images — was first used in ancient Greece

Encaustic painting — which created these images — was first used in ancient Greece

Susan Beard; Leah Macdonald

Proof that great artistic minds think alike: When Philadelphia photographer Leah Macdonald first started pouring wax on top of her photos, she didn’t realize she’d stumbled onto a centuries-old art form.

Called “encaustic painting,” the technique was first used in Greece more than 2,000 years ago.

“Photography is really cool, but there’s sort of this dead space after you take this picture and you print it and it goes into a mat or a frame — you’re like ‘what else can I do with it?’ ” says Macdonald, a 46-year-old Philly native who shares a Manayunk studio with fellow photo-artist Susan Beard.

“I was just doing my own thing, melting wax and pouring it over boards. I started coating photos with wax, I painted on it, and added stamp marks or text. [It was just] trial and error.”

Both Macdonald and Beard are full-time commercial photographers, shooting everything from destination weddings to corporate headshots and bar mitzvahs. But Macdonald’s accidental discovery of encaustic painting some 20 years ago while she was experimenting with mixed media materials in graduate school inspired a sister company, WaxWorksPhoto, where the pair get to flex their fine art muscles.

Sometimes, the worlds collide. During a recent wedding shoot at the Penn Museum, Beard bumped into an encaustic painting from 600 BC. “Ancient Greeks were coating the wooden hulls of their ships with wax and pigment to prevent water from coming in, and also to add color,” she explains. “And Egyptians painted the likenesses of their pharaohs.”

“Street Art,” the studiomates’ current joint show, features encaustic paintings by both women, and though they’ve been working together for decades, it presents two very different takes.

Beard’s work draws a strong parallel between street art as a dynamic presence in urban landscapes and the methodology of encaustic painting itself. By layering and scraping and painting with wax and pigment atop photographs of graffiti she captured on a 2014 trip to Southern Spain, she mimics the way street art is often covered up, plastered over, stripped down and added to over time.

Says her artist’s statement: “Without any preplanned agreement, the unaware participants created a playful canvas that somehow made perfect sense. [It’s] a conversation of many, maybe even hundreds of people over a long period of time.”

Layers and layers of imagery make up 'Little'

Layers and layers of imagery make up 'Little'

Susan Beard

Black vignettes around the scenes draw the eye in, so the focus on central images. In “Little,” a frame of ombre highlights a young girl who’s quizzically examining a graffiti rendering on a garage door — it shows the Three Little Pigs, characters with which she is likely already familiar. It’s almost indiscernible which layers are Beard’s and which are part of the organic detritus of the scene she so vividly captured.

In Macdonald’s work, the notion of street art is less literal.

A model draped in an ethereal veil is deliberately posed in front of stark cityscapes — in tunnels, beneath barbed wire-topped walls, on overpasses — often next to graffiti, by well-known artists and newcomers alike. Macdonald describes her approach as “making femininity into a fairytale,” and the results are at once haunting and beautiful. Big, rich swoops of gold-pigmented wax and ominous black splashes dot the black and white photographs, creating suggestive, almost arachnoid shapes, coils, and conspicuous splatters.

Swirls of wax and paint turn a photo into something new

Swirls of wax and paint turn a photo into something new

Leah Macdonald

She views encaustic painting as a way of “taking back digital.” It’s editing and altering an image — similar to what would be done in Photoshop — but IRL, with tactile surface and depth.

“We’re photographers first and painters second,” says Macdonald, but she credits the painting layer with adding a lot to the conversation. Technology, she says, has led to abuses of the art of reproduction. “The fact that we can easily recreate things either old or new and have that quantity and abundance…I think takes away from the time and skill and attention energy you’re giving one work of art.”

Indeed, encaustic painting is one of the few art forms where what you remove is as important as what you add — the process involves scratching and scraping away layers of wax. Check out a video demo below.

A selection from “Street Art” will be on display at Nicole Miller (4249 Main St.) during the Manayunk Arts Festival on June 25-26, and likely a few other locations along Main Street, too. It’s also available to view by appointment at the WaxWorksPhoto gallery (123 Leverington Ave.)

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