The Art of Embracing Imperfection

Encaustic mixed media. ©2015 Lee Anne White.

Encaustic mixed media. ©2015 Lee Anne White.

I don’t consider myself a perfectionist, but intentionally embracing imperfection in craft does not come easy to me when I have spent years trying to improve my craft.

A year or so ago, I began a journey into the art of encaustic photography which, in its simplest form, involves embedding photographs in melted beeswax and Damar resin on a wood panel and then fusing with heat. Of course, the real beauty of encaustic medium is the ability to experiment—to print on different materials, integrate other objects, add paints and pigments, and create texture of all kinds. In the course of doing these things, the work gains depth and a sense of mystery, and is often transformed into something entirely different that only hints at the original image. It requires letting go of expectations, as the melted wax has a life of its own that tends to be unpredictable. It also means letting go of the attachment to my original photograph—the one I worked so hard to compose and expose properly, and that I likely spent a great deal of time spotting to remove the dust specs and imperfections.

It’s that letting go that I both love and hate, and which holds me back if I allow it. Another encaustic artist I admire had an interesting suggestion: Start with a photo you don’t really like. That turned out to be more difficult than expected, too. How to choose a photo I don’t really like? Why would I want to work with that? What would make me choose it?

Encaustic photo. ©2014 Lee Anne White.

Encaustic photo. ©2014 Lee Anne White.

I have screwed up so many encaustic panels attempting to embrace imperfection that the process itself has presented a sort of solution. I periodically take that stack of really bad pieces, melt the wax off, and start over—often on top of damaged images that remain glued to the panel. Sometimes I only melt off some of the wax and start there, instead. And then I give myself permission to experiment with new techniques—to play and have fun and make a mess rather than trying to create a work of art. Part of that process is distressing the panel—scraping, stabbing, scrubbing, pounding, gouging and such. In doing so, I find techniques, new elements and color or material combinations that work for me.

Admittedly, I’ve “wasted” a lot of wax this way. And I end up with odd pieces that don’t work together as part of any grouping or project. But that’s how I started as a photographer, too—“wasting” a lot of film by shooting anything and everything, mostly making bad images at first, but discovering glimmers of hope and excitement along the way. So I will continue embracing imperfection, letting go of expectations and playing in the studio.