Learning from Artists: Renee Magnanti

Written by
Kirstin Ohrt
Nov. 11, 2022

Renee Magnanti Brings Over 30 Years of Encaustic Painting Experience to Students of ART 504

Artist Renee Magnanti gave students of Sam Holzman’s ART 504: “Studies in Greek Architecture” hands-on instruction in the techniques of encaustic painting.  Having worked in the medium for over 30 years herself, Magnanti has developed her own recipe and method and has established a singular style of carving in encaustic.  Her current work is inspired by world textiles and often incorporates text in the image.  

Artist Renee Magnanti shows a group of students her encaustic work

(Photo/John Blazejewski)

Professor Caroline Cheung and student examine Renee Magnanti's work

(Photo/John Blazejewski)

“My encaustic paintings are about women around the world and their contributions to the textile arts in particular and to culture in general. My early interest in pattern led me to examine and research textiles. I became especially interested in the work done by women as I increasingly studied the history behind these various fiber arts and the importance to the society that these objects held. Remembering my grandmothers’ crocheting, as well as their stories of doing piecework and working in textile factories, provided a personal history for my art as an Italian-American woman.” —Renee Magnanti

Professor Sam Holzman lecturing to students

(Photo/John Blazejewski)

Framing the workshop, Holzman explored the ancient origins of the encaustic technique, which was painted on ancient Greek temples and statues to add bold color.  He pointed to evidence of the use of encaustic paint on Greek structures in the 4th and 5th centuries B.C.E. in the form of inscriptions that make reference to it, an ancient Greek vessel depicting encaustic painters at work, and the results of new scientific analysis done on the Parthenon. 

Professor Holzman and two students work on encaustic paintings

(Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Encaustic is a special process because pigmented wax is applied and then melted in place. “I think you learn something about the process by seeing the wax change before your eyes,” Holzman commented. He encouraged students to imagine the risk and difficulties that must have accompanied heating the encaustic paint on scaffolding in order to apply it in situ. The medium was often preferred for architecture because it was more adaptable and weather resistant. “Not only was it used for paintings by famous artists in Greece and Rome, but it was used for decorating all kinds of things, right down to logs for funeral pyres,” Holzman commented.

Students painting hot wax onto boards with instruction from artist Renee Magnanti

(Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

“I create my encaustic works by first applying layer after layer of differently colored encaustic paint. Typically I paint about 40 layers in all. I also mark each layer with various scored, irregular lines. After completing this preliminary step, I transfer a design to the layered panel. Working with my prearranged design I carve into the panel making creative changes as needed. The work often includes text. Incorporating writing into my art, I seek to provide not only a context for the patterns that I work with, but the words also take on a pattern-like quality in how they are rendered.” —Renee Magnanti

Graduate student carves her encaustic painting

(Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Magnanti explained that artists who work with encaustic paint develop their distinct recipes and methods. In recent decades, ingredients are generally comprised of beeswax, damar resin, and pigment—though some artists include oil paints. 

Student using compass to carve into encaustic painting

(Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

First, students painted melted colored wax onto wooden or marble panels. A wildly adaptable form of art-making, encaustic painting offers many options for how to proceed from there. The process involves a limitless combination of building colorful layers, carving or stamping into them, embedding objects, and/or using the colored wax to paint an image.  Once students got to work, intense concentration and spirited whimsy filled the room—along with comments like, “This feels like sculpture!” and “Where’s command Z when I need it!”

“I usually like to work quietly in my studio, but the whirlwind afternoon with fifteen talented students was well worth the trip from New York City. I could barely keep supplying the students with hot pigmented wax, as they swirled gorgeous encaustic colors on wooden panels and marble slabs. From realism to abstraction, the students produced all manner of images.  Some experimented with collage, using the wax to bind the materials. Remarkably, a nitrile glove adhered perfectly, as did a small stone slab; the wax held handily. I was impressed! I commented to one eager participant that their completed works could be in MOMA. I meant it.” —Renee Magnanti

Student embedding a glove and carving into encaustic painting

(Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)