A Rainbow Of Paint Colors Draws Visitors To Kingston

A paint technique perfected by the ancient Greeks today draws visitors from around the world to a small factory in Kingston.


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Photos by Joan Macdonald

R&F Handmade Paints is not only widely known for popularizing beeswax-based encaustic paints, but for its workshops which show students of all ages how to use a technique that might have decorated the boats of Homer’s Odyssey.

“The Greeks would seal ships with wax and resin then started adding color to it,” said Richard Frumess, who founded R&F in 1988. “That was rough encaustic. Then they refined it so they could paint panels. The only existing panels are funeral portraits done by the Greeks after they conquered Egypt, took on Egyptian customs and began to mummify their dead.”

The painted panels were inserted into mummy wrappings and those that survive today are often vibrantly colored, with a subtle depth that captures the personality of their subjects. After the paint’s use in ancient Greece and Rome, the technique fell into decline for centuries, waiting until the 20th century to be widely revived.

One reason for the decline may have been the need to heat the medium before application, but that became easier with portable heating tools. The paint must be melted, kept on a heated palette and applied hot. It sets quickly but can be reheated, with reheating producing effects that a paint brush can’t offer. Encaustic paint can be cast, carved, and fixed with objects to create collages and sculpture. The flexibility offers appealing advantages.

“Artists are drawn to encaustic for different properties, including the fact that it cools immediately and sets up into a very stable material,” said Frumess. “Plus, of course, there’s the opulent beauty of wax paint.”

Frumess was a pioneer in the revival of encaustic paint. When he started experimenting with encaustics the only U.S. art supply store that carried the paints had stopped. He began producing paint for them and when that business closed, he opened R&F, called R&F Encaustics at the time.

The paint company has moved several times, expanding to subsequently larger spaces. It was based in West Park and in Kingston’s Mallard Building before moving to its current location in a nondescript factory building, alongside a railroad crossing on Ten Broeck Street. Today, the company produces 96 colors of encaustic paint, as well as 103 shades of oil stick paint, which is oil paint mixed with wax to form tubes with a luscious consistency. The paint sticks do not require heating up.

“The oil sticks are lipstick-soft so you can use a brush, a palette knife or use them directly,” said Frumess. “Whereas encaustic is very process oriented, this is immediate.”

Increased environmental awareness may have played a part in popularizing the company’s wax-based paints.

“You’re not dealing with solvents, and its chemical composition is stable and safe enough so that when it's melted at proper temperatures you’re not breathing in toxic fumes.”  

One of the first things visitors to R&F may notice is how good the interior smells—not unlike a sunny summer day in a field full of clover. That scent can be attributed to the paint’s ingredients — beeswax and linseed oil.

The latter scent is something that Frumess remembers fondly from his childhood.

“When I was five years old my grandfather was an amateur painter,” said Frumess. “His apartment was across the hall from ours and when I went there he would set up an easel for me and an easel for him. I got my first smell of linseed oil there and it will never leave me. It never stops being magical.”

Frumess is not only enthusiastic about the paint he makes, but also the workshops R&F gives, which have helped to create a far-flung web of encaustic enthusiasts. A variety of workshops draw about 500 artists a year from as close as Kingston and as far away as Canada, Europe, and Asia. There are several-day, one-day and mini workshops, plus student workshops for high school and college students. Many of the people who attended workshops there have gone on to teach the techniques.

“In a sense what we did is create a network of encaustic painters. There’s a lot going on and we were right in the middle of it.”

Frumess, who was also instrumental in starting Kingston’s Midtown Arts District, rents space to artists and offers students a place to work on their art portfolio. More than once, a student who has attended a workshop wound up working at the factory.

Foreign artists who arrive for a Kingston-based workshop often find it difficult to believe that R&F is not well known among locals.

“I was surprised when R&F was not a household name in Kingston,” said Laura Feeleus, who traveled from Western Canada to brush up on her encaustic skills.

With more artists visiting for workshops and more paint shipped to Australia, Germany, Spain, England, and Mexico, increased paint production has already claimed the space R&F traditionally set aside for exhibits.

Is Frumess surprised by the growing popularity of the paint technique and his place in promoting it?

“Hard to say. We worked so hard to get it so popular,” he said. “Rather than surprised, I’m happy.”

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