in bed with… R and F

which in this case is not quite as exciting as it might sound at first as R and F is the same and one man: Richard Frumess! (Designed R&F and chosen because Richard felt it was a bit more impressive than the one man show it was!)

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Richard, a mellow, charming artist and person, is the founder of R&F paints, a company that specializes in “waxy” paints: pigments sticks and encaustic paint are their two main products. Nestled in an old brick warehouse dating back to the 1890’s in a sleepy little up state New York town, Kingston, the factory seems at first a place the world has nearly forgotten. (But hell no, busy as waxing bees in there as you’ll see!) Still, all seems pretty casual and easy going. The sheriff and I even had a little coffee together this morning is a sort of trendy cafe while I was trying to rewire my brain and assemble some intelligent questions after a rather strange night of dreams interrupted by the very loud goods trains that seem to haunt this place… But in the R&F factory cum admin cum workshop cum lab this is much worse: the tracks virtually cross the middle of the cafeteria gallery! (It does remind me of a delightful villa we used to go to on holidays on the Ventimiglia coast when I was a kid and through which Mussolini decided the trains had to go but that really is another story.) However, there as here, conversation halts mid air for two minutes of imposed silence now and then. Richard says placidly it can be a bit trying for a while but that he doesn’t even notice or hear them anymore… And it gives me a bit of time to really think through the next question, which I’m liking!

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R&F was not born here in 1988 but in a too low ceiling-ed basement in Brooklyn… much less convenient but, you know, bit more trendy… especially that it was the paint making arm of the Torch Art Store that first supplied Golden acrylics to the world AND supported Richard’s friend, Carl Planksy, the founder of Willamsburg oils (almost called Old Brooklyn after Carl’s training with Old Holland but again… if trendy… not quite right for a serious oil paint!) Legend was in the making on that bit of planet though while all these talented artists / paint makers were trying to make their mark on the world’s canvas and coming up with great new products and tools for the late twentieth century artist. Now the dust has settled, some companies have survived, many have not and Richard confesses owing much of his survival to his first partner who took care of the finances and now to the delightful and savvy Darin Seim who presides on the firm’s destiny. “I was never anything but an artist, never was good at business and, these days, well… I stick around, do research. Have even gone back to the studio… 27 years later!”

He’s being modest I think. But to know your limits and get good devoted partners and workers is important. They are now 12 in all and most, that have been around since their art student days, are parents and fully settled in the area. Some came and moved on to become full time encaustic artists and they are spoken of fondly while their works linger in the little gallery R&F supports here too. Those who have stayed are making paint -which is great because, believe me, getting right these complex mixes does take some practice and being an artist yourself would definitely be a plus-, some are also creating new colours or active on the admin and management side of things. But all of them share the same passion. To quote Richard: “these guys are fanatics, they just don’t give up!”

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Although there have been others before her, meet the only female ‘fanatic’ paint maker operating right now at R&F!

Some of R&F’s mixes incorporate up to five separate pigments but today on the mill is a paint which is a mix of three colours… brown, red and deep blue, can you guess what the final colour will be? As always, that desired colour will be tested against the reference sample, time and again, until the “fanatics” get it right. Because, strangely enough, you can measure your pigments very very carefully but when you make the paint it comes out a little different, so you have to refer to the Mother colour and play it by eye from there.DSC00727Batches are small. As Richard quite philosophically explains “Oil sticks don’t really sell that much and encaustic paint is for the connoisseur”. So little batches it is. Only 300 regular 38ml pigment sticks at a time. And there might not be that much choice anyway because waxy paint is sort of heavy, even messier than most and not so easy to put through the mill in big quantities I would guess. To make the sexy blocks of encaustic paint, pigment and Damar resin is first stirred into the melted beeswax (which has been filtered without the use of chemicals)… then the whole thing goes through the mill.  Oil sticks or rather, as they call them here, pigment sticks are milled like a normal oil paint but then about 15% wax is added at the end to help it stay firm in its divine lipstick shape… which will become that amazing drawing paint tool in your hand later. No driers, fillers or adulterants of any sorts are added. It’s all about impeccable quality here. The mix of natural waxes chosen for their properties (bee or plant waxes and none of the paraffin added by some other companies) makes their pigment sticks, for better or for worse, softer than other brands but again, as in life, it’s all a choice, right?

Another very personal choice here is the colour chart. Richard doesn’t seem to believe in round colour wheels but neither in the usual linear stripes on the racks! They don’t really help the artist he thinks. When they are sort of squarish with greens not too far from the teals and close to the blues, it simply makes more sense. It’s more about kinship than formality… This is how their ranges and their charts are set up -even their delightfully messy help-yourself-pigeon-holes in the workshop space (is messy even the right word I now wonder? maybe intuitive or organic are better ones). In front of it, Richard shakes his head: “I don’t know how this got to be so crazy, but it is terribly crazy” and that seems to sum up for him the whole adventure!DSC00728

Because, of course, in the R&F factory there is also this beautiful space in which they give endless ongoing support for their not so well know media (you can go there too for a workshop with guest artists or demo days… just visit their website). Very early on, Richard understood that preaching for his chapel and exhibiting great results achieved with encaustic paint or pigment sticks was going to make THE difference. The first had not really been used for centuries (in a way so totally different from now it is virtually not the same medium), the second had never existed at all… some serious convincing had to happen!

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In an odd way, the more I listen, the more I get to understand the long and somewhat lonely road Richard has had to walk to reinvent the wheel… formulate his encaustic paint, test it and retest it on the mill, go from there to the pigment sticks, create molds suitable for the cakes, for the sticks, create a suitable ground: a specific encaustic gesso, create a suitable support: wooden boards that will do the job, create then recreate a packaging in which the sticks would not melt, etc. etc. Unlike another modern paint, say acrylic that has attracted endless research (maybe for other uses than artist paint as they are so versatile but still), not only everything about these new art materials was to be invented but Richard was pretty much on his own as well.

Richard with the first generation of stick moulds.
Richard with the first generation of stick moulds.

Also -and I do hope I am getting this right- it does seem to  me encaustic artists and paint sticks lovers are simply not mixing their paints like any other paint/painter. Just about everything about both waxy media seems more hands on, more straight onto the surface or support, less precious or precise than in the “normal” paint world. (Please don’t cringe in your seat but share out loud if this is not the way you use them!) The result of this is also why, I imagine, there are some very original colours on the R&F chart, akin to no other range. Hey maybe these colours could be mixed rather easily, and maybe again in another medium, but I find them still truly useful and interesting and… not seen elsewhere. Some are definitely ‘drawing’ colours like Sanguine Earth in deep, medium and light, or the Sepia. But others also ravish like Celadon Green, Dianthus pink, Scarlet extra pale or Provence blue (course I’m a bit on the biased side here coming from that part of the world!). These are lovely colours which could easily grace any other chart but meanwhile make this one a very special range. When I question Richard about them, he concedes that every paint maker has their idea of what a line should be, which is why they all are different. But when you make hand make your paints (not just throw percentages in a mill) you get such interesting results. “Look at our Courbet green, it’s a mix of an earth colour, Cad yellow and Prussian blue. It’s dark and sombre up there on the draw down but in the middle tone your start seeing that bluish green and then, down there, it gets really earthy as you really rub it in and as it activates the earthy colour. And look at this one, the Sanguine… it has that sort of pinkish earthy look, like a clay even. It was made to resemble a Conté crayon. But we wanted ours to become purpley when darker. To make it richer. These colours, because of their complexity, will play with other colours differently. In that Payne’s Grey you can bring out that violet undertone against a green which can make it look sort of charcoaly. Against a red it won’t as much…”

After listening to a few more lyrical explanations, I’m pretty sure that the poet-artist behind the written descriptions of the R&F colours (the best on the market by a long stretch) must be Richard himself… see for yourselves:

Cadmium Lemon, series 5: Slightly off key and acidic next to the other yellows. It creates hard accents. Next to cadmium greens it is more on key and turns sweeter.

Dianthus Pink, series 3: Gaudy, in-your-face, ultra-sweet, violent, vivid, outrageous, hot-house pink. More intense than deKooning’s pinks, but adding a little white easily takes it down.

Prussian Blue, series 3: Deepest, reddest of all blues. Powerful and very, very velvety. Slightly grainy texture. May not be absolutely lightfast in tints.

Indigo, series 3: Very dark, blackish-blue top tone. Earthy greenish-blue undertone. Has an edgy feel to it. Great for line work.

and on and on… I could read it to myself every night before going to sleep! But maybe I’m waxing lyrical a tad so might leave it at that for now with the recommendation that you try them if you dare and a warning that soon after… you too might go on the waxy side!

before...
The lovely, impeccable pigment sticks: Before…
and after!
and after!

PS: I know you want to go straight to Kingston for a workshop now but, until that dream comes true, I cannot recommend enough a visit to the R&F website, it’s pleasant and informative with useful technical support and safety/set up suggestions. It also explains quite well why using oil paint directly with encaustic medium might not be such a great idea because of the oil to wax ratio for example. And then too you get to see their square wheel chart and read more wonderfully poetic colour descriptions when clicking on each one…

PPS: If you might want more technical info on pigment sticks in general, please go to my oil sticks page.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank you for this wonderful, generous post about my favorite paint manufacturer, and my favorite paint! Since you seem open, let me be the first to lend a resounding “Hell no!” to the part where you write,

    “it does seem to me encaustic artists and paint sticks lovers are simply not mixing their paints like any other paint/painter. Just about everything about both waxy media seems more hands on, more straight onto the surface or support, less precious or precise than in the “normal” paint world. (Please don’t cringe in your seat but share out loud if this is not the way you use them!)”

    All artists have to find their own vocabulary with their chosen medium, and wax is no exception to this rule. Some artists might work in the way you describe, and that’s fine, just like oil painters who use color right out of the tube. But there are all kinds of ways to work with wax-based paints, using approaches that are both hands-on and more removed. I cannot deny that there are wax enthusiasts, but most encaustic painters I know mix color to create a palette that expresses their aesthetic, and are participating in the discourse of contemporary art.

    Thank you for the opportunity to share out loud!

    1. So happy to hear from you Laura. I have discovered your work thanks to Richard mentioning you and googled you later and I do like what you do very much. Thanks also for sharing out loud… that’s exactly what I hope this little blog will be… a platform for (good!) art materials lovers and a place to exchange experiences.

  2. Thanks so much for your reply and for taking the time to view my work. I hope more artists write in with their experiences, because from my perspective it seems like there is a particular way of courting this medium – it begins with total infatuation, then, like in any relationship, the hard work of sticking to it begins. Best regards!

  3. catejudson says:

    So great to hear you are getting more involved with encaustic and especially R & F! After 5 solid years of encaustic only practice I agree with Laura completely.It is a medium that is very seductive.And it requires much of the artist in the technical preparation and it’s skillfull use.AND it demands more of me as a painter in the thoughtful mixing of a palette,planning of the work and patience in execution!
    Cate Cormack

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