How A Seattle Artist Uses Beeswax To Build The Shapes Of Her City


Patti Bowman stands in her studio in front of her encaustic LEGO paintings

Artist Patti Bowman stands in her Seattle studio among pans filled with her encaustic paints.

To hear artist Patti Bowman describe the work of creating encaustic paint is to hear a woman deeply enamored by her chosen medium. “You melt the beeswax with damar resin—essentially tree sap that comes in crystals—and the resulting paint base smells like beeswax and juniper. It’s this beautiful, melted-honey consistency, and then you add the pigments. It’s beautiful to prepare—even before you make anything with it.”

Bowman spreads encaustic paint on to a panel

Bowman builds up her paintings layer by layer, applying heat in between.

Patti Bowman encaustic colorful LEGO paintings

Bowman's purchase of a LEGO mold to make chocolates ended up inspiring her to use them to shape leftover encaustic paints into sculptural paintings.

Close up of a LEGO encaustic painting

A detail of one of Bowman's LEGO pieces, shows the variations in the colors of the wax she uses.

Photos and drawings on a table

A table holds photos and drawings. For her landscape and cityscape paintings, Bowman shoots photos of scenes initially before translating them into paintings.

What Bowman makes with her encaustic paints are captivating works that explore the shapes and scenes around the Seattle area, the natural surroundings and sometimes meaningful landscapes from her past. “Because of the rain, everything glows here,” she explains. “Encaustic gives you that fuzzy atmosphere because the paint is translucent”—which makes encaustic and her subjects an ideal match. And Bowman has no trouble finding images to inspire her work. “I feel like beauty finds me when I’m standing on a street corner or getting out of my car,” she says. “It’s not about the place as much as it is about how the atmosphere today transformed that place to something different than it was yesterday.” She snaps a photo of a scene that compels her, combines elements from several of them to create an image inspired by a location and by her experience of being in that place. “It’s also affected by the process of painting and by playing with color and movement,” notes the artist. 

The process involves applying molten encaustic paint onto a panel and then using a propane torch to heat the surface, bonding the paint to the panel. Succeeding layers are built up by adding more encaustic paint and then fusing again with the torch. Sometimes the previous layer runs; other times, the artist can preserve a shape’s sharp edge. But if “a painting goes off the rails,” as Bowman describes it, she scrapes off the wax and is left with piles of the colorful remnants. 

After she bought a LEGO mold to make chocolates at home, she walked into her studio the next morning and realized she could cast the discarded wax in the LEGO mold. At first, the artist used the resulting bricks to play with color composition. “At some point, I started to really love the way they looked on the panel, all their snaggle-toothed surfaces,” she says. So, she found a way to fuse them onto the panel, and her LEGO series was born.

No matter what she’s creating, Bowman says she finds as much delight in the process as in the finished product. “There’s so much discovery,” she says.