BRIDGEPORT — After her sample tile was slathered with wax, torched, painted and scraped, artist Jenny Learner handed it over to a group of her students.
"Take this," she said. "Are you getting that smell? Like flowers. Like honey."
Learner is among a small group of American artists practicing the little-known art of encaustic painting, which uses a form of paint derived from melted beeswax, pigment and resin-like damar crystals. The method dates back to ancient Greece.
Learner, a former mural painter, said she discovered encaustic while browsing an art collection inside a tony Lincoln Park mansion, where the homeowners displayed original work from Japanese artist Hiro Yokose, considered a master of the medium.
"I've been in homes where there are Picassos and Chagalls and you're not supposed to react to that. But this was amazing," she said. "It was the first time I ever wanted to touch and smell art. After that, I got every kind of wax I could get my paws on."
Now, she teaches encaustic painting from her home studio on the North Side, at the Lillstreet Art Center in Ravenswood and from her color-splashed studio inside Bridgeport's Zhou B Art Center, 1029 W. 35th St.
During a recent lesson in Bridgeport, she dipped a brush into a tin of melted cobalt-blue wax, then smeared a pair of thick lines on a tile, which she then heated with a blowtorch and let spread.
The students at first seemed a little intimidated, likely with good reason — Learner said one of her students has accidentally started a fire.
As the students watched, Learner, 56, embarked on a series of applications that included scratching up black and gold foil-like papers, more wisps of colored wax, more torching and more smearing.
With each new layer, the work transformed into something different but left behind traces of its former self. That process of adding new dimensions — sometimes accidental — can last for days, Learner said.
One popular method has encaustic wax applied atop photographs, lending the pictures a hazy, dreamy quality. Learner has even started working with a bioluminescent pigment that's "charged" by bright light and glows in the dark.
The flexibility and forgiveness of the wax is part of the reason why Learner and others like encaustic: It's basically a creative free-for-all that can yield everything from realistic portraits to textural, abstract works.
Barb Loevy, one of Learner's students, is a former high school art teacher who fell in love with the layering process of encaustic.
"Everything has a history," she said. "It's like life. Nothing gets lost."