A Dialogue Between Imagination, Curiosity, Imperfections and Desires

I began my exploration of mixed media by altering the surfaces of photographic paper very early in my career. My original work involved shooting with a 35mm camera, developing Tri-X film and printing in the darkroom. Because this process is long and includes so many hands-on aspects to complete a print, each step had places where I could personalize the imagery to my unique style. But when the prints were dry, and I picked them up, I was never satisfied; there was something missing. 

During this time, I was studying inspiring artists like Marcel Duchamp, Gerhard Richter and Robert Raushenberg. I also enjoyed the surrealist painters, such as Dorothea Tanning, and was passionate about Peter Beard and his bloodstained, journal-influenced collages of animals and fashion models. I would look at all kinds of art, advertising, painting and magazines; I visualized my work with words and textures, brushstrokes, color, paint, torn edges, depth and layers – thus my journey began.

My first mixed media pieces were collages involving black-and-white photographs, vintage tissue paper and old wallpaper. I used a painting medium called Galkyd to combine these elements on substrates. They had layers of translucency, color and pattern and looked old. I also made books filled with collages, contact sheets, poetry and found scraps of paper. I made daily small sketches to work out ideas, color palette and composition. Still, the collages weren’t exactly what I wanted to create; the resin medium wasn’t right, and it was too messy for even my photographic aesthetic. I know photographers are clean people – I was a photographer’s nightmare. In college, when my peers were spotting their photographs, I was rubbing fiber prints on the gravel of the sidewalk outside the darkroom. I wanted to alter the surface and mark the prints to represent an emotional urgency, adding feelings into the imagery.


My experiments continued through undergraduate and into graduate school at California College of Arts in Oakland. There, I reached out to the painters and split my time between the darkroom and the painting studios. During this time, a teacher gave me the greatest lesson I’ve ever learned: she said it was my weaknesses and the things that irritated me about myself that were perhaps my greatest assets. They made my artwork unique and gave it identity. This concept empowered me to believe that the altered surface, personalizing imagery—even destroying photographs—was a path to fulfill my vision.

Shortly after this epiphany, I discovered wax—not candle wax, but encaustic paint, organic beeswax and pigment. It was by accident as I searched the art store for items to collage and materials to test. I bought my first bar of organic beeswax in graduate school and made one piece with it—a black-and-white image mounted on a panel. I found an old pan from The Salvation Army, melted the wax and poured it over the photograph. The photograph disappeared temporarily as the wax moved elegantly across the image and rolled over the edges of the panel. After it cooled, the image returned, unveiled and beautiful. Inspired, I began teaching myself the possibilities of wax—painting, drawing and marking the surface. The wax was the perfect fit for all of my artistic desires.

After graduate school, I moved across the country back to my hometown of Philadelphia, where I began my multifaceted career as a teacher, wedding/portrait photographer and a fine artist. I also created a small book company called Bliss Books—custom albums that incorporate my love for translucency, overlays, double exposures, design and text. All of my endeavors involve hand-working and hand-made pieces. I thrive on the physicality of the art process, like sanding photographs with sandpaper before I wax them, or shaving the wax and using pottery tools to alter the surface.

In 2006, I collaborated with a partner (photographer Susan Beard) to start Waxworks Photo in an old factory building behind my house. We intended to make my encaustic wax pieces for other photographers at wholesale prices to they could up-sell them to their clients. They would send me images, and then I would wax, paint and ship them. The attraction was to have a one-of-a-kind, hand-painted piece of art from a wedding, boudoir or maternity photograph. I made all kinds of pieces, and was honored to be on television, teaching and making a wax piece with Martha Stewart.


In 2008, I began to teach workshops using my encaustic photography process in U.S. cities and other countries. I also teach three to four workshops at my studio each year. When I teach in other artists’ studios, I send a shopping list that includes: a hot plate, old pan to melt the wax, a cookie sheet or two for pouring and brushing the wax, a couple of R&F oil sticks in your favorite colors and a few R&F encaustic bars, paint brushes, some organic beeswax, a few photographs on various papers, turpentine, and some Yes! Paste. Other supplies that come from the hardware store are sandpaper, paint scrapers razor blades and wooden panels or cut up pieces of plywood.

Once the supplies are purchased, it’s a matter of getting dirty. I teach mostly photographers who are compelled to add another unique commercial product to their studios or want fine art exhibitions and opportunities. My dear friend, wedding photographer Elizabeth Messina, included me in her Lovely workshop in France a couple of years ago, and before the trip, I went to Elizabeth’s studio in Los Angeles and taught her my process. Her images are so crisp, soft, strong and graceful—mixed with wax, they were a delicious combination.

I teach two processes for my work: In the first, I mount a photograph to a wood panel with archival glue, and when the glue has dried, sand the piece with sandpaper, smooth out the edges and add whatever designs, textures or marks that may enhance the piece. I melt bleached beeswax in a pan at about 225 degrees so that it’s liquid and hot. Then I pour the wax over the photograph and let it cool. When it cools, it’s translucent so that I can see my image underneath. Then I use oil paint and Galkyd medium to paint the surface. I can paint parts of the image abstractly or simply glaze the surface to tine, adding the appearance of brushstrokes.


My other process is about paper: I truly love paper (thick, thin, wax, dry and old paper). Paper and wax are a vulnerable, fragile combination without the substrate, but maybe that is why it’s so beautiful. I use gelatin silver paper or any organic inkjet paper (like the Hahnemuhle photo rag). I brush the wax onto the paper; I can use the brush to make a lot of texture or a little. The wax is forgiving and generous, elegant, silky and translucent. It can be gentle or rough depending on the needs of the artist. Once wax is on the photo there are many possibilities. Words can be inscribed, colors can be added, and layers can be taken away. The single most amazing part of the process to me is the art of give and take, the ability to add wax and paint, then take it off and add again until the perfect or idealized surface is achieved.

Each part of my life as an artist fuels the other parts, and together they nourish my spirit. Most of all, I am inspired by art, mixed media photography, and the art of learning. Currently, I use an old broken view camera with light leaks and dry rot in the bellows, and I develop my own film in darkroom trays. I print in the darkroom on gelatin silver paper. Recently I discovered that glossy fiber paper could crack if you folded the emulsion, making whimsical fractures appear in the image. These very organic and fragile moments of life really excite me: the mixtures of materials like wax and silver, brushstrokes and oils. Encaustic photography is the realm beyond just the print; creating images with depth and dimension, surface happenings and emotion.

Photo Credits

All Photographs Are © Leah Macdonald

Leah Macdonald Photographer Bio

Leah-MacdonaldGrowing up in Philadelphia my life was rich with art and a diverse source of cultural experiences. I discovered photography while attending the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr. I took my first college course at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I thought I would become a photojournalist. However, plans change and as an artist I have always been very experimental.

I moved to California and received my Masters and Bachelors Degrees in Photography and also began my career as a teacher and a mixed media artist. About 10 years ago I returned to Philadelphia and focused on my career. I am a college educator at The Philadelphia Art Institute and a commercial photographer. I teach mixed media workshops from my studio and on location as well.

My diversity and experience in the realms of photography, encaustic painting and mixed media continue to merge and compliment one another. A stained photograph and a ripped corner speak of life’s lessons. Each texture is ultimately important to me. My work is close to home and reflects my true self, it hints to my flaws, and I embrace beauty and expression.

Blog / Website: Leah Macdonald

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