It all began with...

337Huron Waves David BrownHuron Waves 16x16, 2008 by David Brown – image from

Approximately 15 years ago I was invited by some of my OCAD classmates to go to an event at the Mockingbird called “SpeakEasy.” The SpeakEasy website explains explains itself  as “a monthly gathering of Toronto’s creative community. It’s an opportunity to network, share ideas, and

keep in touch with the pulse of Toronto’s creative professionals.” The Mockingbird closed down a long time ago but the SpeakEasy is still going strong.

SpeakEasy is now held at the Gladstone on the first Thursday of the month. I happened to be at the Gladstone for it’s anniversary party in which a number of artists were showing their work and many of the themed rooms designed by local talents were open for the public to view. In the corner of one of the gallery rooms were some pieces that caught my attention. It was as if I was looking through a window on a rainy day – as if the drops running down the window pane were partially obscuring the world beyond. Looking at them was like being part of a moment frozen in time. These pieces were beautifully transparent, wonderfully textured, paintings? – prints? I wasn’t sure what they were exactly. I checked the card and was surprised to see that these were indeed paintings and they were done by David Brown the founder of SpeakEasy.  

331 Prefix David Brown Prefix 29x16, 2010 by David Brown – image from

When I got home I fired off an email to David to see if we could meet and chat. This is why I found myself, on one of the coldest evening yet this winter, hustling my way through the Distillery maze and stepping into Artscape's Case Goods Warehouse. I had never been upstairs where the studios are located and as I walked through the halls I noticed its unique feeling of community. Most of the doors were open and I could peek inside to see what everyone was up to. Peeking in the doors as I walked I finally peeked into the right one. 

David was busy at work, paintbrush in hand, leaning over the paper that was taped to the worktable with green painters tape. When I said hello David looked up with a warm, welcoming smile. David is an encaustic painter and I had to admit to him that I had no idea what encaustic painting involves. He immediately pulled out boxes of wax, bottles of powdered pigments and clumps of resin.


David explained to me how encaustic is an ancient art form from 5th century B.C. He pointed to the cans of liquefied wax sitting on hot plates at his worktable. “The technique uses heated wax to which coloured pigments are added. Brushes are used to apply and shape the wax before it cools. It can be modeled, sculpted, textured, and combined with collage materials.“ He demonstrated how encaustic works by painting a line of black wax and then painting over the black wax with white and then red wax. He then used a sculpting tool and carved into the layers of wax revealing the ribbons of colour underneath. I was surprised when next he grabbed a heat gun. “The word encaustic comes from Greek and means ‘to burn in’, which refers to the process of fusing the paint.” David explained. He then turned on the heat gun and warmed up the layers of wax to fix them together. With a grin he then demonstrated how beginners tend to make a common mistake and I watched as, in a half a second, the heat gun had melted everything David had just created into a puddle – everything destroyed.

332To Burn In David BrownTo Burn In

Why encaustic I asked? David told me one of those wonderful stories of how passion comes from experimentation. One day he was working on a collage and saw a candle that was burning and the pool of wax that was collecting around the flame. He picked up the candle and splashed the wax across his collage. He loved the look and quality that this brought to his work. A few months later a woman saw these new creations and told him about the encaustic technique. He did some investigating and his love for the medium evolved from there. “It’s the alchemy that I like” he told me. It isn’t candle wax that is used it’s pure bees wax that has had the pollen removed so that it is white, not yellow. Bees wax is too brittle on it’s own so it needs to be mixed with Microcrystalline, a petroleum based synthetic wax. Damar resin is then added to toughen up the finish and to make the colour more vibrant. The wax is then coloured using powdered pigments. All of David’s colours are hand mixed.

326David BrownAlways start with a drawing – unfinished piece by David Brown

He begins every piece with a drawing. This stems back from his days as a student at OCAD. He was in the design program and one of the first teachers he ever encountered, Keith Rushton, taught him to “always start with a drawing.” Sometimes whispers of these drawings can be seen behind the translucent wax layers.

327Encaustic painting by David's son Lucas, age 6.

Another teacher of David’s is his 6 year-old son, Lucas. Children have an inherent freedom and uninhibited approach to life which is reflected in their drawings. His son showed him new ways of looking at the encaustic technique using stencils and positive/negative space in a different way. David is sad that he is also witnessing this inhibition slipping away as his son gets older. “Now all his people have 5 fingers,” David says with a sigh.
328Wingding David BrownWingding 20x30, 2010 by David Brown – image from

Not only was I interested in David’s encaustic paintings, but I was also interested in hearing the background story of SpeakEasy. This happened to be another one of David’s fun stories of things evolving from a simple idea into something much bigger.

After graduating from OCAD he and his friends felt removed from each other and from the creative collaboration that they had together as students. They decided to meet over beers to rekindle their friendships. It was a good night and they decided to make the get together monthly and by saying the first Thursday of every month was the easiest way to make it a regular thing. On one of these monthly occasions another of David’s friends phoned him to get some input on a project they were working on. David invited this individual to join him and his friends that night. The group had so much fun helping and discussing another person’s work that this became part of their monthly beer nights. Each time David would bring new work and new people until finally it evolved into an event. Space was rented and a small donation at the door was suggested to help cover costs. It is now a social part of Toronto’s art and design community. David isn’t sure how long he can keep it going though. As Queen west becomes more and more trendy, rents are getting higher. “I do not want to charge a cover fee. I didn’t start the SpeakEasy to make money. That’s not what it’s about. But I can’t afford to cover the costs myself if rent continues to climb.

335Hot waxHot wax

I began putting on my jacket as our chat was wrapping up but David insisted that I take it off and give encaustic painting a try. Totally caught off guard, I began with a drawing (more like a 30 second doodle) and then lifted a paintbrush out of a warm can. The liquefied wax was unexpectedly thin. I was too tentative with my movements and the red wax dripped across the worktable before I got it to my paper. Apologizing I quickly dragged the paintbrush across the paper. It was satisfying. I went to paint again but the wax had started to dry and the first stroked went all clumpy. I put the brush back and tried another colour. This time I used a very transparent lemony green. The wax dribbled off the brush again, splashing where I didn’t want it to splash. Frustrated I tried the black and this time I moved quickly, without thinking, in order to not make a mess. David reminded me that encaustic is different from paint. “You must work with the medium and not fight it.” He told me to try the sculpting tool. I dragged it across my masterpiece gouging out little wads of wax and drawing lines through the colourful layers. I wanted to see what would happen if I painted over these gouges with white and I ended up completely obliterating everything. I put the paintbrush back where it belonged… out of my hands.

329My attempt at encausticMy first attempt at doing encaustic... YIKES!

At the beginning of the week I had no idea about encaustic painting. Now I know what encaustic is, how difficult it is to do, and how wonderful it is to experience, thanks to my enthusiastic talk with David Brown.

336 Rocky Shore Line David Brown Rocky Shore Line 40x30, 2008 by David Brown – image from

David Brown: