Daniel Kaufman – Art at the Speed of Heat

By Roger Linnett

Most art is the result of painstaking effort that can often take weeks or even months to complete. Daniel Kaufman was never the kind of guy who could sit still that long to see the results of his work, which is one of the reasons he took up photography, graduating from Amherst College in 1973 with a degree in fine arts. His photographs soon began appearing in Life and National Geographic and other national magazines.

In 1977 he became the first artist to be awarded a Fulbright Fellowship after inquiring of the Fulbright-Hays Foundation why no artist had ever been recognized by their prestigious organization. Thus he spent a year working in Ireland, producing a beautiful photo essay book titled IRELAND: PRESENCES, published by St. Martin’s Press. While there he also conducted workshops at the National College of Art in Dublin.

Insatiably curious Kaufman turned from photography to more conventional artistic media and created critically acclaimed works in oils, acrylics, gouache and watercolors, but he bridled at, what seemed to him, the torturously slow method of conventional painting, which was a constant irritant to his always amped disposition.

Then one day, while watching his daughter Anastasia trying to melt crayons with a magnifying glass, he had an AHA! moment. Heating a spatula on a stove, he started melting crayons, pressing and smearing them like paint, ecstatic at the immediacy of this simple medium Kaufman says recalls “the smell of childhood”.

Not only did the crayons melt and then harden again in seconds, the melted wax was infinitely manipulable. He could reheat and rework any part of a piece with instantaneous results, giving him a freedom no other medium had allowed, and liberating him to try things other media had discouraged. “I don’t believe you can have fine art without some element of accident, but it’s not totally random,” he says.

A decade or so ago, after some experimentation, Kaufman discovered that applying several layers of gesso to whatever material – wood, flagstone, cement, masonite or canvas – he chose to work on, helped the base coat of wax to adhere, and helped prevent cracking. However, this base coat requires a dozen or more crayons of the same color for each piece.

Kaufman prefers white for this purpose, but since a box of crayons contains only one of each color, he was stymied. At one point he had resorted to using his daughter as a lookout at local drugstores while he changed out the white crayons from every box of Crayolas until he had a box of all whites.

Employing the same savvy that garnered him the Fulbright, he contacted the company that makes Crayolas, Binney & Smith in Easton, Pa., and sent them a sample of his work. Shortly thereafter he was visited by Crayola’s Manager for Inventor Relations and Innovation, who ended up staying three days to document Kaufman’s technique.

A week later a shipment of 20,000 white crayons arrived at his studio with their compliments. Several of his works now hang in the Crayola Factory Museum alongside Picasso and other famous artists who had created works of art using Crayolas.

Kaufman discovered better, faster methods of melting and working the hot wax, taking his art to a whole new level, and allowing him ever more freedom in its manipulation and the ability to create finished pieces in a remarkably short time.

Kaufman’s unique abtracts, what one art critic called “molten cloisonné,” have been exhibited in shows all across the country, where, despite commanding handsome prices, they have been eagerly snapped up by art collectors. He is currently represented by the Robert Berman Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, where his 2007 exhibition “Encaustic Perceptions” won citywide acclaim.

Kaufman recently completed two works commissioned by Binney & Smith for Oprah Winfrey based on two colors she liked so much she bought the rights to. One, of course, is purple – special shade dubbed “The Color Purple”, which he used for a piece called “Beauty In Motion” and the other called “Baby Grass Green”, for a piece he calls “Baby Grass Green Fairytale”. The two pieces, each 30” x 40”, complement each other beautifully.

Kaufman has donated one of his captivating pieces to the silent auction at this month’s Venice Family Clinic’s Art Walk. Be sure to make a point of seeing this unique work by one of Venice’s true artistic treasures.

What is Encaustic Painting?


The use of wax to create art, called encaustic painting, is one of the world’s oldest art forms. The earliest encaustic painting was done by the Ancient Greeks, and its name is derived from the Greek word “enkaustikos”, meaning “to burn in”. Greek artists used wax paint to adorn sculptures, murals, boats and architecture.

The Greeks introduced it to the Egyptians, who among other things, created portraits they affixed to the heads of mummies, which can still be seen today in museums. The encaustic portraits retain almost all of their original color and have remarkably little cracking or discoloration despite being over 2,000 years old.

And beautifully preserved encaustic wall murals, which somehow survived the hot volcanic ash and gases, were discovered during the excavation of the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

Categories: Art, Roger Linnett