I recently had the opportunity to do a batik painting, my first, and by 'do' I really only mean half the process which is the coloring in. The much more skilled part of actually drawing in the lines of wax, was done by the owner of the batik studio, Rashid. This part requires using a tool called the tjanting or canting which has a small container that holds hot wax and a spout. Controlling the flow of wax and actually drawing something at the same time is no mean feat.
Rashid's studio is in his garden, an open space without walls, a concrete floor and a tin roof, filled with long tables spiked with nails to position the fabrics. At the far end there is an assortment of dyestuffs and aluminum tubs for the pre and post preparative work. All along the side, between the studio and his house are pots of orchids, lots of them. When he showed me the two possible pre drawn fabrics that I could color in, an orchid and a hibiscus, it was an easy choice. The orchid looked roughly like the pale Phaelonopses that caught my eye walking in and I immediately thought, I could use that for reference for color. This wasn't so easy in its execution.
What colors do you want to use? he asked. A pale yellow/lime I said thinking about the color of the unopened bud. He went away to mix the colors, then came back to show me how to apply them. He used an electric lime to start the flowers and a bright emerald green for the leaves and a very deliberate use of water to produce a strong gradient effect with the bright colors. Not really what I had in mind and so began a lot more to-ing and fro-ing as he mixed new colors and I kept washing out and applying different ones to get a softer more complex color feel. He smiled politely, bemused by my preference for old aged colors and my disinclination for the vibrant ones but adjusted accordingly and by the time we got to the background, he got the pale purple I asked for pretty quickly.
Batik has deep roots in this part of the world. One reason might be that a key ingredient, damar resin, which is still used today, that raises the melting point and hardens the wax is from trees indigenous to this area. Sadly what might also have been a reason a plentiful source of plant based dyes, indigo, madder, turmeric to name a few have been displaced by the better performance of synthetic dyes. In Indonesia, although synthetic dyes are also prevalent, there is more adherence to traditional palettes and motifs and there is still plenty of the painstaking multiple resist and dye bath methods that create more complex batiks. Here in Malaysia the technique has morphed rather pervasively into this new batik shorthand of traced lines and one application of bright colors.
When I did get my batik in the mail, I really liked how the colors softened even more after the processing and I like how the colors resonate on silk. I thought I had made some fatal errors where some parts bled into others but the medium is quite forgiving, the mistakes much less apparent than expected. I'll have to pay Rashid's garden studio another visit, except this time, I will bring my my own drawing, a few different fabric choices, and a computer print of how I would like the colors to turn out. Now that should have an interesting result.