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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist
The Art Of Batik

       Dyes, Wax, Tjantings

I had learned to love the wood block prints of the Ukiyo-e school of 18th and 19th century Japan from my Fine Art degree studies in Edinburgh. Artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige were incredibly influential to us at the beginning. Just as the Japanese print makers had designed one wood block print for each colour to create their incredibly complex pictures, we were learning to break down our images into their constituent colours tones. In attempting to make our designs more and more complex, we found that there was less and less room for improvisation or spontaneity.

Unlike oil painting where artists can paint and repaint their picture until they are finally satisfied, batik artists have only one shot at getting their design dyed on the cloth. As soon as the hot wax penetrates the cloth, the colour dyed under that wax is permanent and cannot be altered. If you've made a mistake in the waxing, you can try to change your drawing to accommodate the error but mostly you have to learn to live with it. We found that it was incredibly easy to make little errors in the work and that it was in fact almost unavoidable. Essentially, occasional spilt wax was the nature of the beast. After so many years of work in the medium, I still often make errors, some only noticeable by me. But I do it frequently enough to remind me that no-one ever stops learning and that absolute control of the medium is always relative. Possibly I've become better at camouflaging my mistakes but no sooner do I congratulate myself on the superb control that I'm demonstrating, than I make a mistake. Another tiny blob of wax falls where it shouldn't. All I can hope for ultimately is that the error is not too great and that the element of chance inherent in the technique will work for me rather than against me.

Of course I find that element of chance very attractive. One never knows quite where a crack in the wax will occur and where the resulting vein of colour will fall. Some of my batik paintings have a web of cracking so subtle that it serves to unify the work without really being noticeable. I have a beautiful batik portrait of Catherine which is completely ruined by a chance black crack running right between her eyes. It's hard to feel anything but real frustration sometimes for the process is usually very slow and most batiks take at least three weeks to realize. In a sense, each batik resides in the lap of the Gods until it comes back from the Dry cleaners with the wax removed. Only then one can see how it turned out, for during the process, as one dye is superimposed upon another and then covered with wax, it gets harder and harder to see what the true colours are. Over the years I've obviously learnt more and more control over the process and a number of techniques and tricks to minimalise my mistakes. But in the end, one has to rely on one's experience and the benevolence of those Batik gods on that particular day.

The blissful tedium of the waxing process shouldn't be forgotten. I estimate that about forty hours of waxing are spent on each piece. Each piece represents long lonely hours spent standing on my feet hunched over the cloth. The batik has been stretched out on a wooden frame which rests on a waist-high table. Most of the decisions have all been made, only the dye colours can be altered at this stage and I'm fairly confident in my craft skills at this point.

My right hand holding the tjanting returns automatically to the wax pot and I scoop the tool into the pot again to refill it with hot wax before bringing my hand back over the table to cover the next area of cloth. My left hand, holding the upturned tennis ball, automatically moves in under the tjanting's spout to catch any dripping wax. The half tennis ball serves as a perfect receptacle to catch any wax that falls which can later be squeezed out of the rubber shell and reused. I begin to fill in another little space with wax . After a minute, the wax cools down and I have to reach out for more. As my back begins to ache, my mind starts to wander. I always listen to music when I work and random thoughts start to form in the void created by the monotony of my actions and the cadences of the music. Waxing has always been an enormously relaxing process for me and for a man without a conventionally spiritual outlook or outlet, it is as near as I come to meditating. I suppose that it's the prime time that I get to spend with myself. After twenty years, I think that I've learnt how to wax really fast and using both small and large tjantings plus brushes for the larger areas, I can knock off the heaviest waxing in a morning. Thus saying, I go a little too fast and spill drops of wax irrevocably across the branches of a tree in the landscape that I'm working on. "It's a magnolia tree and those are flowers", my mind kicks in automatically. "Or maybe I could make them into clouds showing through the trees or seagulls.............. or even flying saucers........"

       Suicide Blond or Dyed By Her Own Hand

For some reason, I've never been able to remember jokes. Considering the number that I must have heard in my life, it's amazing that I can only remember perhaps two or three altogether......and that's including "Why did the chicken cross the road?"! One of the other two jokes that I can remember must come from the early Sixties by the sound of it. It isn't very funny but it goes like this: Why did they call Marilyn Monroe a Suicide Blond? Because she died by her own hand. A pretty pathetic joke but it leads me somewhat uneasily to dyes which of course provide the colours in the Batik process.

I've always loved dyes and dying cloth. As a teenager I used to buy cheap dyes and change the colour of my clothes in buckets at home as my tastes and trends changed. I once used our bath to dye some jeans black which got me into a lot of trouble. When I first discovered batik as a school teacher in Oxford, I found that there were some pretty good British dyes easily available and that's what we used in those first experiments.

When Marie Luz and I first started to work together in Barcelona, we really had a lot of fun scouring hardware stores and pharmacies in the narrow twisting streets of the old areas of Barcelona. Every now and then, we would uncover great caches of long-forgotten dyes. They were mostly ancient and came in little rock-hard pastilles which I would quite literally have to attack with a hammer before grinding them down to a usable powder with an old metal spoon. It took a lot of time to prepare these old dyes which often came in strange, exotic and unfamiliar colours like rose madder, old gold or (very sought after) cerulean blue. A good find would be very exciting for us and cause for great celebration. Probably most of my work before I came to America was created using these old Spanish dyes. We would add salt as a fixative and they would fade quickly in the sun or after repeated washing of the cloth. But the colours were often lovely and clear and I learned a lot about mixing dyes and creating different colours.

When I came to America, finances and ignorance dictated that I continued to use dyes that were readily available in drugstores all over the country. They were either in powder or liquid form, were easy to use and once again salt was the requisite fixative. But I soon became aware of other dyes on the market, dyes that were made specifically for Batik, were much faster ( ie. lasted longer) and relatively easy to use. My dyes had to be cold rather than hot water dyes for of course, hot water would melt the wax on the cloth. I found that there were various appropriate dyes on the market but after experimenting with different kinds, I settled upon one kind which I have used almost exclusively for the last ten years or so.

These dyes are Fiber Reactive dyes, which I found to be widely available from art stores and mail order catalogues all over the States. They are called Reactive dyes because the dye stuff is quite inert until it is dissolved in an alkaline solution. The alkaline brings about a reaction which causes the dye to bond with the fiber involved. Fiber reactive dyes develop colour inside the cloth rather than on the surface which improves light and wash-fastness. They are designed specifically for vegetable-based fibers like cotton, linen or rayon. With the addition of a mild acid such as white vinegar and the gradually raising of the temperature of the dye bath, Fiber Reactive dyes may be used with protein-based cloths like wool, silk or even nylon. Washing Soda is the alkaline activator and common Table Salt levels the colour of the dye and improves its solubility.

To dye one pound of fabric, the basic proportions are two and a half gallons of water to a tablespoonful of dye powder, 40 tablespoons of salt and four tablespoons of soda. I have to confess that at this point I rarely measure out my dyes and chemicals very carefully but rather gauge the amounts by eye. I use only a few dye colours and mix all my colours from them. My basic dyes are lemon and bright yellows, scarlet, cobalt, navy and turquoise blues, dark brown and black. Sometimes I use a different blue, fuschia or a warm red and there are several different black dyes, with base colours ranging from a dark green to a violet. Mixing dyes is just like mixing any paint and accuracy comes with experience.

The process is relatively simple for immersion dyeing. The fabric should first always be washed to remove any starch or sizing on the surface of the cloth. Next the dye should be made into a paste and then dissolved into a cup of hot water. The salt should also be dissolved in two quarts of hot tap water and both dye and salt solutions should be added to the remaining two gallons of cold water. The fabric should be immersed in the liquid for a few minutes before adding the soda, which has been dissolved in a warm solution of water. The dye bath is now activated. The liquid may be stirred occasionally and the longer the immersion of the cloth, the deeper the resulting colour. After a couple of hours, the solution begins to lose potency and will eventually stain rather than dye the cloth. After twelve hours, the dye colours may not be true or fast.

I have learned to leave my fabric in the dye for a little bit longer than seems necessary for the colour always drops a little by the time the cloth is dry. If I hold the fabric up to the light and look through it, I can get a pretty accurate idea of my final colour. When the dyeing process is finished and the desired colour obtained, the fabric may be rinsed carefully, so as not to dislodge the wax on the cloth. The longer that the fabric is kept damp, the more fixed and permanent the dye will be. I generally lay the batiked cloth out on a table and let it dry slowly between layers of plastic. After a couple of days, the fabric is usually dry enough to be rewaxed or, if finished, is ready for the drycleaner who removes the wax for me. The wax may also be ironed out by placing it between sheets of newspaper and running a hot iron over it but that is a tedious and messy process and some residue of wax will always remain.

To apply the dyes by brush locally to the fabric, I mix up water with a little Urea which is a moisture-drawing agent and keeps the fabric damper, longer during the drying process, ensuring deeper, brighter colours. I dissolve a little seaweed thickener, Sodium Alginate, in the liquid which inhibits the spread of the dye. I add one teaspoonful of soda in solution and as much dye powder as I need to a cup of this chemical solution. My dye is then ready to be painted directly onto my cloth which should then be dried slowly under plastic sheeting. As with the immersion dyeing, the dye mixture gradually loses its strength over a period of several hours.

Dyeing, like living, comes with practise and both, in theory at any rate, improve with time and experience. I suppose that I create my colours almost intuitively at this point. A mixture of lemon yellow and turquoise dye result in a very different colour to that produced by a mixture of bright yellow and turquoise. A warm red with a bright blue dye can result in a brown tone whereas the same red combined with navy blue produces violet. A true black is the most difficult colour of all to dye and I've been known to keep a fabric immersed in dye for days or even weeks on occasion to get a really dark tone. I could spend another lifetime playing with different dyes and still not exhaust all the permutations, combinations and resultant colours. In my own work, I'm probably locked into some familiar dye colours at this point and know exactly how to achieve the tones I want in my batiks. But flesh tones continue to be mildly problematic for me and the results are still not always predictable. I have learned to use reds mixed with browns and then heavily diluted with water for those colours which, like skin tones all over the world, often vary enormously. Dyeing, like living, doesn't always come easy as poor Marilyn found out.

       Waxing Lyrical

I suddenly became very interested in wax. There were several kinds of waxes, I discovered, clear paraffin wax, amber coloured beeswax and an inexpensive substitute called microcrystaline wax. The latter was a deep brown colour, was very soft and usually used by sculptors as a modeling wax. If I used only paraffin or candle wax on the cloth, I found that the brittleness of the wax caused it to flake off easily. Even taking great care, I found that it cracked too much also and my early pieces had far too much of that veining effect on them. Too much cracking often obscured the picture itself. So I learned to cut the paraffin wax with the softer wax and ended up generally using a third of the soft waxes to two thirds of paraffin wax. Lately I have used a higher proportion of soft wax to brittle wax to eliminate as much cracking as possible. The only problem with that is that the softer wax is much more viscous and thick. It flows much more slowly and cools too quickly for easy use. I suppose that the perfect wax blend comes with experience and that different mixes are appropriate in different batiks. In the end, good representational batik mostly comes down to control of the wax and the secret to that lies in finding the perfect wax temperature. I found that when the wax started to smoke, it was too hot, spread too quickly and was uncontrolable. When the wax was too cool, it couldn't penetrate the cloth, lay on the surface instead and allowed the dye to slip beneath. The perfect heat lay somewhere in between and once found, the temperature of the hot plate should be maintained at a low setting.

Back at the beginning, we discovered that if you painted wax on both sides of the cloth, the wax acted as a surer dye repellent and that the colours were cleaner and brighter. Likewise, when the wax was thicker, the cracking was clearer. And we learnt to mix all our dye colours from five or six basic colours, as I still do.


Three years went by before we even heard of tjantings, the traditional waxing tools which enabled one to do fantastically intricate work. A Tjanting is a traditional Javanese tool generally made of copper and wood which is used to apply the hot wax to the smallest areas of cloth imaginable. It basically consists of a small copper tube or bowl with a hole on top and a narrow spout at the other end. The tjanting is held by its wood handle rather like a pen and is dipped into a pot of hot wax. The wax is scooped up into the tjanting through the opening on top and flows out through the spout onto the cloth. Maintaining the correct wax temperature is all-important and the copper bowl keeps that temperature for about a minute before it cools down and the wax begins to harden. In fact, tjantings come in all shapes and sizes. The Javanese and the Balinese artists use rather fragile tjantings made from paper-thin sheets of copper wired to bamboo handles. They hold the cloth almost vertically with their left hand, applying the wax with the simple tjanting in their right hand whereas I stretch my cloth out flat and work on it from above. The Javanese batik workers that I have watched are capable of much finer work than I can do. But then they are often repeating one motif again and again and have a thousand years of wax flowing in their veins. After twenty five years, I am still very new at this game.

Although I have seen and used traditional tjantings, bowl shaped and even large German rectangular-shaped tools, I have always found the streamlined tjantings, now often made in China, the easiest and most efficient to use. Thicker copper causes the tool to keep its heat longer and the wax to flow longer while the shape, pointed like a spaceship, ensures that any excess wax runs down to the point of the spout and doesn't drip off the bowl onto the cloth. I've seen tjantings with two or even three little spouts which are good for producing regular rippling lines on decorative pictures but not much use to the exacting batik painter.

But in the early days, we did learn how to do incredibly detailed batik work using tiny brushes although it took us much longer. I'm sure we wasted a lot of time and energy in the first few years and our total vision of what one could achieve in batik was very limited at first. In time we learned that our vision was the only thing that limited us and saw our technique gradually improve. With this refinement of the technique, our work became a continual redefinement of the art.

tjanting tools
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