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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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In retrospect, she did me a tremendous favour for without that sudden sharp push, I might never have taken the step of becoming a professional artist.I packed up my few possessions and we closed up Mi Casita rather sadly.Once more, we took the great overnight ferry back to the Mainland.Little did we realize that it was a boat ride we would take at least fifty times during the next seven years.

We first went to live with the young Chileans at her old apartment but that scene all fell apart very suddenly.It was revealed that they had taken her rent money for months and had never paid the rent.So we all had to leave and things looked pretty desperate.We had almost no money and being broke in the city was a lot more complicated than being broke in the hills of Ibiza.We were already looking around for ways to make money.My earlier profession came in useful as I was familiar with a lot of different art techniques.We started off making various different lampshades out of coloured gels and cut paper but nobody seemed to like them very much and they didn't sell.We had more luck with some lovely mobiles that we made from chandelier crystals that we found in the excellent Barcelona Flea market.But I couldn't see how to build a career on them.


Meanwhile, I spotted a "For Rent" sign on an apartment in the building next door to ours. Although both places were rented out by the same company, we managed to rent the new apartment by pretending to be a couple who had just moved from London to live in Spain. With the help of a girlfriend and two borrowed wedding rings, I conned the realty agent into letting me sign a lease and we moved in at once. But the new concierge recognized us from the old apartment and reported us to the rental company. They ordered us to move out at once. Fortunately, the lease gave us complete right to be there and the rental people knew that. They declared war by having our electricity turned off.

Right at that time, we started what we called the great Easter Egg Factory. Marie Luz got an order from her local very uptown Patisserie shop. We were to paint and dye five hundred eggs to be used as Easter cake decorations. As the increasingly rabid rental company became more and more threatening, the apartment was turned into a candlelit mini-factory. We carried eggs around town in a supermarket trolley and slipped into Marie Luz's husband's house during the day to boil and dye them. This we did like my mother had taught me twenty years before. We wrapped the eggs in pieces of coloured cloth and tied them tight using cotton thread. Then we boiled them for half an hour so that the dyes printed off on the eggs' shells giving a marbled effect. We did it using onion skins too. We stayed up all night for a week at the apartment, straining our eyes by candlelight to see. Of course there were a few accidents, it is the way of eggs to break after all, and I wasn't very pleased with some of the eggs with smiling little girl faces. But, professional egg painters that we were, we managed to finish our order by the deadline and get paid before our water was cut off too. The final scene at the apartment could have been straight out of a Cold War thriller with a representative from the Rental company meeting me on a street corner in the rain while Marie Luz watched from a hidden position across the road to make sure that the Police had not been called in. You must remember that all this was happening against the backdrop of Franco's repressive Spain. Our apartment key was exchanged for a return of our rent, the lease was torn up on the spot and the representative shook my hand with an audible sigh of relief. We went straight to the port and took the night ferry to Ibiza for a break at Mi Casita.

But Marie Luz couldn't be apart from her kids for very long. We were soon back in Barcelona living the schizophrenic existence that we were to live for many years. We managed to rent a small apartment on Calle Majorca with our friend Jose Ramon and would sneak over to the children’s house to eat every afternoon. Once her husband found us there and threw me out in a fury. We agreed that it was inappropriate to continue that way of feeding ourselves. So once again I cast around for some better way to support our Save the Children crusade. Marie Luz was convinced that although she had forfeited all legal rights to live with her children, the children would come to her eventually if she stayed nearby and could establish an alternative life to her husband's. Years later, after much tears and anguish, that happily came to pass. But I'm getting ahead of my story again.

I remembered my waxy dabblings in Batik a few years before and set up a primitive studio in our kitchen. Due to our lack of space, I could only work at night when the kitchen wasn't in use. Marie Luz stole some sheets from her husband's house and I started to dye patterns on little scraps of cloth. We found ancient packets of dyes in the pharmacies of Barcelona's old town. Soon that familiar smell of hot wax filled the apartment every night, for I was a man possessed and managed to get by on 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night for months. Marie Luz was very encouraging for she had never seen batik before. It was quite unknown in Spain in the early 70s and she soon realized that it had a tremendous number of different applications and possibilities.

But I still would never have so dedicated my life to this relatively obscure medium had not the necessary element of Commerce entered the picture. I was in the meantime giving English language classes to Spanish senoras which was pretty clever considering I still spoke virtually no Spanish. Marie Luz and I still communicated to one another in our private pidgin language of words and love. Actually I think our lack of a common tongue added a special quality to our relationship. Getting to know one another took a lot longer than if we'd both spoken English. Learning about each other's lives and secrets was a gradual and mysterious process. When MarieLuz went to visit the kids in the evening, I started to go to the 10 peseta cinema on the corner of Calle Mallorca at night to watch bad cowboy movies. That was how I finally learnt and became fluent in Spanish.

Anyway, one of my English pupils had a clothes boutique, spotted what I was doing in the kitchen and asked me if we could make her a couple of shirts. Marie Luz had always sewn all her children's clothes and quickly ran up a couple of simple Indian style shirts on her sewing machine. I dyed them one colour and we printed our first efforts with a book binding leather stamp dipped in ink. They sold instantly and I batiked our next order with a little mandala design on the back of each. These too sold and we were in business before we knew it. Poor Marie Luz had to sew like a maniac while I worked frantically to grind our cheap solid blocks of Spanish dye into usable powder and to batik simple patterns on them using two or three colours. I remember that a whole series of the early shirts had large deco arched patterns and that we made eight matching pairs of deco patterned pants. These pants eventually found their way back to the Happy Valley family where they were worn for years like some kind of bizarre looking country-guerrilla uniforms. Probably our first efforts were pretty awful.

We worked incredibly hard, taking any order that we could get and constantly experimenting with new techniques and ideas. Apart from having grasped the basic process of batik, we knew very little about it and learned wholly by trial and error.

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 uncontrollable. 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.

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tjanting tools
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