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BATIK ART BY JONATHAN S. EVANS
Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE BATIK ARTIST

 

 

By 1972, Marie Luz and I were getting regular orders for our work and were selling handmade 'art wearable' clothes to several boutiques in Barcelona. I had set up a tiny but efficient studio in the front hall of our apartment in Calle Mallorca and was putting in very long hours at the wax pot. Marie Luz was kept busy sewing our clothes and drawing new designs for us to batik. From the beginning, we worked very closely together. Both of us drew designs and pictures to be batiked and then would often collaborate on a specific design or even redraw something that the other had drawn. From this easy cooperation was emerging an easily recognizable style. I had learnt 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........"

 

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