The Zen of Batik

Explore Batik Art

Why there are 10 million oil painters in the world and only 10,000 only Batik artists.The answer is actually very simple: Batik is not for everyone. The medium is either incomprehensible or unappealing to most artists- which makes Batikers a very odd bunch. There are several reasons for this. 

The first is that it takes a special, convoluted mind to be able to figure out the complexities of the art. In figurative or representational oil painting, for example, one tends to work from dark masses to light-coloured details. In other words, the oil painter blocks in his masses of colour and then progressively refines these masses until, at the end, he paints in his highlights. There is a simple and understandable logic to this process. Conversely and perversely, the Batik artist seems to work backwards. To do accurate representational work, his or (more commonly) her planning has to be impeccable for the artist needs to start with a clear image of the finished work and then progress from light to dark. The tiny details, in white or very light colours, are dyed first, and then waxed over to protect them from successive later dyes. The obvious reason for this is that one can dye a dark colour over a light but not a light colour over a darker. The Batik artist has to work through a fairly strict sequence of dyes, ending up with black or the darkest colour. In figurative Batik, which is my field, there is not much room for major deviations, improvisations or spontaneity. It is a question of first figuring out the problems of going from Point A, the imagined finished Batik painting, to Point B, a white piece of cloth – by working backwards! It can be a mind-teaser of the highest order, a piece of twisted logic and inverted creativity. It can defeat or break even the strongest woman or man! But Batik can, through the tortuous journey involved, bring great compensation and give unimaginable pleasure in its creation.

I clearly remember being shown my first piece of Batik. I was 21, a primary school teacher in Oxford. Another teacher, who had recently returned from Malaysia, brought a small painting into school. He said that it was a Batik and that it was painted using dyes and wax as a resist agent. The piece was very pretty- a little landscape with a funky house by a stream with a rickety bridge and two small figures crossing it, the whole picture veined with cracks. In retrospect, it was probably a piece of typical tourist trade Batik but I really liked it. Somehow, I figured out, straightaway, how the picture was painted and how the process must work. Within a week, I was teaching Batik to my pupils and we were doing simple two or three colour designs on tee shirts. But I must reiterate that Batik is definitely not for everyone; I have had students who, after practicing the process for days, still haven’t understood the process and make huge mistakes. The process is all, skill with a tjanting has to be learned patiently and Batik is always a slow process. There are few short cuts and rewards come slowly; it is not a process for someone who wants instant gratification or quick results. That will weed out quite a few would-be Batik artists. And it is an unforgiving medium, as I am fond of saying. Make a mistake- and you have to adapt your design or just learn to live with an error. It is nearly impossible to effectively remove errant wax whilst in the middle of the process. There are times that I have had to add extra white clouds to a blue sky, paint in new flowers into my landscape or extra decoration on a scarf. But then, to me and to the other 9,999 Batik artists, the slowness of the process, the deliberation and skill involved, the gradual unveiling of the Batik over hours, days or even weeks, is a trip in itself. It’s a spacey journey that is inevitable and exciting but increasingly mysterious. Things get darker and more unknowable before one reaches the end of the dye sequence or waxing progression. Just as in life, things sometimes get grimmer before one sees light at the end of a tunnel, in Batik one starts to feel lost before one reaches one’s destination. When the Batik finally “pops” as a final dark dye brings the necessary contrast as well as some sense and meaning to the entire project – and every serious Batik artist will know what I mean by this- there can occur a moment of glorious understanding. The journey then all seems worthwhile whether anything approaching perfection- every artist’s secret goal- has been achieved. This little moment of sudden revelation is shared by every serious batik artist. It is the unspoken secret that we all know about but which outsiders will never understand so that we hold it close to our chests and count our blessings. It is our private language and vocabulary and separates us from outsiders and even other artists, just as an ability to read music is a private language that only musicians can speak. To the Batik in-crowders, we are the fortunate Chosen Few.

A second reason that relatively few artists turn to Batik as their medium is Batik’s bad rap. It is generally considered a “soft”, women’s art and dumped into a fiber category along with embroidery, quilting and even crochet or knitting. Not to denigrate any of the aforesaid crafts which are practiced by incredibly skillful and creative artists these days, Batik has a very different arena and scope. It may be abstract or figurative, surreal or fantastically baroque and has a zillion applications. If it’s a piece of functional cloth, it can be Batiked. But somehow, being lumped with other fiber arts has given Batik a bad name which it never quite manages to shake off. Attempts to rename the process are futile and pretentious and only further confuse the identity of the medium. “Rozome” is definitely a sophisticated Batik but still Batik by any other name. “Modern Batik” is totally misleading for it is just the same old process in reality and the majority of good Batikers continue to push the barriers and scope of the art form anyway. “Wax Resist” seems too boring, too impersonal and technical to really catch on. We’re probably stuck with Batik at this point but it’s a slightly unhappy title with connotations that one tries continually to slough off. Even Tie Dye, with which Batik is often confused, sounds a bit more fun and is forever associated with hippies, the Grateful Dead and recreational drugs while poor old Batik labours on with its image of little old ladies and an almost forgotten two weeks at high school when one tried out Batik with old brushes, melted candles and cheap supermarket dyes. It’s a long hard furrow that we Batikers have to plough. We also have to deal with the incessant questions about how the process is done- to increasingly uncomprehending stares- and then the inevitable question- how long did this painting take to create? Aaaah! Nobody, but nobody, asks an oil painter how he achieved the look of his painting or how long it took!

Why Batikers? We seem to be fair game for the most idiotic of comments- perhaps because- and this leads me to the third reason that there are not so many of us- Batik, being on fine cloth rather than canvas, is ultimately impermanent and therefore not a true fine art. Dyes will fade in time and cloth will perish although I recently read that 3,000 year old Batik-decorated cloth was recently found in an Egyptian tomb. Batik has been around in many cultures for thousands of years and will probably survive and endure in the future. We Batik artists probably like the fragility of the art form, the very fact that it may not last forever. Change is, after all, a fact of life – all things must change. But Batik’s appeal and most importantly, its value in the art market is limited due to this impermanence and it will never earn the big bucks that oil painters can command. An aspiring artist will take this into account and pass on what is a difficult and accident-prone process in most cases. Batik doesn’t have quite the glamour of oil painting or sculpture or even water colours but it continues to have a niche market in many parts of the world. And, in tough times, it perhaps has the edge on other media in that it has so many different applications. I have written about this before but it is important- Batik is a medium that can prevail because it can take so many different forms. And perhaps we relatively few Batikers will be the true survivors in the end. When oil paintings completely lose their value and the big cash market for art collapses as I am convinced it will when Capitalism itself goes further down and topples, we can always Batik, say, (and I talk off the top of my head here) sails for boats, kites for communication and clothes to cheer up otherwise dreary and desperate lives. And then we 10,000 will come into our own and rule the world. Stop me before I get too carried away here- but heed what I say. There are hidden pleasures in Batik that most artists know nothing about and in our dye-stained, waxy hands may still lie the future of art. And as my very Zen wife, Beth, always says – and she should know:

“Batik is all about patience, the importance of process and acceptance.” And therein lies Batik’s lesson.

What do you think?

We’d love to hear your opinion in the comments section below!

Leave a Reply