Getting into art: Batik
Boiling wax and bleeding dyes
February 15, 2008
Steamboat Springs — Batik can be a messy process. A combination of applying wax and colored dyes to fabric, batik is an ancient decorative art form most commonly practiced in Indonesia.
Making a batik piece starts off with molten wax, then moves on to strongly staining dyes, and goes back and forth until the artist is satisfied – or until the wax reaches critical mass, because eventually it has to come off.
On Wednesday at the Steamboat Arts & Crafts Gym, local painter/craftswoman Phoebe Fulkerson was on her third night of teaching a small batik workshop for beginners. There are a number of ways to go about batik decorating. They’re all time consuming, and they all involve some combination of applying (and later removing) wax and dye.
For efficiency’s sake, we went with applying quick wax designs and hand-dying the fabric with paintbrushes. The process:
1. We start off with a couple of “flags,” or smallish squares of natural fabric (the dye we’re using won’t stick to synthetic surfaces). Flags, as opposed to larger batik pieces that might have the feel of a painting, usually are decorated with simple symbols or geometric patterns.
2. Using wax that’s been warmed in a crockpot (a method that keeps it liquid and not too hot), Fulkerson demonstrates how to make designs using stamps (circles or other shapes made of wire), paintbrushes and tjanting tools (which have a small reservoir that holds wax and distributes it in a solid line or smaller drops, depending on the size of the tool).
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3. Testing out the different wax tools, I make three flags: one with a circle pattern using stamps, one with a crisscross design using the tjanting tools, and one that was supposed to be a sort of abstract flower (limited success here) with the paintbrushes. The wax dries pretty quickly, so it’s time to move on to the dying.
4. Fulkerson has put together a nice palette of dyes that are mixed from concentrate with cold water, and activated with salt and soda ash. The dyes last about three days once they’re activated, so we’re trying to use them all up (on the third day of the workshop). I pour small amounts of the colors I want to use into separate containers (electric blue and fuchsia are favorites for being so bright).
5. The basic idea with batik is that wax resists dye. The secondary idea is that dye bleeds. Combined, those two ideas mean a final product can be anything from a fairly detailed illustration done with careful wax applications to a tie-dye effect flag. Lacking any discernible drawing abilities, I go for the latter.
6. The main rule for applying the dyes is that if you want to color to stay, you need to use a lot of it. To hand dye the flags, I use paintbrushes (one for each color), and paint the dye into gaps in the wax. No real initial plan here, so my painting is mainly guided by being in awe of watching the dyes bleed together.
7. Of the three flags I started, the circles end up looking like tie-dye, the crisscross pattern doesn’t turn out so hot, and the abstract flower (hopefully) absorbed some strong colors. We move each one into a separate plastic bag to soak up the dye for 24 hours.
8. In a few days, Fulkerson will remove the wax, either by ironing it off onto layers of newspaper (tedious) or taking the pieces to the dry cleaners (considerably less tedious).