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What are Batik Paintings?

By Angie Bates
Updated May 23, 2024
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Batik painting is an ancient art form which consists of systematically applying wax and dye to cloth — usually cotton — to create paintings. Ancient Batik paintings usually depicted animal or nature scenes, but could picture anything. Seen primarily in Indian and Asian areas originally, this art form is now found all over the world, and art colleges in many countries teach the technique. Batik paintings can be applied to clothing, cloth furniture coverings, and wall hangings.

Batik paintings have been recorded in India up to 2,100 years ago and are a traditional Indonesian art that has been passed down through generations. It has also been found in Egyptian tombs. In the early 1900s, Batik paintings were very fashionable in Germany and other European countries. The word "batik" probably comes from the Indonesian word ambatik which means "cloth with dots."

Although modern Batik painting uses water-based paints, the ancient Batik process used vegetable dyes, wax, and cotton or silk cloth. After the cloth was washed and any starch removed, a charcoal sketch was made on the cloth. Once the sketch was completed, a special wax, containing beeswax and resin, was used to fill in any areas of the sketch that would not be dyed. A pen-like instrument called a tjanting in India and a canting in Indonesia was used for this purpose. Once the application of wax was complete, the cloth was dipped into the desired color of dye and then gently washed.

This process had to be repeated for every color the artist wished to include in the painting. The ancient art always began with light colors and ended with dark colors. When the piece was completed, any remaining wax was removed and the painting was dipped into a diluted sulphuric acid solution to set the colors.

Batik painting was introduced into Africa in the 1960s. Around 1976, a new process was developed by artists like Henry Lutalo Lumu, who studied the ancient form. Choosing to start with dark colors instead of light, he used paintbrushes to apply the color rather than dipping the whole cloth in dye. Wax was used to seal the colors in place. A technique called "fragmentation" was also developed to add background depth.

Using this new process allowed artists to have much more control over the coloring, texture, and shading of the pieces created, adding a depth to the artwork not seen before. This African process is referred to as the Modern Batik painting method. Modern Batik paintings can be traditional, but many depict modern, realistic-looking subjects or are often abstract.

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