The piece of cloth sat in a pot, stewing in brown, hissing water. It had already been scrunched up and smothered in black dye.
Then, it was transferred with a wooden stick from the pot to a bucket of clean water, where it was soaked, rinsed and wrung dry. Such is the way they treat a piece of art here.
Yet this is the traditional way of making batik, or the dyed, patterned canvases that are one of Indonesia’s national art forms. Batik is produced through a process of wax-resist dying, where the artist applies wax to a picture and then dips the cotton in dye; the areas with wax on them remain clean of dye.
Everywhere you go in Indonesia, you can find batik courses. But they’re particularly popular in Java, and most especially in Yogyakarta, where stalls selling batik products line the popular Jalan Malioboro shopping strip.
So one day, I signed myself up for a half-day course to learn the basics of making batik. And I watched as my mentors pounded, scrubbed and rinsed my kindergarten-level batik with a disdain bordering on criminal.
A half-day batik course at Batik Kelik
Batik Kelik is a batik studio in a nondescript family home located through a maze of small alleyways that characterise Yogyakarta.
The front of the small home features a true gallery of modern and traditional batiks, mostly painted by members of Susi’s family.
And when I entered this room, I was warmly welcomed by Susi herself, the matron of this artistic household. She got right down to business, sitting me beside her and showing me examples of some of the batik patterns I could make.
There was a vast range to cover a number of painting styles, from the modern images of cats and elephants, to the more traditional depictions of the Ramayana, the famous Hindu epic.
Drawn to the bright colours of the contemporary batiks, I picked out a painting of three men riding an elephant. My cloth – at this point, plain, tightly-woven cotton with just a pencil drawing on it – was whisked away and stapled to a frame.
Susi led me to the side of her house, where the artist’s studio was set up, complete with amazing murals on the walls painted by her talented son Robi.
Beside a short chair was an iron pot perched on a small brick stove. It was glued to its place by slopes of dropped wax that had accumulated over time.
Susi introduced me to the canting (pronounced “chanting”), an implement that looked rather like a tobacco pipe, with a small copper scoop and spout attached to a bamboo shaft.
She expertly dipped her canting into the melted wax in the iron pot, wiped it clean on a dripping cloth on her lap, and then pressed the spout gently against the cloth to draw a neat, straight line.
All too easy.
So now it was my turn. I filled up the copper scoop, wiped the residue on the drop cloth, and pressed spout to cotton. A thick, wobbly line emerged.
She left me to my scribbles, where I attempted line after line until it seemed I reached perfection and I was allowed to graduate to my real canvas.
And that’s where my hard practice amounted to nothing. Tracing the fine pencil markings as best as I could, it seemed I was incapable of drawing neat, straight lines.
The wax bloomed out over the canvas, so that the lines began thick, only to diminish in size by the end. Globs of wax dribbled over the bottom of my canvas and ran down the bamboo to sting my fingertips.
My ineptitude reduced me to a childlike state, where I painstakingly tried to execute simple curves and dots with the least destruction to the painting. I felt as though I were learning to write again.
Afterwards, Robi surveyed my work, scratching out the truly horrifying smudges and blotches and fixing them up in his neat, practiced hand.
Just like a child, I was excited to arrive at the next stage in production: colouring in.
Many batik paintings are simply dipped in one dye after another, with multiple applications of wax to protect the areas that you don’t want dyed.
My method was a little different, in that I was actually able to “colour in” the painting, using a cotton swab to drip dye onto the various parts of my canvas and watch it blossom across the cotton, stopping only when it reached the wax outlines.
Surely I couldn’t fuck this up, right?
Mixing the dye with water produces different effects, lightening the colour or providing shading. Add too much water, or tilt your canvas ever so slightly, and the dye tips outside the lines. Yes, I couldn’t even keep inside the lines.
Even worse, I had a troupe of children wander by every once in a while to judge my artwork, whispering to one another what my imagination led me to believe was harsh criticism and pronouncements that they could do far better.
Good art isn’t rushed art. So once my dyes were applied and washed with a solution to set, my canvas was placed in the sun to dry.
And I turned my attention to practising my Indonesian instead, in the hopes that my language skills would prove better than my creativity.
If I had felt any kind of relief for progressing beyond the wax stage, it was premature. With the dyes set, I had to cover the coloured parts in wax to protect them, since the final process involved dipping the entire artwork in black dye.
I was also encouraged to cover aspects of the painting in paraffin, to produce an effect the locals call “crackling”, or a cracked look in the colour.
My artwork was then pummelled with black dye, scrunched into a tight ball, tossed into one solution after another, boiled, scrubbed and rinsed.
It seemed to show a real lack of respect for something I’d worked so hard on, but this was all part of the process – first, quiet, mindful artistry, then dirty laundry.
Sodden and sad-looking, my final piece was hung to dry on the clothesline in the alleyway for all passersby to see.
Experiencing a mixture of dismay at my complete lack of talent, along with pride that I’d even managed to produce this much, I sat back and relaxed for a moment – the final wait as the sun slowly dried my artwork.
Susi and her son did their due diligence by encouraging me in my efforts and ensuring me it was a good job. But I’m not certain they’d be keen to feature my art alongside their incredible pieces in their living room gallery.
I booked my batik course through ViaVia Jogja, a fantastic shop, restaurant and travel agency that promotes ethical travel in and around Yogyakarta.
Batik painting not your thing? Why not read about my experience with weaving in Luang Prabang instead?