Thursday, 31 May 2007

simplicity and complications

Over the past few weeks I've been working again on the commission that needed a wet-sand coloured background mentioned in a previous post. I am making a new version of a 1960s batik from Taiwan, inherited by my client from her parents and one with special meaning for her.

Sadly it got damaged by being stored in her loft and then a cellar – both insects and mould have destroyed the cloth itself, and the dyes have not only faded but also acted in astonishing ways, such as vertical blue "veins" running through areas of a particular colour. The client and I had long conversations about the original colours. She had known the batik for decades but I could only guess – from what I saw and from extrapolation to the circumstances of its original production.

I believe the batik came from a Buddhist temple her parents visited, where they were produced by temple boys to raise funds for the monastery. Living a resourceful way of life they would have been made on old, torn or otherwise unwearable robes. The batik shows no white, the first wax went on the wet-sand colour (I stopped calling it saffron when the client called the first sample "too saffron"!).

So the background colour was sorted. The secondary overdyed colours being painted not dipped made me assume they were chemical not natural dyes (a natural dyer told me you could paint plant dyes but it seemed a longwinded way to achieve these effects. Wouldn't it make more sense to adapt the design and dip if using natural dyes?). And because all (assumed) original colours were reproducible with Procions (and very simply – black* and magenta/black mix making green-black and a dark reddish over the wet-sand) I chose to make the background with Procions as well. Fibre-reactive dyes became available in the 60s, quite probably in Taiwan too.

Most recently I've been struggling to discover how a particular waxed texture was created. Again working from what I could see alongside extrapolation (from my visits to Thai and Laotian monasteries, and from Pira Sudham's novels) took me into the garden to gather various 'twigs' to make brushes; and when none fitted to gather and test other potential wax tools.

The effects achievable from some came close but none felt right. It came back to simplicity – I was certain the original would have been painted/overdyed with blended colours and needed nothing more complex... yet I could see 'texture'. But attempting to reproduce this texture showed it would have taken extraordinary and seemingly unnecessary time yet I didn't believe damp, mould, fungus or insects had caused the dye to disappear in such patterns. Such a big dilemma... I asked the client. 'Feathered', she remembered. So, no textural waxing!

I should have started the final batik last week. But I had been shocked by my shaky waxing hand! My canting drawn lines were dreadful, like beginners. I hadn't realised how out of practice I was, so have spent days waxing, boiling out and re-waxing the same piece of cloth (not very resourceful I know, but better than using new cotton each time which anyway would have had the same quantity of wax and water/power for boiling out).

I cleaned my cantings and changed the wax. I considered my posture, my arm movements, my hold on the canting. I thought of all those things I tell students to do or not do. I tried sitting on the floor to work, thinking it was my legs and back being too tired and my shoulder too tense. I tried meditating and exercising, which helped. I practised and practised and practised. It got better but not enough.

Looking again at the smooth and confident lines in the original I felt the artist couldn't possibly have used a canting, though a very fine Chinese brush (such as I didn't have) may have been. Individual lines denoting folds in the Buddha's robe ended in a point, similar to wired batik (a length of wire used to make smooth and repeatable curves). So I tried wire. Successful with short curves, riskily unworth it with longer lines or 'S' bend curves requiring two joining wire marks. Wire it wasn't.

This morning I made a new stretcher from remnant timber in the shed, designed to the right size for working on this batik. Previously I had been using a big old one, the right height but too wide. I had wondered if over-reaching was causing wobbly lines. The dedicated stretcher helped, definitely. Attitude as much as access. Making it was akin to a ceremony, a meditation and new starting point.

I also had planned to cut cardboard guides to draw along. Although the task of cutting approximately 25-30 curved guides would eat time for a one-off use, it would have simplified good curve-waxing skills for when the temple boy was having an off-time, like I was. But I baulked. No curves were repeated, each had to be cut individually. How to remember which went where? How fiddly to hunt through the pile for 'S3' or 'T7'. Suddenly this simplicity-logic vanished. I knew the lines had been made by canting. It was the easiest way.

I practised all afternoon. Most lines were well improved, except for a persistent grouping. I waxed them from the reverse. I angled and re-angled the stretcher to change to drawing angle. I swapped the canting: a Malaysian Ahmad one for a Javanese Don Harper one. It sat differently in my hand, the wax flowed fast and free, and there I was drawing nice smoothly curved lines! Just like that!

Was it really as simple as changing the canting? I don't believe so. Yesterday I pondered simplicity, wondering about my life. Being out of practise was a major factor, but why had I let things slip to this? Taking on and doing too much, being often in a rush, late nights/not early mornings, and too much time standing and not enough sitting/resting comfortably. Anything but the simple life, the slow life, indeed!

Last night I moved the router downstairs and worked on the laptop in a comfy chair (as I am now). I didn't get to bed as early as intended (like now) but felt rested today, not tired on my feet - my whole body responded better to moving with the canting.

So tomorrow's the day for waxing the final batik.

And then I will muse on the role of simplicity for sustainability in my practice.

* the black is Kenactive black not Procion black

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