Many people have remarked that certain paintings I do have a "batik" look to them. This appearance is owing to a technique I stumbled upon years ago, by accident. Watercolor is the easiest vehicle for encouraging accidents to happen, but of course gaining control over them is another matter. This demonstration will illustrate another way of utilizing the unpredictable properties of the medium in a reliable way.
The technique is excellent for creating the illusion of depth, and also for creating interesting textures. I've used it in several variations of the painting I'll do here: a koi fish. My model is a fish that has more than done his duty; I first photographed him at the Winterthur koi pond, and the subsequent drawings I made have served as the foundation for about thirty paintings. They have been good sellers for me - this guy is in more homes than cable TV!
This painting will only be a half sheet (15" x 22") so it will go quickly. The drawing at right is the basis for the composition, and I'll add some plants in the background.
The paper is 156 lb. hot press Arches, and I did not gesso it or do any other surface preparation. I don't stretch paper, as it's never seemed necessary to me. If it buckles, I spray it lightly with water, and let it dry under a heavy piece of glass.
The paint can be straight watercolor or acrylic watercolor* - it doesn't matter, but of course once dry, acrylic is totally permanent.
* Acrylic watercolor is acrylic paint thinned with water.
I started by lightly painting the background around the fish and plants. Masking would simplify this step, but I have found the variations in color and value achieved by the "old school" method enhances the effect I'm striving for.
The colors I used were phthalo blue mixed with raw sienna (a great underwater combination), prussian blue, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue, quinacridone gold and red. After I painted each section, I dropped in water to create some action. "Blooms" or "crawlbacks" are something people often try to avoid, but I like them because they scream "watercolor!"
The water portion of the background - essentially an underpainting - is done, and ready to be "batiked." However, I'd like to get the rest of the picture underway, and it might be best to first demonstrate a simpler version of the batik technique.
... on to the plants.
As I've just alluded, there are two ways to make this technique work: with underpainting, and without. Applying it over an existing layer of paint creates tremendous depth, which will be great for the water background. With the plants, I'm not so interested in depth as I am texture, and so I'll dispense with the underpainting step. Here we go....
Controlling the drying is such a critical part of this technique, I generally work in small sections at a time. I painted as much area as I could before anything began to really set, and then went at it with the hair dryer. When the section was more or less 50-75% dry, I held the painting up, and sprayed it with water to wash away paint that wasn't dry. This results in beautiful patterns that would be very hard to plan, much less paint in a convincing way.
This is the essence of the batik technique: washing away paint that hasn't dried. Controlling it reliably is a matter of getting a feel for how much paint, water, and heat to use. You'll notice, for example, that edges dry first. You'll also refine your spray bottle technique, as sometimes a feather touch is required, and other times you have to put some muscle into it. The technique is a little more dangerous with acrylic watercolor, since it is so much more permanent than regular watercolor. With either medium, I try to err on the side of less-dry; you can always go back and do it again if too much paint washed away the first time.
In this shot I've almost finished with the plants.
Next, I put some color into the fish, on damp paper.
I'm not going to use the batik technique on the fish, as I've found too much of a good thing can be too much!
(bad photograph, sorry for the shadows)
A bit of history:
I mentioned in the introduction that I discovered (for myself, anyway) this technique by accident. A long time ago I got into the habit of tossing my work on the floor, and throwing a bucket of water on it when I didn't like what I had just painted. Eventually I recognized the result was usually better than the original idea!
Here is one of the first pieces I did, consciously using the technique. It did a pretty good job of capturing the look and texture of the edge of an abalone shell.
watercolor, 30" x 40"
This painting is one of my favorite abstracts. All of the weird patterns were achieved by washing away wet paint.
After Rothko #2
watercolor, 20" x 20"
Back to the painting....
The following steps will demonstrate the application of the batik technique on top of an existing layer.
I mixed cobalt blue and alizarin crimson, and painted over one of the water sections. I immediately hit it with the hair dryer on "low." The edges are the first thing to dry; the center portions usually take longer.
When it gets to the point where it's 50-75% dry (see photo at right), I go at it with the spray bottle, washing away the paint that hasn't dried...
...which makes this result.
Notice the edges are darker, and the part that washed away reveals the color from the first layer. A nice, natural-looking effect that creates a lot of depth. It would be virtually impossible to paint this deliberately, though I do not consider this a "happy accident." The execution of the technique is very deliberate and controlled. What happens within that process is a function of the materials vs. heat, and is therefore somewhat random, but there is always that element in watercolor - good watercolor, anyway! That said, experimentation with dilution of the paint and use of the hair dryer will help you gain more control over the effect.
It's important to stress again that it's a good idea to err on the side of less-dry; if there is not enough coverage, you can simply do it again. I stopped long ago trying to make the look perfectly uniform, as I discovered the variation is better.