With watercolor batik, wax is used as a resist—and if you’ve ever used masking fluid on watercolor paper, you understand how a resist works. The wax blocks the areas that aren’t intended to receive paint. The materials I use in my batik process are very simple: rice paper, watercolor and melted paraffin wax. Batking isn’t an exact science, so be prepared for mistakes such as unintentional drips of wax and oozing color. Believe it or not, these accidents actually add to the look of the piece.
Batiking Supply list
Oriental Paper: Awagami Ginwashi rice paper is my favorite, but many others will work. Each one will give the watercolor painting a different look.
Watercolors: I use Winsor & Newton and Holbein.
Wax Brushes: Designate brushes that you’ll use only in wax. I prefer inexpensive natural hair paint brushes, such as camel or squirrel mix: a 1½-inch flat, a No. 8 round and a smaller No. 3 round with long fibers. Beware of using brushes that are too tiny—they rarely carry enough wax and the wax will cool before you can apply it to the paper. In general, you’ll find that the paint brush bristles get stiff when the wax cools, but they soften up again when dipped into hot wax.
Watercolor Brushes: Use your regular watercolor brushes for applying paint. I typically use only three: a 1½-inch flat (Loew Cornell 4550), a 1-inch flat (Simply Simmons) and a ½-inch flat.
- Old electric frying pan with temperature control or a wax/glue pot (made to heat wax to safe temperatures)
- Permanent, waterproof pen, such as a Pigma Micron 05
- Paraffin wax (also used for canning; can be found in most any grocery store)
- Waxed paper
- Freezer paper
- Cretacolor Pastel Pencils can be helpful
Preparation for Batik Process
Although many papers can be used, Awagami Ginwashi is my favorite and it comes in large sheets, approximately 25×37 inches. The first step is to cut the paper to the size you need. Or, if you prefer a deckled edge, “draw” a line of water with a wet brush. Use only a bit of water—just enough to wet a thin line. Then tear along this line with your fingers—presto! Deckled edge.
Prepare your sketch on white paper and place it under the transparent rice paper. Use a permanent, waterproof ink pen, such as a Pigma Micron 05, to trace the design onto the smooth side of the rice paper.
Melt the paraffin wax in a device with a temperature control. An electric frying pan works well, as do small wax/glue pots (see the photo of my work area) that automatically heat to the desired temperature without worry. Melt the wax slowly in a well-ventilated area to 200 to 225° Fahrenheit—otherwise the wax could catch fire. Note: The wax shouldn’t smoke. Next, place a piece of waxed paper beneath the rice paper to keep it from sticking to your work surface, and leave it in place throughout the entire waxing process.
Understanding how to use wax as a resist can be the most challenging part of the process. My “waxing diagrams” (below) show where to place the wax. The diagrams included with each step of the demo show the wax applications I planned for the painting. After you get a few pieces under your belt, you’ll no longer need the diagrams.
To wax, dip an old brush into the hot wax and spread it onto the paper (you can’t clean wax out of the brushes, but you can reuse them for other batik paintings). Be careful: If you get too much wax on the brush, it’ll surge outward onto the paper. Start with just a bit until you get the hang of it. Leave the brush in the hot wax between layers so that it will always be ready to go.
The wax dries almost instantly, so the rice paper will be ready to paint right away. Because the paper is transparent, it’s helpful to place it onto a white surface while painting. A piece of freezer paper (shiny side up) works well for this. Just use your regular watercolor brushes for the washes.
Pick up only a small amount of paint—rice paper has no sizing, so the less paint in your brush the more control you’ll have. Sometimes the paint will run no matter what you do. As the paint moves outward, avoid a hard edge by taking extra water in your brush and softening the edge, then quickly and gently blot with a paper towel to absorb extra water.
It’s important to let the paper dry thoroughly before applying more wax. If you apply wax to wet or damp paper it won’t be able to soak into the paper fibers. You can use a hair dryer to speed the drying time, but be careful not to melt the wax. If you do happen to melt the wax and it spreads, that’s OK. You can add paint where you need it later, after you’ve removed the wax.
Crumple It Up
When you’re finished applying layers of wax and color washes, let the paper dry. Then cover the entire front of the paper with another coat of wax to be sure you’ve hit every area at least once. When this layer of wax has cooled, peel the rice paper from the waxed paper. Then gently crinkle the rice paper into a ball. Small cracks may form in the wax.
Flatten the paper, being careful not to brush or shake off loose pieces of wax, then apply one more wash over the paper using any color mix from your palette. Some of the wash may go through the cracks, but most will bead up on the surface of the wax. Without waiting for the paint to dry, coat the entire front with wax one final time, going right over the wet beads of color and sealing them into the wax.
Lay out several sheets of newspaper and place your batik on top. Make a “batik sandwich” by laying about three more sheets of newspaper on top of your piece. This will be enough newspaper to allow the heat to penetrate but still soak up plenty of wax. Using an iron set to hot (the cotton setting), press the pile. The heat will melt the wax and the newspaper will soak it up. When the newspapers become fairly saturated—you’ll see the wax bleed through—replace them with fresh papers above and below, and continue. Repeat this process three or four times until the newspapers remain clean and all the wax has been removed.
Two things work well for adding color to any areas that might need it. First, try painting it. Painting on rice paper after the wax has been removed will feel completely different. Because a tiny bit of wax remains on the surface, you’ll have to coax the paint into the paper by wiggling your brush and “tickling” the paint into the paper, but once you’ve done so, the color will stay where you place it. For small touches of opaque color, or when outlining is needed, pastel pencils are fun and easy. Finally, mount the batik on a piece of white or off-white matboard using double-sided or linen tape. I often float it so that the deckled edges show.
Watercolor Tutorial | Step by Step of Tuscan Window
Prepare the Work Area
In this demo, I worked from a picture (above). Next, determine the size of your paper and cut accordingly, prepare a sketch, and melt the paraffin wax.
The steps include each layer of watercolor and the corresponding wax diagrams. The darkened areas on these diagrams indicate the wax placement for the five, successive layers of wax. The wax should go onto the paper smooth and clear. (Tip: To better see what you are waxing, try placing a piece of dark paper underneath).
In batik, you work from light to dark. So, the areas that remain white are always the first places to be waxed. These are shown in Wax Diagram 1 (below). After that, each layer of wax is simply saving the next lightest value of color. As you near the end it gets difficult to tell what’s waxed and what is not waxed! Keep working. When the wax is removed it’s always a wonderful surprise.
1. Wash Lightest Color Value
Draw your image onto the rice paper using a Pigma Micron 05 pen. Wax the areas you want to save with white, then wash on the very lightest color value.
2. Begin Saving More Areas with Wax
As the colors dry, wax more areas you want to save. The waxed areas resist any extra colors that are added. Apply another wash of watercolor, only slightly darker than the first.
3. Continue to Paint Medium Values
4. Continue Layering Darker Washes
5. Allow Color to Run
As long as the edges are softened, allow the colors to run and enhance the piece.
6. Add Depth
Wax everything except where you want the darkest darks to go. This separates objects and adds depth.
Tuscan Window by Kathie George (finished work)
For more fun with watercolors, catch this clip from Karlyn Holman.
MORE RESOURCES FOR WATERCOLOR ARTISTS