Create Texture in Your Watercolors with Batik

Looking to add depth and visual texture to your watercolors? Here artist Helen Brown shares her techniques for using batik to create a unique look to your paintings.

A Quiet Day (watercolor batik on paper, 24×18) is part of a Lewis and Clark series, which features sites in Montana and Oregon that the Corps of Discovery may have seen on its expedition from St. Louis, in 1804. 

Manipulating Watercolors, Paper, and Paraffin

Originating in the Indonesian island of Java, batik produces colored designs on textiles by dyeing them after having first applied wax to areas to be left undyed. When a similar process is used on textured paper with paraffin and watercolors, the texture shows through without any additional effort. I became familiar with this method several years ago when I read an article by artist Kathie George. I found that painting in batik on rice paper gives my work a looser appearance and creates a luminous effect, thanks to the many thin layers of watercolor and wax. It’s a look that can’t be imitated by traditional watercolor methods. Experiment with these techniques on your next series of watercolors!

Materials

Hive Alive from the Struggling Species series, watercolor batik on paper, 34 x 12
  • Surface:Any kind of rice paper will work, but my go-to rice paper, Ginwashi, has little sticklike flecks and is quite strong, despite its fragile, transparent appearance. 
  • Watercolors: Winsor & Newton and Daniel Smith 
  • Paraffin:I buy paraffin at the grocery store and then melt it in a miniature slow cooker. The wax doesn’t heat to the temperature of combustion in this little pot, so I’m comfortable using it for long periods. 
  • Brushes:I use only inexpensive brushes. The heat and the wax ruins them after a few paintings. 
  • Wax paper or freezer paper
  • Black waterproof pen 
  • Black construction paper 
  • Tape 
  • Newsprint
  • Iron
  • 300-lb. watercolor paper 
  • Credit card
  • Matte medium
  • Roller 

Watercolor Batik Basics

Step 1

First I tape a sheet of wax paper or freezer paper to a board. I then place rice paper over it, smooth side up. Using a black waterproof pen, I lightly draw my image—in this case, a duck on a lake—on the smooth side of the rice paper.

Next, I “paint” with molten paraffin (heated in a miniature slow cooker) on the areas of the rice paper that I want to remain white. From this point, I begin to alternate layers of watercolor and wax. 

For this demonstration, I applied two faint washes of blue and violet over the initial wax layer. I then applied a second coat of wax to protect the next lightest color in the painting. (The paraffin dries almost instantly after it’s applied.) When I can’t see where I’ve placed the paraffin, I slip a piece of black construction paper under the wax paper; the paraffin outline shows up better over a black surface.

Step 2

I waxed an area that will be a white mark on the duck’s face, along with portions of its body and some horizontal lines within the lake area. Because I’d protected these areas with paraffin, I didn’t have to paint carefully around them. In the image, you can see how the wax I’d applied in the lake area resisted the blue paint. 

Step 3

At this stage of each layer, I tape the paper so it hangs from my bookshelf. When it dries, I remove the painting from the shelf, wax the next light area and paint in the darks. One artwork can require up to 12 layers of paint and paraffin. 

Step 4

I then brush over the entire surface with paraffin and let it dry. 

Step 5

After placing a sheet of newsprint on the rice paper, I begin melting the wax, using an iron on high heat. 

Step 6 

I then remove the newsprint, slide the painting between two new sheets of absorbent newsprint and iron the painting again until I can see wax seeping into the newsprint. I repeat this process at least four times to ensure that all the wax is removed. 

Step 7

If I want the painting to lie really flat in a frame, I adhere it to a sheet of 300-lb. watercolor paper. To do this, I use an expired credit card to spread matte medium over the watercolor paper. When I’m sure the liquid is spread evenly, I place the painting onto the paper and top it with a sheet of wax paper (or freezer paper) before going over it with a roller.

I then carefully remove the wax paper and let the painting dry flat, as I did with Barrows Goldeneye (shown below).

Barrows Goldeneye
Watercolor batik on paper, 4 x 6

About the Artist

Artist Helen Brown (hbrownart.com) teaches watercolor painting and assists renowned artists at Art in the Mountains workshops. 

Article and accompanying images, by Helen Brown, first appeared in Artists Magazine, December 2019.

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