By Bob Bahr
Martha Heppard grew up in Hawai’i, so she was exposed to the art of batik from an early age. In batik, a wax is applied to cloth in a pattern, and the wax acts as a resist to keep dye from hitting the parts covered in wax. The cloth is dipped or brushed in a pattern with dye, then the process is repeated. In the end, wax is applied over the whole surface, crumpled up like a piece of paper, and put in indigo dye. When the wax is ironed out, it creates a delicate, crinkly look. You’ve seen it.
But you may not have seen what Heppard does with this process.
The Denver area artist uses watercolor instead of dye in the batik process, and she uses rice paper instead of cloth for the substrate. “I saw what had to be batik in a piece at an art show,” recalls Heppard. “When the artist explained her methodology, I put it together with what I know about batik. No one has really done it quite like this before. With rice paper, you have a few fibers that pick up the color and guide how it flows. This method is something I started a few years ago just to push myself and do something new. With each painting, I am getting better and better at it.”
Heppard says the texture that the rice paper gives to the subject matter meshes well with the idea of fur or feathers. “It creates great texture in grasses too, in the landscapes behind the animals,” says the artist. “And flowers really seem to come to life with this technique.”
It’s not for the faint of heart or those interested in tight control, however. “Even if you have in mind what it will look like, it’s a surprise. Wax doesn’t always stay where you put it. The paint may flow in one direction…or another. If you have a very fine gauge paper, the watercolor paint spreads out immediately. It is learning to control where the paint spreads. If it goes beyond where you want it to, you can wax over that area and keep that value, and continue on.”
Batik watercolor painting takes patience. You have to wait in between wax applications and paint applications. There’s the crinkling up of the fully waxed surface and subsequent dunking in a dark color. The results are unknown until you remove the wax by heating the paper repeatedly between fresh sheets of craft or newspaper. Heppard does touch up a piece occasionally after the fact, but this is tricky business with limited success.
For Heppard, it’s a labor of love, and certainly a path that distinguishes her from other artists. She suspects that she is one of only a handful of painters utilizing the watercolor batik process in the United States. The process is perhaps unfamiliar, but the supplies are quite mundane. The most exotic ingredient is the rice paper, which is readily available online as well as in many craft stores. Heppard uses a small Crock Pot to heat a $5 block of paraffin. The brushes are typical watercolor brushes, perhaps augmented by a sumi-e brush. And you’ll need an iron to heat the piece to remove the wax.
“I love how soft the paintings come out,” says Heppard. “They speak to me.”
Heppard will be back in Dubois for the 2016 workshop. Anyone interested should catch up with her there, or contact her through her website. Ω