A Retrospective of Batik Portraits by Marina Elphick
Batik has been my Medium of choice since the start of an artistic career thirty two years ago. In that time I have been commissioned to make artworks in batik in a range of subjects and sizes; from life size batik portraits 2.5 metres high, to smaller batik artwork for book over illustration. I became interested in portraiture fairly early, drawing my friends, family and myself. At age thirteen I had my first commission and several more followed, I thought it was great to get paid for what I loved doing ! The portraits were pencil or charcoal drawings initially, but soon after I discovered batik and succeeded in creating a few simple profiles in the technique, I became confident I could create simple portraits of real people, by transferring my drawing skills onto cloth.
Of course this wasn’t as easy as it sounds because the batik process is quite unforgiving and can be frustrating if the wax spills or floods into unwanted areas. Thankfully good quality cantings are now more easily available but back in the seventies and eighties I had to make do with clumsy shaped, heavy brass canting tools, so I mainly used brushes at that time.
My batik portraits were individual and unusual compared to traditionally painted portraits, I wondered if they would appeal to people who were more familiar with oils or watercolours; but thankfully many were keen to have their children or even themselves portrayed in this unique technique and I was kept quite busy.
Below are a selection of early to more recent batik portraits, not exactly, but more or less in order.
The first batik commission was a double portrait of young brothers. It was an exciting project, translating the client’s thoughts into a visual design, using home surroundings, symbolism and colour to create a personalised and true portrayal. Meeting the boys, chatting with them about their favourite toys, sketching and making colour studies, allowed me to get to know the them better. The interaction and inclusion of the boys ideas was important in the process and progress of the work. The portrait was successful and customer delighted, unfortunately I have no photographic reference of this early batik, only working sketches.
I have continued to enjoy drawing people and my batik work has been popular as a portrait medium over many years. Batik portraits are unique and certainly different from paintings in traditional mediums by the very characteristics of the technique, but it is not true that batik is an inferior art-form; my portraits have the same draughtsmanship and resonance that a portrait in oil, acrylic or watercolour. I have found a fluency in the medium but batik has it’s challenges and intrigues, which keep me learning. I am aware of the need to keep a fresh approach, experiment a little and take a few risks. This is happening in my latest work which is non figurative and I intend to extend this freer approach to my batik portraiture.