Life Lessons in Colour Theory

You can not rush through a Balinese traditional painting. Here I recall some of my very first memories with Ajik Dewa Made Bawa. I received more than just instruction in colour application, I found there were some significant life lessons in the traditional method. Ajik Dewa Bawa often would tell me to put down my painting and just look at it awhile.

He was as much an observer of my state of mind as he was my brushwork. If he sensed any agitation he would say something light hearted and suggest I put down my painting and look at it awhile. He would say ‘pelan yang penting selamat’ That means, slow, but more importantly, we make it there safely.

In the course of those weeks, I was not so much taught traditional painting, more so that I sat next to him as he painted and watch as he would paint. We exchanged few words. However, when we did, they were meaningful.

I learned that..

”the most important thing in a painting.. is the black base. If the black is beautiful, the rest will be as well’.

I Dewa Made Bawa

First with a pencil sketch that was likened to our initial conversation with the canvas, a discussion, a banter to determine if we can agree on anything. The Balinese literally term this part of the process ‘ngorto’, meaning ‘conversation’.

Once this ‘conversation’ has reached a stage where the participants come to an agreement, we have ‘kepastian’, which means ‘certainty. This certainty or agreement, is confirmed by the use of the bamboo pen with ink to place the first outlines on the canvas.

The second bamboo brush is a strip of bamboo that is gently shaped and hammered. The fibres softened so it functions like a firm brush. According to the artist’s style, its made in several sizes and shapes.

This brush is used to ‘ngabur’, which means to shade in and give body to the shapes that has been determined by the lines. It is not uncommon for an artist to spend more time simply rendering the black ink on the canvas in comparison to the colour application that follows.

The most important foundation is the black base, as shown in the above images. Once the black is satisfactory, the subsequent colours is just as important. Where there is black, there is white. The artist goes over the white areas with white paint also with a bamboo brush.

From a painting perspective, colour is of course a primary element in creating art. In the context of Balinese traditional painting method, colour symbolism brings a different degree of meaning. If colour is inherent in art, art is inherent in Balinese life. The culture is intertwined and overflowing with art. Because colour symbolism is integral in ritual ceremony and a way of ritual relationing to the Spiritual, to God.

In Pengosekan, there are two additional steps in the foundation phase of the painting. There is red where there is black and yellow where there is white.

Black symbolises the darkness, perhaps the struggles and challenges in life that we have to find our way through. The beauty of it in the context of the lessons I learned is that it is the most important foundation. It is what makes a painting inherently ever more beautiful. Perhaps it is a little personal, but it brings a poetic beauty to how one views the darkness.

Red is very much associated with courage in Indonesian culture. Alongside the Hindu aspect of it denoting Fire through Lord Brama, needed to face the darker times. Yellow ‘kuning’ symbolising ‘hening’ (meaning clarity and reflection). Clarity and reflection, gained when we aspire to find peace and purity.

In this image, the black, white, yellow and red has been applied and is ready for the application of colours to begin.

The four base colours of a traditional painting has the life lessons integral in Balinese Philosophy.

This summarises my recollections about the first lessons that made a strong impression on me. As I was going over layer by layer of ink during my sessions, I had time to reflect. Reflecting on the symbolism of the knowledge shared through the colours on my brush.

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