Painting had all but died out on Java when the last Hindu civilization
there emigrated to Bali in the 15th century, but on Bali painting has been
practiced continuously for the last 400 years. The oldest extant paintings
are two painted wooded slabs in the Pura Batu Madeg and Pura Panataran
Temples in the Besakih complex; the works date from the mid-15th century.
Early traditional painters created temple hangings on cloth or manuscripts, adhering to conventional themes and standardized colors handed down through generations. Painting was intended to serve the religious needs of the community. If the painting was too innovative, it might not be qualified in the service of god and was therefore considered a failure.
Today, paintings-portable, cheap, and unique-are Bali's most exported craft. Of all Bali's art forms, painting is the most influenced by Western demand and Western aesthetics. Though still masters of technique, the majority of today's Balinese painters work for commercial gain, reasoning that it's senseless to go to the trouble of making a good painting when a bad painting will sell for just as much, just as fast. As a result, much Balinese painting, though opulent in color, has a paint-by-the-numbers sameness. Most pieces are more like colored drawings than paintings-too-hastily made, and sadly limited in subject matter, treatment, and symbolism. It takes careful, persistent searching to uncover work of skill and elegance.
Watercolorists and photographers couldn't pick a more colorful subject than Bali. Art tours are common here. An Australian painter, Barbara Miller, runs an inn on the beach in remote Tabanan Regency, accommodating artists from around the world. Called BeeBees (fax 062 361 36021), and located just four km beyond Krambitan near the village of Tibubiyu, the seven rustic yet comfortable lumbung-style bungalows are the perfect retreat for painters.
Scores of painter's homestays in the Ubud area-Mimpi's, W Wayan Serathi's, I Wayan Suka's, to name a few-give lessons (look for the sign "Painter & Homestay"). Certain galleries, like Agung Rai in Peliatan, offer lessons to foreign artists. Or you may want to see if you can get accepted as a student in the Balinese Art Development Center Program on Jl. Bayusuta (in the Art Center in Abiankapas). Always try for a student discount.
Characteristics of Balinese Paintings
For a survey of the different schools of Balinese painting, refer to the accompanying special topic. Balinese painters demonstrate an accurate and instinctive knowledge of human anatomy and a tendency to use rich decorative colors. They never lack a theme, having been filled with stories and myths from childhood on. Jungle scenes show an elaborate, riotous decoration of leaves, flowers, and animals, with every leaf and tree carefully outlined, and tiny blades of grass and insects found in the farthest corners of the canvas.
The best paintings reflect the Balinese sense of divine order, with all elements well-proportioned and balanced, and everything in its proper, harmonious place. This is why Balinese paintings are seldom executed spontaneously but are carefully preplanned-the coloring, shading, boundaries, and contours penciled in first. In many of their paintings, dozens of stories happen all at once and several different perspectives are employed, as if the scene were composed from different viewpoints.