It is the first of December and still we haven’t had a severe frost. Usually by now all the dahlias have been blackened and the garden reduced to its winter skeleton of leafless shrubs and trees punctuated by a few structural evergreens. This autumn has been very wet for East Anglia and even the sunflower seed heads have rotted into an unattractive slimy state. On Saturday morning I’d waited long enough for the frost and decided to tidy up my front garden clearing it of all the soggy, green mess.
The upside of these weather conditions is that as I work my view of the back garden is still very green, even on a grey day like today, which is probably why my latest scarf is featuring parsley greens and wheatsheaf golds.
As with all creative processes, repeating it rarely results in a second identical copy and as often as not a practitioner makes minor adjustments each time they make a new piece for a series.
Obviously, in my Ranworth collection I have used different panels from the rood screen as inspiration for different colour combinations, but as I’ve worked on each scarf I have also slightly changed the pattern details too.
Details from St Bartholomew and St James
Hilda Ruby silk twill scarf
These scarves have ended up similar, but different. I have endeavoured to capture the relationship between my inspiration and the finished work, but it is tricky to accurately reproduce the qualities of the colours in a photo for a computer/mobile screen. (For your info at the moment these scarves are at the Smiths Row at Christmas Exhibition).
When the unnamed medieval artisans rendered their very beautiful images onto the Ranworth rood screen the colours would have been fresh and vibrant. Perhaps those artisans would be shocked at our 21st-century sensibility that so favours these now scarred and faded images not for their religious content, but their visual charm and serendipitous survival.
The beauty of working with liquid dyes directly on cloth is that the colours flow. It is possible to apply dye with a paint brush, sponge or even balls of dye-soaked cotton wool. Colours flow into each other in a similar manner as watercolour does on a dampened page, but often more definition is required to make an interesting piece that has both depth and movement in the design. Controlling the flow of dye can be achieved by making the surface of the silk temporarily ‘resistant’ by applying a wash of anti-diffusant over an area or by containing the dye flow within an area by drawing resist lines. I like to draw out and contain the flow using water based gutta (the resist agent) which I colour with dye.
Once I have settled on the rough design for a silk scarf I make a few templates of the main shapes so that I can place them across the stretched silk and map out the piece. I ‘draw’ out with coloured gutta (image 1 above) or paint larger shapes with a brush dipped in the coloured gutta (circles on image 2 above).
Once the gutta has dried it’s time to begin painting the silk and as you can see the colour pulls the work together.
Then, two or three days later depending on the size and complexity of the design all the colour has been applied and the scarf is ready to be rolled in paper and steamed for a couple of hours. Once the dyes are fixed it is time to wash out the gutta, dry and press. Now, on to the next colour combination in this collection.
Following sorting through my collection of Ranworth photographs (see previous post) it is time to begin working up the design, its shapes and colours.
First, I look for an appealing sequence of motifs and patterns.
Then, I open one or two photos on the computer screen and with continual reference to these images I start to mix the colours I want to use. It is worth noting that it’s only really since the mid-19th century when William Henry Perkin discovered aniline dyes that the option for very bright, clean colours has been available. Even if used as a dilution, the basic, unmixed dyes are too sharp, too harsh. For my work to achieve the more muted, slightly muddy colours similar to the variety of pigments, dyes and gilding of the medieval screens, I mix either a little brown or grey into each colour blend.
Once I’m happy with the colours I work up some small scale designs in my sketchbook.
Recently I have been working on my ‘Ranworth Collection’, a series of painted scarves that have been inspired by the medieval rood screen of St Helen’s church, Ranworth in Norfolk. The painted rood screens of East Anglia make a stunning contribution to the region’s heritage. Also as they can still be found at their original sites they provide a very tangible connection to the past lives of medieval East Anglians within some physical context.
Nowadays, these painted screens are appreciated as exquisite examples of medieval art, yet at the time of their construction and painting they were created by artisans and craftsmen and were objects of religious piety. Of course, in the late-fifteenth century the very notion of ‘an artist’ as we understand it today was a developing concept that was only just becoming established.
I don’t call myself an artist, but an artisan as my current creations do not have an overt, considered content other than their visual design. Not even if my collection of one-off pieces was to be presented as a whole in an exhibition could I name it an ‘art installation’. I have made art in the past when I set out to produce a visual representation of a sequence of experiences that were personally significant to me. However, I arrive at the creation of a painted scarf in a very different way although I employ the same techniques.
For a textile design my creative process begins with a visit to a place that has caught my attention. Sometimes it is the exterior architectural details of a medieval structure or a small carved detail found inside a church that offer potential to be translated into a two dimensional design. But with the ornate detail of the painted screens it is not just the intricate patterns that are so carefully rendered, but also the delicate, fading colours of the images that I find inspirational.
On a visit I take between 50 to 100 photographs of the various panels that make up the rood screen. I check the website for the parish church before I visit to ensure I won’t be intruding on a service and I try to start early before the tourists and visitors arrive at the more popular places. It takes at least an hour to shoot an interesting screen and, of course, there is absolutely NO FLASH when photographing 500 year old paintings.
Back at the coal face, sorry computer screen, I then start the process of selection and elimination. This procedure clarifies my visual impressions from standing in front of the originals and my own designs for pattern and colour combinations gradually crystallize as I select images from which to work.
I have just finished and uploaded five painted chiffon scarves to my shop. Pink, navy, orange and turquoise, it all flits by so quickly as you click around the images, but altogether it is a month’s worth of work!
And, for all those folks reading this in the UK, tomorrow,
Friday 3rd October is ‘Buy British Day‘.
We have an expression here in England, I used to say it a lot when I lived in London “You wait half an hour for a bus and then three come along at once!”. Well, in this case three pieces of my work have just been featured in three different publications.
I applied to be in the UKHandmade Showcase for jewellery and accessories, and they chose this scarf to fit in with the overall muted colours of their spread. (First bus)
Agnes Ashe Ophelia Lilac
Ophelia Lilac 100% silk
Detail Ophelia Lilac scarf
Over the weekend I was checking out the UKHandmade site and looked at the latest edition of their magazine – UKHandmade Magazine Autumn 2014 and, surprise, another of my scarves has been included on the inside front cover. (Second bus)
Guild’s Year Book 2014
My work featured in gallery.
And, finally, arriving in the post this morning, was the Guild of Silk Painters Year Book 2014 with another pleasant surprise – another scarf, another photo. (Third bus).
About four times a year I collect together my recent work and spend a day having my scarves modelled and photographed. Every time I’ve done this I have started out with a vague idea of what I wanted, but never clear or strong enough to get instant results. But of course, nothing is simply instant and now experience has shown me that it always takes two or three hours minimum before we start to achieve some worthwhile images.
All my product photographs are in colour as if you are going to buy a scarf you want to see what colour it is. But every now and then a shot just looks so much better in black and white.
Working to a tight brief can be a rewarding experience. I think the key to success is to help the client crystallize their ideas as early in the design process as possible. It may be they just have a particular colour palette in my mind and the rest is down to me or they may have a very clear idea of the finished piece.
In the past I have asked people to send me a mini mood board. That is simply a postcard with scraps of magazines, fabrics, dried petals or even feathers stuck to it, indicating the overall feel they want their silk to have.
More often though nowadays putting together a selection of pictures on Pinterest can work equally as well as a starting point. (I keep and add to several boards almost on a daily basis for visual inspiration). Online photos grouped together can certainly indicate a general, wished-for ‘look’, but care has to be taken if true colour matching is required as screen colours and printed colours rarely accurately reflect ‘real life’ fabric colours. And, in some cases the colours are so wildly inaccurate a blue could be called green! In reality this dress is a paler softer peach colour with pale pink highlights that shimmer as the chiffon glides over the pink silk lining – an effect not captured in a still photograph.
Well, I know where to look so I can just see my model in the distance, but, what a relief, not me. Below is the shop badge that Etsy have sent me to use absolutely all over the place! Professionally taken photograph of my model – thank you very much.
Here’s my non-professional photo taken on the set whilst patiently waiting for the next take.