Hand painting silk is similar to using watercolour on paper when you apply background washes that diffuse into each other. Dye on silk flows and pigment is dispersed across the cloth. The nature of concentrated dyes radiating out across the silk often reminds me of some of those simple chromatography experiments we did in school chemistry.
One of the principle differences with dyes on silk as opposed to watercolours on paper is that the moment a line of resist is drawn on silk a barrier is created and the colour is then clearly contained and defined. Most commonly these barriers, these resist lines are gutta (a form of liquid rubber) or sometimes artisans use hot wax. The design can be simply drawn out and then coloured in with dye.
Of course, you can use thin (fine nibs) and thick lines (broad paint brushes).
Thick and thin lines of coloured gutta with some overlapping.
Thick coloured gutta lines painted with a 1/2″ brush mark the background of this design.
The resist can also be coloured with dye and painted onto the silk.
Antidiffusant can also be sprayed on to the fabric before painting which makes the silk more like paper or canvas and allows a more painterly effect.
I think more interesting silk work is achieved when a variety of methods are used for one piece. Thin and thick resists, different coloured resists and some dyes kept pure and enclosed whilst in other areas the colours are allowed to flow and bleed into each other.
Following my visit to the exhibition ‘Frayed: Textiles on the Edge’ at the Time & Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth I was inspired (as I wrote in my previous post) to use words as part of a silk scarf design.
Lorina Bulwer’s work was embroidery wool on cotton. But I work with silk, and paint work that will be worn. I chose to use chiffon as the lightweight, translucent quality allows the words to be partially glimpsed as the scarf moves and slides across the different coloured backgrounds of the clothing underneath.
You can see when the chiffon is pulled flat over either a black background or a white background just how different the colours can appear and how the words stand out more or less.
I used bold, capital letters in the manner of Lorina Bulwer’s embroidered work and painted naive, simplistic figures similar to those punctuating the original long samplers. The words are places in East Anglia and lines of text from the poetry of William Blake. Of course, gathered up and worn the text becomes even more fragmented and less obvious.
Not my favourite job – photographing squares. Of course I mean square scarves not long scarves and certainly not people! Plenty of space, good natural lighting and hopefully a still day are my preferred conditions.
My best pictures are usually taken outside, but the weather has been so grey recently it hasn’t been possible. However, today it has been full winter sunshine and what a difference that has made – people are even smiling too.
Now just need to spend a few hours in front of the computer screen photoshopping and uploading – better done on a rainy day.
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‘.