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.
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.