When dye is applied to untreated silk it will run and spread in beautiful but unpredictable ways. To gain real control, when you need it, requires the use of a resist of some sort either to create a linear barrier or simply to restrict the flow of dye within the silk.
The most common forms of resists in silk painting are probably gutta, outliner and wax. Gutta and outliner are often used as synonymous terms but strictly speaking, gutta is based on a latex-like substance and is diluted with a solvent whereas outliner is water based. They can both be used to create a barrier in the fabric that the dye cannot pass thus delineating a particular area and giving control to the artist. Both gutta and outliner can be bought in a tube with a thin nozzle but more control can be gained by using a pipette with a nomographic nib of a size suitable for the width of line required, or indeed a brush if a freer line or mark is required. Gutta has to be removed after the dyes have been fixed by using a bath of white spirit or by dry cleaning whereas outliner can be removed by washing in warm water. For brevity I’ll use the term gutta to mean either gutta or outliner in the rest of this page but will highlight any pertinent differences.
A common charasteristic of silk painting is the use of a gutta line to delineate areas of colour sometimes giving almost a mosaic effect. A visible gutta line can also be used in semi abstract designs such as this Tulips scarf. In this piece the graphic quality of the lines is part of the overall design and desired effect.
A fascinating use of gutta, described in detail in Susan L Moyer’s book ‘Silk Painting for Fashion and Fine Art’, is that of linear underpainting. This gets round the visual problem of having an obvious line around every element of a painting by applying shaded dye underneath where you want the line to be, then applying a clear gutta line fixing the underneath colour in place. This can give a very painterly effect to a design. Leonard Thompson uses a variation on this theme, called sequential gutta, which this painting of Cymbidium on the left shows to beautiful effect. You can find an excellent demonstration of his technique, along with many of his paintings, by visiting his web site.
A variation of this technique is to paint a background then outline shapes in clear gutta. The artist can then paint into the outlines. The result after fixing and cleaning the silk is one of a defined shape without a line round it. In this example on the right, the watery background was painted first, the seals were outlined and then their contours were painted within the shape. In effect I’ve used gutta to control the flow of dye without the line itself being apparent so that the viewer’s eye is drawn to the shapes and soft transitions of colour rather than linear detail. You can see the complete painting in the Gallery.
Wax resist techniques have been documented back to the second century AD. Melted wax can be applied with a variety of implements such as toothbrushes, combs, cotton buds and printing blocks of various kinds but the most common are brushes and the traditional tjanting. Wax applied freely with a brush can create very vibrant paintings but very subtle, complex effects can be achieved by applying wax in layers, using a faux batik technique. This requires a very careful, structured approach, working from light to dark. The palest colours are painted first then wax is applied in areas which the artist wishes to remain that colour. The next section is waxed out and the next colour is then applied, bearing in mind that it is being added to the original colour eg if the second colour was blue then it would appear blue where it had been painted over plain silk but green where it overlapped with the previously painted yellow areas. Another layer of wax is then applied to keep some sections green/blue. This process could be repeated many times and, in the hands of a skilled exponent, can give spectacular results.
This detail of a painting of dolphins uses this technique in a fairly simple way – it’s comparatively straightforward to control colour combinations when all the colours are shades of blue! You can see the complete painting in the Gallery.
Other things can be used to create a linear barrier in a piece of silk, such as watercolour masking fluid and thick cornflour solution. Neither of these give as crisp a line as gutta but can give interesting and unusual effects and textures. Try out whatever comes to mind – if it doesn’t work you’ve lost little but if it does work you have a new technique in your toolbox!
There are a number of other ways to restrict the flow of dye through a piece of silk. A mechanical technique that most people are familiar with is that of tie dying which involves tieing or wrapping sections of fabric firmly with thread so that dye does not penetrate parts of the material. This often results in a radiating circle design reminiscent of the ’70s although many other patterns are possible.
A more sophisticated form of this is called Shibori, a group of techniques which originated in Japan and which involves folding, twisting or pleating fabric and then applying pressure in some way by, perhaps, securing with thread or by clamping plates around the manipulated fabric. When it is dyed/painted beautiful textures and patterns are created.
Another technique is to use a thickener. This is sold by each silk paint/dye manufacturer and is sometimes called epaissisant. This is a clear, thickening agent with the consistency of cloudy honey. When mixed with dyes it gives a creamy consistency and can then be painted on to the silk where it sits without the dye spreading through the silk. The consistency is not dissimilar to that of a soft, creamy oil paint although it’s not as easy to apply. The fabric can feel a little stiff when it is dry but that disappears after fixing to give the usual fluid feel to the silk. The intensity of colour is sometimes diminished because of the diluting action of mixing a dye with something else but it does allow control and unusual effects. This painting of poppies was done with thickened dye over a pale wet in wet wash. The home made version of thickener uses Manutex, a powdered seaweed, which is mixed with water and left to thicken. It is then used in the same way as the commercial version.
The last group of resists form a base coat on to which the dyes are painted. These are usually called antispread or antifusant agents. Dye can be prevented from spreading by pre-treating the silk with a variety of preparations and solutions. These are painted over the piece of silk and allowed to dry. The dyes are then painted on top. The earliest version of this was probably rice water which the Chinese and Japanese applied in layers to enable them to paint fine detail.
Nowadays each manufacturer produces its own bottle of antifusant but excellent results can be achieved by raiding the kitchen. For instance, solutions can be made of salt or sugar and used in the same way as the commercial preparations. The effects are slightly different and less predictable but some delightful textures can be created. Salt solution, for instance, will sometimes separate dyes out into their component colours giving beautiful, rainbow like effects.
However, some of the most beautiful silk paintings have utilised the free flowing qualities inherent in dyes on silk, wet on wet techniques and the technique of moving dye around on the fabric using alcohol or water to create subtle, organic shapes – but that’s another subject …