Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Silk Painting

In 1996 I was turning 30 and looking for a new creative outlet. For the previous few years I had been focusing on digital fine art, using old photographs/scanned images and a very early version of Photoshop.

A local discount art supply store sold Deka silk paints and silk by the yard, and one day when they had a good sale I decided to go for it. I had no idea how to paint on silk, but the store provided a little Deka flyer with a few instructions. The silk needed to be stretched and suspended, so I bought a plain wooden frame at a thrift store and some pushpins. The silk paints could be painted onto the fabric with brushes (which I already had) and set by ironing, so that sounded easy enough.

I was immediately entranced with the movement of the paint across the silk. When I touched the very tip of the brush to the tightly suspended silk, the brightly-colored paint just bloomed across the surface. I tried different techniques, and found that if I painted onto wet fabric, it blended differently. If I painted a second layer over already painted silk, it blended it yet another new way.

A lot of the time I was frustrated, because at first I never seemed to have the slightest idea what was going to happen, but it was fascinating. And it seemed like no matter what happened, it ended up looking beautiful. I learned to stop having any pre-concieved goals about how anything would turn out, but just let the silk do what it wanted to do, and then go with it.

And it was in that moment that silk painting and I fell in love.  The organic quality of creating art  with the silk and paint seemed to be the exact opposite of the technical aspect of taking digital images, layering and manipulating them to create art.  I feel like art is always a collaboration between the artist and the material, and it's important for the artist to be able to listen. 

Alas, eventually our love affair became difficult.  I didn't have very much money, and had trouble affording supplies.  And I quickly found out that the silk paints would not quite hold the brilliant color once they'd been set with the iron and washed.  Unfortunately, without being washed, the painted silk would feel a bit stiff.  Apparently there were silk dyes that would retain their brilliant color after being washed, but they had to be set with steam.   In the sad pre-internet (for me, at least) dark ages, I had no idea how to get those kinds of things or how any of it worked.  The discount art supply store didn't carry any of that stuff.

So, after a few years during which I experimented with wall hangings and tiny silk paintings on greeting cards and putting silk paintings in frames, my interest in painting on silk waned.  I wanted to be able to feel silky material, AND have bright colors.  I moved on to other interests, and the super deluxe adjustable silk painting frame I'd splurged on after a bigger-than-expected income tax refund got shoved to the back of a closet.

But then!  At one point last year, during the Year of Bad Things Happening All The Time, I remembered how much I liked it.  I went to the all-knowing internet and found out how silk dyes worked, how to steam-set them, and where to buy supplies.  And I found other silk painters (like this one) who were doing amazing work.  I was inspired!

In January I dragged out my old frame and brushes and took inventory.  I ordered some supplies:  new paints and pre-hemmed scarves (oh, the gloriousness of a pre-hemmed scarf!) and set up a little studio in our sun porch.  I did a LOT of research about how to steam-set these new dyes, and was rarin' to go.

This time, I knew more or less what to expect, and when I started painting my first scarf, it was just pure joy.  Below are some pictures from that happy afternoon.

Here are my materials (new and old) gathered together:

My brand-new silk dyes, ready to paint:

The silk is held tight with little hooks:

And it's my very first attempt using my new materials!  Not perfect, but joyful and wonderful.