silk painting tests

i’m going off to north iceland for an art residency in july.  lucky me.  i want to thank everybody who made it all possible, and you don’t know who you are but thank you anyway.  while i’m there, i’ve been asked to teach a workshop on silk painting, and these are the notes i took while i tested my materials and lesson plan.

see, i’m not a teacher type; i’m more a cheerleader.  my methods aren’t methodical enough to pass on, and my main point is that there’s a learning curve, and you’ve got to get in there and learn by experimentation and practice.  i just teach you how to mix up the colors and apply them, really.  and encourage the artist within to come out and play.

my philosophy with regards to art materials is to cut out the middleman.  i make all my own art supplies whenever possible, and the mystery is gone for me, while other people are bewildered by the hype.  so i will be showing my students how to mix up their own dyes, instead of offering handy little bottles of proprietary mixtures that nobody knows what’s in them.  i could go on ranting, but i won’t.  you can always go back to working with the little bottles.  they are admittedly more reliable, but that’s anathema to a process artist.

so what you have here is a blog post about all the testing i have to do with my materials in order to get ready to show people who have no experience everything i know.  which, i know, right?

first i mixed up a batch of mx fiber reactive dyes.  i use cyan (green-blue), magenta (purple-red), yellow (and black) as my primary colors, and mix every other color from these three, watering it down to produce light shades, and adding black to darken the color.  i tested these dyes on some handkerchiefs all stretched out next to each other on stretcher bars.  i painted one handkerchief a day, trying to test how quickly the dye mixtures would deteriorate, or become weaker.  and really i found no difference, even after a couple of weeks sitting on my table in mason jars.

FORMULAE (first stab)

first i mixed up a big jar of chemical water with which to mix the dye.  the recipe calls for a cup of water total, i mixed up a quart and a half.

Chemical Water (from pro chemical)

3/4 cup (188 ml) warm 120F (49C) water
5 tsp (20 gm) Urea (optional, a wetting agent)
1 tsp (6 gm) Citric Acid Crystals (or 11 tsp distilled vinegar)
1/4 tsp (1.25 ml) Synthrapol (detergent)
Water to equal one cup (250 ml)

this is mixed up and kept in a closed jar forever, kind of. to mix up the dye, you take a cup of this chemical water and very slowly mix it INTO several teaspoons of powdered dye, making sure it’s dissolved, and trying not to breathe any of the powder.

Water Based Resist

1 tsp sodium alginate (a little goes a long way)
couple of splashes rubbing alcohol (wetting agent)
1/4c hot water
1/2 teaspoon urea
pinch calgon (water softener)

splash a little rubbing alcohol into a jar containing the powdered sodium alginate.  then dissolve the urea and calgon in hot water, add the alginate/alcohol mix and stir until well blended. it’ll be way lumpy at first. let it sit in the fridge for a couple of hours, or overnight.  it should have the consistency of cold honey.  then ‘pour’ it into little squeeze bottles with small holes that you can use as applicator tips.

Dye Mix

for this first test batch, i mixed up 2 tablespoons of turquoise (cyan), 1 tablespoon of magenta, a large 1 tablespoon of yellow, and 2 tablespoons of black.  this is roughly what they recommend.  sort of.

now, for this first scarf, basically a color chart for the three primaries, i made a grid with the resist, and then painted in one column and row per day, so to check the life of the dye.  a yellow stripe, a red stripe, a blue stripe, a black stripe.  as you can see it makes no or little difference how old the dye was (only 5 days, not much of a test).  the first day was the extreme left column and bottom row, and you can see the numbers 3, 4, and 5, which are still marking the day’s work even after i hit everything with clear water, which i tend to do because it’s good to see how well the colors move when wet.

here are the results of my first test, a batch of 11×11 inch silk scarves.  i’m showing them to you after they were finished and washed and ironed, so they’ve faded all they’re going to.


the next one was a nebula scarf, where i put down ‘stars’ with tiny marks of alginate resist, and star-formation areas with sugar syrup resist, then wetting the whole thing and tossing salt onto it,  you can’t really see the stars in the finished scarf, so that means the resist wasn’t resisting enough.  the sugar syrup moved well, dissolving into the dye, making interesting runs.  and the salt did what salt always does, and collected the dye to itself, making great splotches and streaks.


the earth and moon was more of the same, only the resist lines were important and were supposed to hold. you can see where the moon bled out on the back side, so obviously it was crying out for another resist line over the first one, and i didn’t catch it in time.  the stars inside the gunge layer around the earth, and out in space showed up pretty well, so that’s good, and the sugar resist lines on the face of the earth also worked nicely.


now for some detail work, to see how that holds up.  this is a rather fanciful map of iceland, done up as a troll but still retaining all the landscape features (that big white blob is a glacier).  it was all done with water based resist, and i only used salt around the edges.  the resist held up nicely.


this is a dragon, taken from a pattern jim drew years ago, when i first started doing dragon scarves.  it’s the one most people want me to give them, so i do a few every year from the same pattern.  i’ve also made a quilt from dragons.  fun to work with, and such a symbol of strength; a great scarf to wear.

anyway, it reacted just as it always does. the blue was rather stronger than the other colors, tho.  else that or the yellow and red were very weak.


my conclusion on this test was that the blue was too strong.  2-3 times the strength of the red and yellow.  so the next batch called for an adjustment in strength.  but for now, i continued with the dyes i had, and started on a new design.  i need something easy so that beginners can complete a scarf they can be happy with, and something challenging so that seasoned artists can pick up the deeper principles of the craft.  and as you’ll see, i came up with a series of somethings that were too hard for me to complete without drastic and embarrassing mistakes.  so the next few pictures detail scarves i will not be teaching, just so you can follow the process.


first, draw a pattern.  i did this one freehand, and never really liked the rhythm of it.  but figured i’d go with it.  it’s a color chart, of sorts, and i want to give the students all the experience making a color chart provides (learn your materials).


then, transfer the pattern to the scarf using resists.  you might be able to see that the lines in the middle of the scarf are thicker, gooier than the rest of the lines.  the middle lines are sugar resist, and the outer lines are alginate.  this will make a difference later, because i’m going to violate the sugar resist lines to make the colors run, and will try my hardest not to violate the alginate lines.


a close up shows the goopiness of the sugar syrup.  as ever, the idea of the resist lines is to keep the dye within boundaries, and that means that the resist lines need to be solid, joined at every part, or else dye will seep thru even the tiniest gap.


and here are my primary dyes.  i’m not sure if i have a picture of the end result, but i have put a measured amount of dye into the cups at these positions, and will be mixing the primary colors into the empty cups in order to make every color in the rainbow.  i will be filling in the scarves in this order, also.


first i put on these three primaries.  you can see an m on the left, where i put the magenta.


the process i went thru here was to mix a certain number of drops of yellow and a certain number of drops of magenta into the empty space between red and yellow, and to call this orange.  same with the green, a few drops of yellow and just a touch of blue.


as it went on, i mixed other colors, here a purple and a red violet.  and it seems i’ve put the complementary green over the red “m” stripe.


the purple is the complement, or opposite, of the yellow. the little stem between the two shows what they look like mixed together.  i put a coat of yellow into the stem, and when it dried i put a coat of purple over it.  it makes a nice rich brown.  all the complements should mix to be a nice brown, since they contain all three primary colors.  how this works in practice isn’t so easy (see what happened to the “m” line on the left).


the colors on there now are, clockwise from top – turquoise capping orange, blue green capping red orange, a blob of green attached to the side of magenta (the “m”), yellow green capping red purple, and yellow capping purple.  these are the opposites on the color wheel, and make up half the color wheel, just done up differently.

at this point, i spent some considerable time touching up the colors, making the purple halfway in tone between cyan and magenta, making the orange look orange instead of red orange or orange red.  and of course, changing one color meant changing the nearby colors to harmonize.  all in all a couple of days tinkering with the tones.


now i have put a black stripe into the space i outlined with resist, i believe it must be sugar syrup resist.


and now i’ve drawn in chevrons in the middle part, and painted around them with black.


and this is what it looks like before i start messing with it.


this is a closeup of the before.  you can see where the black has started to bleed thru the sugar syrup resist line, especially to the right.  that’s because i didn’t let the line dry before painting,  with alginate resist, you can wait half an hour and it’ll be dry; with sugar syrup you can wait days if it’s humid outside.


see those runs?  i took the stretcher off the bricks that was holding it off the tabletop, and turned it vertical on top of the bricks.  then i took my spray bottle and spritzed it a couple of times, and let it run.  when it was dry i turned it upside down and sprayed it again, and let it run.


then i set it back flat on the bricks and sprayed it again (with a towel underneath), then took a large brush and clear water and violated all the lines, both sugar resist and alginate resist lines.  then i salted it heavily.  and then i went back in with strong colors and oversaturated the colors, just to encourage them to move and mix, and then i went in with black to violate the lines in some places, and sprayed it with water again.  i used all my kosher salt.  then i had to add more dye to the outside border to make it run.


et voila.  a mess.


i love making messes.


this is what all this looks like up close.  when you get sugar syrup wet and pour salt into it, you get this gooey oozing glaze that dries to a crackly finish (if it dries at all).


you can really see the salt.  by now the salt particles are dyed themselves.  i will collect them after i brush them off the scarf, and use them again for their interesting effects.


the grandkid is holding the scarf wrapped in its newsprint.  i wrapped it the long way so to make a long thin bundle instead of a fat short bundle, the way you’d normally roll something 11×60.


this is my steamer, a small vegetable steamer about 4″ high.  the dye bundle is all rolled up and tied with rubber bands.  there’s as much water in the bottom under the seive as the pot will hold without coming up over the holes when it boils.


i put the bundle in a plastic bag and poked plenty of holes in the bag,  i rolled the top, and left it open.


i put the bag and bundle into the steamer upside down, so that the bundle rests on the open rolled part of the bag, and allows as much steam as possible to enter the bundle, while protecting it from condensation dripping off the pot lid.  very important.

i put the lid on and steamed it for an hour or so.  it all depends.  some references say three hours, some say 45 minutes.  i always err on the side of boiling it to death.


here’ s what the bundle looked like after steaming on the stove for an hour.  i took it apart and reversed the wrapping so that both ends of the scarf would be steamed.  how can i tell the one end was steamed?  there’s bleedthru on the part in the middle (which was the part on the outside), and so i reversed it and put it back in for another while, hoping to get both sides equally done.


and this is what it looks like when it’s all washed out and everything,  it’s backward from what i’ve been showing you – ooops.  a lot of the black has toned down, and a bunch of stuff has washed out and faded, but the general color chart gradient shows up.

at this point i rethunk the design and did another one, this time without a lot of the black.  i thought the black in the middle was overwhelming, and thought i would reduce the space between curves to limit the black to only about half an inch.  i played with turning the curves into angular pieces, or intertwining colors intstead of having a neutral background.  but i wasn’t happy with the whole idea,


see where the dye bled onto the newsprint.  this is a sign that the dye has been steamed, and is presumably set into the fabric.


the second curves scarf design.  both interesting, both awkward.


i even got out one of my old color chart scarf designs and did it up, hoping to finally make something i wouldn’t screw up (not suitable for class).  and in this case, the scarf bled on itself there at the middle part of the tail.  see the purple bleed spots? and thruout the scarf in other places.

so i gave up on those ideas and decided to make something i could deal with.  a series of circles overlapping each other.  i had it all figured out, where the circles in the middle would go the whole rainbow gamut, and the circles on the outside would contain the complementary colors of each of the circles in the middle.  which meant using the same color scheme in mixing up my dyes.  but first, altering the dye mixture formula.

Second Try at Dye Mixing

1 cup of chemical water (above)
and mixed in different jars
1 tablespoon turquoise
2 teaspoons magenta (that’s 2/3 of a tablespoon)
a large 2 tablespoons yellow
3 tablespoons black

this produced some interesting effects.  like, the yellow dye and the red dyes never really dissolved, even tho i had no trouble with them at the concentrations i started with earlier.


for the final pattern, i took out my protractor and adjusted it so that it would make 13 interlocking circles down the length of the brown paper, cut to the size of my scarves.  i wanted to make them small enough to leave lots of room at the top and bottom, but large enough to cover the whole spectrum from magenta to magenta, which is 12 (or a spread of four colors for each primary color – red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange).


using the protractor, i traced out the secondary circles above and below, and made nice fat legible lines with a magic marker.  then i stretched the scarf over the pattern, secured it with clips, and drew in the resist lines on the scarf.  when i was finished with that, while it was still wet (being careful not to let any part of the scarf touch any other part of the scarf), transferred it from the paper onto the stretchers.


where i started putting on the colors.  when i did this last time, i mixed up all the colors in the cups, right on my palette.  and found that because the concentrations of the dyes weren’t equal, that i had to constantly adjust the colors on the scarf, which came to resemble the colors in the cups not at all, so this time i did it my way,


i took my red, and put it on the first four of the circles.  then i went back and put another coat on the first three circles, and when that had dried, another coat on the first two circles, and then a final coat on the first circle.  and then i did the same thing with the yellow, with the second circle only getting one yellow coat, the third circle getting two, the fourth circle getting three coats of yellow, and the yellow circle getting bunches of yellow.  in this way, the colors mixed themselves on the scarf, and all i had to do was the same tinkering i’d been doing with the other scarves, without the headache of counting drops.

DSCN8400.and so on down the line.  here’s the range from yellow orange to blue


from blue green to red violet.


from blue to red.


and here’s what it looks like when all the colors are filled in.



and here’s how it looks when i’m finished mixing it with black and making the black bleed toward the outside of the scarf.  i’m pretty sure i took a brush with clean water and violated all the lines within the middle circles, so that the colors would bleed into each other a bit.


this is before steaming.


see how the intersecting circles on the outside of the middle circles are all brown and muddy looking?  that’s the complementary mixing again.



it’s important to note that you can’t get away without steaming your scarf, or setting it some how.  it’s too bad, because i always have problems with fading.


but you’ll notice that the muddy mixing of the complementary colors washes right down to something nice once it’s been washed.

DSCN8419 DSCN8420DSCN8421   DSCN8422

i think the thing to note is the difference between batches of dyes.  i used 2 tablespoons of cyan to a cup of water the first time, and it was way too much.  i used 1 ttablespoon cyan the second time, and it was too weak.  i used way too much yellow the second batch, 2+ tablespoons, and not enough magenta at 2 teaspoonfulls, and probably way too much black.  i will have to think about this.  now, this batch of dyes was all wrong.  so the next batch i will do, hopefully i can do a final test batch before the workshop, will use approximately these measurements.

Proposed Dye Mixture

to each cup of chemical water
1 tb turquoise
1 tb magenta
1 tb yellow
1 tb black.

we’ll see.  below are the recommended amounts from paula burch’s website.

Table I. Amount of dye to use for one cup (250 ml) of mixture for tie-dyeing.

pale medium dark black recipe
½ tsp.
or 1 g**
2 tsp.
or 5 g**
4 tsp.
or 10 g**
8 tsp.
or 20 g**
2 or more tsp. Jacquard
two to eight tsp., depending on color*** 4x as much Dharma

*abbreviations: tsp. = teaspoon = 5 ml; tbs. = tablespoon = 15 ml; g = gram = 1/28 dry ounce.
**Note that the weights and volumes given are often not equivalent. Dyeing by weight gives more reproducible results.
***see section about different colors, above



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