WetCanvas! Home
Home Member Services Content Areas Tools Info Center WC Partners Shop Help
Search for:

[ Home: Mixed Media/Alt. Materials/Other: Introduction To Silk Painting ]
"Introduction To Silk Painting"
Page 1 of 9

Author: Li_Newton, Contributing Editor

Brief History of Silk Painting

Silk is a beautiful gift from nature that has been cultivated for over 3,500 years. Ancient colorists and resist techniques were developed to embellish the woven cloth of silk and cotton that came from India and China. The wax resist or batik techniques of India have been documented back to the 2nd century A.D. and 200 years later the wax techniques filtered into Java, Indonesia which has become the center of the batik industry.

GUTTA is probably the most recent development in the history of resist techniques, but the origin of the craft remains something of a mystery. One could surmise that the craft has it's origins in the Indonesian Islands, where the pallaquium tree ( from which gutta- percha is obtained ) grows naturally. There are a lot of unanswered questions about how the craft spread to other parts of the world.

Silk painters from France and Hungary reported that their teachers acquired skills of the craft in France from members of the Russian Czar's family. During the Bolshevik Revolution, members of the Czar's family dispersed throughout Europe. Many fled to Paris, bringing with them the secrets of silk painting using a substance called GUTTA, and introduced the process to Western Europe.

Gutta is one of several linear barrier resists currently used in the process of painting on silk and cotton. The French loved the sensuous hand painted silk and in the 1920's, turned the gutta- serti technique into a very profitable industry.

The gutta techniques seem to have reached North America in the 1970's and eventually became a valuable asset to the surface design and textile industries as designs could be developed on silk and then printed on commercial fabric.


You will need :

Plastic cups to hold dyes
Chinese hooks and rubber bands ( cheap alternative- rubber bands and safety pins )
Thumb tacks
Vanishing markers
plastic bottle with metal applicator tip
Dyes and Gutta Resist
In addition you should have on hand:

Turpenoid to thin gutta
Salt- table and/ or rock
Tape to protect your frame edges from back bleeding
Rubbing alcohol to slow the flow of the dye
Paper towels
You will need a frame to stretch your silk. While commercial, adjustable frames are available, they are expensive. You can build your own using 1 X 2's or 2 X 4's. Make sure your wood is soft enough to be able to push in tacks. I make mine using fir for stability and then add a thin strip of pine. Build your frame approximately 3 " all around larger than your silk to accomodate the stretching. I use specific sizes repeatedly so build appropriate frames.

As a beginner, if you want to dabble, you can use an embroidery hoop.
DYES, RESISTS AND SILK - The boring but necessary facts.


TYPE 1. Dyes that must be fixed ( set ) using steam. These give the brightest, most vivid and most colorfast results. They leave no "feel" on the silk. Most are French and contain some alcohol. Dupont, Tinfix Designs, Arty's Steam Set, Procion H and Pebeo Silk are examples. These are interchangeable and can be mixed on one piece of work. *** I use these exclusively.

TYPE 2. Dyes that can be fixed using a liquid fixative, either by dipping the painted silk into the fixative or brushing the fixative onto the silk. The colors are NOT as bright as Type 1 and not as colorfast. These can also be steam set and then are almost the same as Type 1. They also leave no "feel" on the silk. Jacquard and Tinfix Designs carry this type. Do NOT mix with Type 1 dyes.

TYPE 3. Paints that are very thin, almost the consistency of dyes. They are fixed using a hot iron. They are waterbased and are very easy to work with. Colors are NOT as bright as either of the above. They do leave some "feel" on the silk. SetaSilk, Dyna-Flow, Arty's Heat Set and Silk Color are examples.

TYPE 4. Instant-Set Pigment Silk Dye, just dilute, paint on and air dry for 24 hours. No fixative, steaming or heatsetting required. Like a hybrid between a dye and a paint, it leaves a slight "feel" on the silk. The colors are much brighter and more concentrated than Type 3.


The subject of resists can be quite confusing. What's gutta ? What's a resist ? What kind of resist can be used with what kind of dye ? How do I remove the resist ? What kind of sound does gutta make when it's alone in the studio at night ? Where does it like to vacation ?

What we know for sure : A resist is anything that prevents the dye from reaching the fabric or from bleeding with other dyes; it RESISTS the dye.


Gutta is a thick substance that is made from latex ( derived from the Pallaquium tree in Indonesia.) It is used almost exclusively for the French Serti Technique of painting on silk. Gutta can be used with all dyes. It can be applied using applicator bottle with metal nib, brush or sponge. Metal nibs come in different sizes. I use the smallest available # 5. ***I use this type of gutta exclusively.

Gutta comes in clear, black, gold and silver metallics. It has a rubbery feel in contrast to the smooth drape of the silk. It has a turpenoid base and cannot be removed except by dry cleaning after steaming. ONLY the clear and one brand of black resist can be dry cleaned. The others remain on the silk and can sometimes pull at the silk. ( Use with TYPE 1 dyes. )


These are gutta- like resists that are water soluble and come out with warm water and a little elbow grease. The gutta- like resists work just like gutta and can also be tinted with dyes. Some can be steamed, others get too gummy. Water soluble resists CANNOT be dipped into fixative baths. They turn gooey and hard to remove. You can use them together but you have to paint the fixative on. ( Use with TYPE 2 dyes.)


Wax is used primarily for batik and batik variations. The wax is melted and hot wax is applied to the fabric with a brush or a tool called a tjanting. I do use wax at times to protect finished area's of a painting.

( Special Thanks to the folks at Dharma Trading Company for providing the above technical information. )


All silks are not created equal. It can be purchased by the yard or you can buy pre- cut and hemmed " scarves." These can be made into wearble art or framed and used as wall art. All natural silk has some irregularities, surface variations are to be expected and are in no way to be considered as defects.
Silks come in varying weights called " mummy" ( mm. ) The higher the number, the heavier the silk.

Some silk scarf types :
HABOTAI - also known as China silk. Straight thread woven with straight thread. Smooth. Medium color coverage.
CREPE DE CHINE- twisted thread woven with twisted thread. Thick with a slight bubble texture.
CHARMEUSE- silk woven with satin. Think Ginger Roger's gowns. Loves to hold color. Yummy !
SATIN- heat treated silk. Great sheen. Great color depth.
CHIFFON- very thin and tranparent. Very hard to work with.
Jacquard- thick silk woven with decoritive patterns within it. Makes great wallhangings.

I use pre- hemmed silks because I don't sew ! For beginner's, Habotai is a good place to start.