The Differences Between Silk Painting and Silk Dyeing

When people ask me what I do, I often say, “I’m an artist” or “I’m a silk painter.” In reality, I’m a silk dyer. I mostly use a paint brush to paint dye. Since there aren’t many silk painters (especially in the St. Louis area), people really don’t know the difference between the two. That’s not a bad thing. Most non-fiber artists really cannot differentiate between what is painted and what is dyed silk.

Last night I hosted an art reception of my silk exhibit at the St. Peters Cultural Arts Center. I featured my original silk dyed scarves and wall hangings and provided a demo to the group who attended to help them understand the difference.

Here is the exhibit, which is being held in the Emerald room at the Cultural Center. These pieces are almost all dyed silk using Jacquard Green Label Dyes and steam fixed. This exhibit will be on display until December 8th, 2018.

Silk is either painted or dyed horizontally. When I dye silk, I stretch it on a stretcher frame. I apply resists (either water-based or latex) and then dyes with a paint brush. Unlike watercolor, the dyes flow out on the silk. By applying resist, I am able to control the flow of dye to get the desired effect.

My stretcher system, starting with the application of resist, then dyes to the dried scarf. This method is known as the Serti method. (I featured my peacock scarf here, which is one of my most popular designs.)

After the scarf has dried, it must be steam fixed. In order for the dyes to chemically bond with the silk, steam heat must be applied. I roll the silk up in newsprint and steam them in my pressure steamer system.


“Lois,” you ask, “that tells me about silk dyeing, but what is silk painting?”

Silk paints are really fabric paints for silk. Examples of brands are Jacquard Dye-Na-Flow, Marabu Silk, and Set-a-Silk. There are many brands. Essentially, your silk is the canvas. You paint the paints like standard acrylics onto the surface of the fabric. Silk marbling is a technique of painting using silk paints. When the paints are dried, they are heat-fixed by ironing the fabric (usually the back) to get the paint to stick permanently.

How do you tell the difference between finished dyed silk and finished painted silk? Easy– the back! Dyes will color the entire silk fabric from front to back. Turn the piece over and your design will be the reverse of the front. Paints, on the other hand, stick to the painted surface of the piece but do not bleed through to the back. Turn the silk over, and you will only see a faded image of the front.

Dyes versus paints also affect the “hand” of the silk. If you feel a silk piece which has been dyed, it feels soft and drapes well. There should be no plastic feeling to the silk where paint (or even some resists) have been applied. When the surface is painted, it often feels like a relief, depending on how much paint is used. A lot of paint really does affect how the fabric drapes on your neck, if being worn as a scarf or clothing. Many people–especially true silk artists–don’t like that feeling.

So which is better?

In my opinion, it really depends on what you are painting or dyeing and what effect you wish to achieve. Generally, I feel if you are doing clothing to wear, dyes are best. Silk which is dyed properly drapes beautifully and elegantly. Case in point–silk kimonos. If you love beautifully vibrant colors, nothing beats silk dye.

However, if you are painting a wall hanging, say–where the back is never seen and the drape really doesn’t matter much–you may want to use paint to achieve what you are going for.

A lot of silk purists may try to dictate to you what is “proper” and what is not. I find this in any media. Some seasoned artists try to dictate what is right. Their way is the right way. For instance, watercolor purists will try to tell you that you can’t use white (opaque) paint or gouache. You’re supposed to rely on the translucence of your paint and the white of the paper to effect light.

If any of you know me, you know I don’t like being dictated to–especially how to convey my art. These people are simply art snobs. My advice to you is if you decide to pursue silk painting, don’t let anyone tell you how to paint. Not even me! If you want to paint, paint. If you want to dye, dye. If you want to mix, mix!

Hope you learned something from my little diatribe today. Perhaps you, too, will get turned onto silk. And if you live locally, please check out my exhibit at the Cultural Center. It’s free to all.

Thanks for visiting,