Saturday, February 21, 2009
evolution of a ratbird
This is a little how-to post dedicated to my dear friend Seraphine because she's shown such interest in the silks. Making the little bags is a complex process but somehow I don't tend to think about them as an artistic one since there are so many parts involved it becomes somewhat mechanical. Maybe that's just because it's a procedure I've internalized now and that's something that doesn't happen when I'm drawing and making the moment by moment decisions required with watercolor.
Anyway, I'll tell you a little more about how these are done and how, at the end, one can be disappointed with a result but not so much you aren't willing to try again. The process begins with a drawing done in india ink on good quality paper. In this case, as in most, it's a pretty young girl with an unusual headdress.
I use a stable stretcher frame whose inside dimensions are 12"x18" with pushpins hammered into the top edge at 3" intervals that match each other from one side to the other. I'd put them closer but need to leave room for my wrist to fit between the needle sharp silk pins. Then a piece of very dense silk charmeuse about 4"x16" is placed in the center. I attach rubber bands to the open ends of the silk pins and stretch the piece until it's held firm and well balanced.
I pin the drawing to the underside as close to the main parts of the character as I can but without touching it. Now here comes the weird part. The silk I use is so dense that I can't see the image underneath in normal light but I do have a small light box which I plug in and place under the stretched, pinned piece. Essentially, I paint the most complex parts in the dark.
My main colors have been pre-mixed in tiny batches with a dilute solution of thickener. While I'm working I remix shades and paint in facial, neck and hand contours while the dyes are still damp. I'll also paint in design elements that don't touch the character body. After an hour or two my eyes will be tired from the concentration, as well as having turned the main drawing lamp off and on multiple times to see how it's progressing, that I just tidy everything up and finish for the evening while everything dries.
The next steps involve repinning the drawing from the inside and working inside the oval frame. Once that part's done I remove the template and draw the outside design directly on the silk using fabric pens. This part goes much more quickly as I paint the main parts of the design. While the sections dry I open up the computer and come visiting or read my book for a while.
Once the whole piece is done and dry I use a metallic gutta (like a thick glue) to outline and highlight the piece. With this one, the first in over a year, I made the mistake of not removing it from the stretcher first. You have to be able to make smooth movements to do this and be able to squeeze the little tube of gutta so it flows evenly. There I was standing bent over the drawing table doing that, while trying to avoid the silk pins, making a serious design error resulting in 'ratbird with beak stuck in weird metallic flower shape'.
While I'm still in painting mode I take a second piece of charmeuse, stretch it, draw a complementary design and paint it as the lining of the little bag. Some of these get pretty complex on their own depending on my mood.
The last part of the process involves ironing the back of the silk at high temperature through a cover cloth. Then comes the steaming. A scarf is so big I'll just do one but the bag pieces are small enough that I'll wait until I have 4-6 painted ones. Laying them on plain white newsprint making sure they don't touch each other I roll them into a tight cylinder that I tape with masking tape. Then the cylinder gets rolled into a tight spiral using butcher string and slip knots. I have an eight gallon steamer pot with a basket that sits about 4" above the bottom which I fill with 2-3" of cold water. The basket goes in, a little dome of tin foil same size as silk package goes in (leaving room for steam holes around the edge), package goes on top with same size tin foil cap (can't have any direct drips), then two weeks worth of newspaper goes on top of pot (at least they're good for something), then a thick towel, then the heavy lid on top of it all. With the burner set to 'medium low' I go away (but not too far) for 2+ hours while it cooks.
Then it's unwrap, marvel at clarity and sharpness of color, let rest for 24 hours. The mechanics of the last part involve multiple washings, rinsing with white vinegar as well as plain water and water with cream rinse. Fine silk is much like fine hair. Then I sew them by machine (round the nice curves), turn, steam iron and hand finish with embroidery thread. When one turns out really well (as most do in actuality) it will look something like this:
Okay, it will be getting dark soon and may be time to start working on a new version of what turned into 'ratbird' this time. The next one will be much better, I'm sure.
If you'd like to try one of your own I'd be delighted to see your results. That doesn't necessarily mean you Seraphine. I remember the story of the t-shirt :-)