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 :-)


  1. Wow. I am blown away. I'm simultaneously marveling at the amount of work and love that goes into each piece and wondering where you learned all these steps in the first place!

    I love my susan original and pull it out of its safe place in my big pocketbook often so I can look at it and feel the silk. My iPod feels like a movie star because it gets to nestle inside the glamorous purse.

    Thank you for sharing your technique with us. This was really an interesting post to me.

  2. lisa - Some of the processes are routine silk painting instruction like the gutta being used as a boundary to stop the liquid dyes spreading too far which doesn't work on dense silk because it doesn't penetrate far enough. I just took what I knew of standard procedures and adapted them to my own requirements. Much like life.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the description and glad you still enjoy the little bag :-)

  3. I think we all forget how much work goes into our little pieces of art that we buy along the way. One of my favorite places is Saturday Market in Portland, Oregon. You can spend a good part of the day finding the displays where you can tell a lot of work went into the making. Thank you for the art lesson. For some of us that are not artistically inclined, we are amazed and grateful.

  4. You are such a talent. I really love learning how you do this amazing work. It gives me even a greater appreciation of your beautiful work.

    p.s. Your prize is being mailed out today.:-)

  5. you make it seem so simple but I am sure it is not! you are indeed an artist!

  6. oh my god. i'm imagining trying to connect the pins with rubber bands. i think i could do that with pins stuck in the wall, but never with fabric!
    and everything you do from there just makes my jaw drop.
    don't you ever dribble?
    doesn't your color run?
    it's inhuman, what you do.
    i'm in awe.
    thank you for sharing the process. i'll never look at your art the same way. seriously, it's like rocket science. brain surgery. getting lucky in a featherbed and having the best day of your life.
    and you do it every day?

  7. ps. there's a ratbird in all of us, waiting to get out.
    even if i'm unsure what a ratbird is. google says it's something fictional from a book series...
    did you know a herd of crows is called a murder? of course you knew...
    but i'd never describe your art as a murder of ratbirds.

  8. lol - Glad you enjoyed the lesson :-)

    belette - Praise from you makes it worth the effort.. well, not just you ;-) I kind of like giving myself artistic challenges.

    liberality - It's kind of like juggling in that knowing how something is done and doing it yourself are two different things. We all make our own fun.

  9. sera - Well, I'm delighted by your reaction but it's not so much difficult as time consuming.
    The silk pins are the little blue plastic things with triple right angled needles at the end. You could do that.
    Up to now, I haven't dribbled but I'm terribly compulsive. The colors only run when I let them.
    I don't do these every day (Ratbird was the first in a year) but when I'm on a roll I can paint 2 or 3 a week.
    I emailed one of my friends a picture of it and she wrote back saying that it was a beautiful ratbird. I'd never heard the term before.
    My Crow has never participated in a murder. He's a solitary bird and his only criminal thoughts relate to what he'd like to see happen to oligarchs.

  10. What an incredible process this is. But what I really want to know is the back story. How did you get your start and why? I know. Sometime these things just happen or evolve without explanation. Consider it a curiosity of mine.

  11. spartacus - Wow, there I was getting ready to shut down for the evening and you ask a question that has a long answer. Oh well, it's not bedtime quite yet..

    I saw my first silk paintings in Montreal in the early '70's and was absolutely blown away by the designs and intense colors. At the time I convinced the artist (from Paris) to sell me some of her dyes and I carried 20 little bottles around for 20 years. The problem was those dyes could only be diluted with alcohol and could only be finished by a very high pressure steaming process. You needed a friend in the drapery cleaning business and I didn't.

    Anyway, a few years ago I wanted to do a special window covering and remembered silk painting. I 'googled' the term and found a supplier of silk dyes in San Diego called 'Dharma Trading'. It turned out the new dyes were water soluble and that they could be steamed without a ton of pressure so it could be done at home. That was it. I got the dyes from them and silk to play with. After a couple of months I'd developed my own technique which is the one I've described here. Nowadays I buy the silk at specialty stores.

    Lastly, the bags came along because I got an iPod to take to work for long computer sessions (so I wouldn't have to listen to the red neck doctor spouting in the next office) and I didn't have pockets..

    Hope that satisfies your curiosity :-)

  12. I've got nothing to add beyond what was already said. I love learning about everyone's creative process, so merci for doing this. :)

  13. that's sheer artwork, susan... combined with craft... should bring in some coin for you :)

  14. randal - You mean you're going to give poetry writing lessons?

    :D wolf - I'm good at doing and not so good at selling. Can't have it all ;-)