Interested in painting silk but not sure where to start? You’re in the right place.

Silk painting is an ancient technique that first originated in India and Eastern Asia in the second century CE. Many Asian countries have their own unique silk painting techniques, including Japan, China, Vietnam, and Tibet, with practices that have been passed down and perfected throughout many generations of artists.

Silk outdates both canvas and paper in terms of the earliest painting surfaces. And while the techniques and styles behind this variety of textile art do vary depending on which country’s practices you are looking at, the basics of painting silk can be used by anyone, anywhere to create stunning silk pieces for clothing or display.

To help you try it out yourself, we’ve put together a quick tutorial on painting on silk for beginners based off of this course instructed by Skillshare teacher Anastasia Gasheva. We’ll cover all of the basics that you need to know to create your own stunning silk scarf painting, plus plenty of helpful tips for making your work all your own.

Here’s what to know.

How to Paint on Silk

If your first question upon researching silk painting techniques is why is silk painting so hard?, then you just haven’t found the right tutorial yet.

Silk painting is actually a surprisingly simple type of textile art, especially once you figure out the essentials of preparing silk for painting and picking out the right types of paint to use. With that in mind, here are all of the basics of painting on silk for beginners so that you can try out the technique on your own.

What You’ll Need

It doesn’t take too many supplies to paint on silk, but you may need to make a trip to the craft store for specialty materials. 

Gather your silk painting supplies. If you haven’t painted on textiles before, this will likely require a trip to your local arts and crafts store, as well as a fabric store.

  • Silk: You should be able to find basic silk for painting at most fabric supply stores.
  • Scissors: For cutting your silk to size.
  • Water-based resist: Resist is a special type of adhesive that’s used for painting on silk since it won’t cause the silk to shrink or wrinkle when it dries. You’ll use this to outline your designs, which you’ll then fill in with your paint. Make sure to choose a water-based resist, since it will easily wash out with warm water when your painting is complete.
  • Applicator and pipette: These are optional, but will give you more control when applying resist to your fabric.
  • Pencil: For sketching out your design. Use a softer pencil instead of one with a sharp tip.
  • Mixed media paper: You’ll sketch your design here first before translating it onto your piece of silk. Mixed media paper is ideal since it has a heavier paperweight that can stand up to multiple uses.
  • Small brush: For painting. You may choose to use brushes of other various sizes too depending on the type of design that you’re going for.
  • Paints: What kind of paint do you use on silk? Stick to paints that are made specifically for silk or other types of fabric painting—Gasheva opted for watercolors in blue, yellow, and red. Many artists use liquid fabric paints, but hard watercolors are good to use too, particularly for fine detailing. Silk dye would work as well.
  • Framing supplies: Framing your silk provides you with a taut surface to work from. Use stretcher bars or a wooden frame, and secure the silk with either thumbtacks (if you want to eventually remove it from the frame) or staples. Be sure that you buy enough silk that you have several more inches of fabric than your chosen frame size, since you’ll need to have extra to secure around the sides.  

Step 1: How to Prepare Silk for Painting

attach silk to fraame
You can frame your silk when it’s still damp, though allow it to dry fully before moving on to the next step. 

How do you prepare silk for painting?

Prewash your silk before painting it, regardless of whether you’re painting silk you intend to wear or frame. Use a silk detergent such as Synthrapol to maintain the integrity of the fabric, and gently hand wash unless the fabric tag says otherwise. 

If you’re going to be framing your silk, do this prior to painting as well. Stretch the silk over the frame and use thumbtacks or staples to secure it into place. You want the silk to be nice and taut to prevent sagging or wrinkling, though don’t pull it too tight or you may damage the delicate fabric.

Step 2: Sketch and Transfer Your Design

sketch on the silk
Work slowly and with a light touch when transferring your sketch since it’s difficult to erase mistakes on silk. 

Using your soft pencil and mixed media, draw a sketch of the design that you want on your silk. If you want to stay authentic to the roots of silk painting, check out some of our Chinese painting courses, which cover how to draw things like lotus flowers, crocus flowers, and bamboo, all of which translate beautifully to silk art.

When your design is ready, place your paper under your panel of pre-washed and dried silk and use your soft pencil to trace and transfer onto the fabric. This is a preferable method to sketching out your design directly on the silk since you’ll have more room to make (and fix) mistakes by working on paper first.

Step 3: Add On Your Water-Bases Resist

use a small bottle
Transferring your resist to a smaller applicator bottle will help a lot with precision. 

Now it’s time to outline your pencil marking in water-based resist.

Fill your pipette bottle with the resist so that you can work from a finer applicator tip. From there, slowly trace your pencil markings with the resist, using even pressure and keeping your hand steady to accurately outline your sketch.

As you go, occasionally check the back of your fabric to make sure that the resist is penetrating through. If it’s not, you may end up with paint or dye bleeding along the edges. When you’re done, allow the resist to dry completely, either by leaving it out in a well-ventilated area or using a blow dryer set to medium heat and held several inches away from the fabric.

Step 4: Paint

paint the design
Anastasia illustrates using the “wet on wet” technique to paint the larger surface areas of her piece. 

When it’s time to paint, set out your paints or dyes and brushes so that you have everything ready.

Dip your brush into the paint color of your choice and get to work, keeping in mind that your paint will spread slightly on the silk as you apply it. Don’t work too close to the resist, since you don’t want to accidentally paint it. You’ll still be able to get clean lines by painting near enough to the resist that the paint spreads in that direction.

You can play around with different techniques here, using lines, dots, or broad strokes as needed to bring your sketch to life. For fine detailing, it’s best to use a small, lightly damp brush dipped in a hard watercolor paint. This will prevent too much spreading and allow you to get more exact lines.

Another technique to try is “wet on wet” silk painting. To do it, wet the area that you intend to paint with a brush dipped in clean water, then apply your paint directly on the wet surface. You’ll get more spreading, but it’s a good technique for large surface areas and layering your colors.

finish painting
You’re nearly done!

Step 5: Set Your Design

Your last step is to set your design so it stays in place. Give your painted silk a full 24 hours to dry, then set with either heat or steam, depending on the directions on the type of fabric paint that you used. Once the paint is set, you can gently rinse your silk in warm water to remove the resist.

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