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Lesson 1

Silk Painting

Gael Stirler

Seri or Silk painting is not believed to be period but it is a technique that is perfect for making long heraldic banners that float on the breeze. It is less successful for gonfalons (hanging banners) or banners that will always be displayed indoors. So far, I have found pictures of or references to unpainted silk banners, painted linen banners, and appliquéd or embroidered banners on all types of fabric. Silk painting in period didn't include serti (corral) technique using resists. It was more like painting with paint rather than dye and the silk used was a lot heavier than we use. Silk banners were often described as having only one emblem or religious figures (i.e. saints) or allegorical figures like "Justice". Gold and silver leaf was even used on cloth banners.

How Silk-painting was done in Period

Banner used as a sunshade with a gold leaf or gold embroidered Madonna

From The Craftsman's Handbook "Ill Libro dell' Arte" by Cennino d'Andrea Cennini translated by V. Thompson, Jr.

X.clxv: If you have to do palls or other jobs on silk, first spread them out on a stretcher as I taught you for the cloth. And, according to what the ground is, take chaboni (vine charcoal), either black or white. Do your drawing, and fix it either with ink or with tempered color; and if the same scene or figure has to be executed on both sides, put the stretcher in the sun with the drawing turned toward the sun, so that it shines through it. Stand on the reverse side. With your tempered color, with your fine minever brush, go over the shadow which you see made by the drawing. If you have to draw at night, take a large lamp on the side toward your design, and a small lamp on the side which you are drawing, this, on the right side; thus there might be a lighted taper on the side which is drawn on, and a candle on the side which you are drawing, if there is no sun. And if you have to draw by day, contrive to have light from two windows on the side with the drawing, and have the light from one little window shine on what you have to draw.

Then size with the usual size wherever you have to paint or gild; and mix a little white of egg with this size, say one white of egg to four goblets of or glasses of size. And when you have got it sized, if you want to lay any diadem or ground in burnished gold, to bring you great honor and reputation, take gesso sottile and a little Armenian bottle, ground very find together, and a little bit of sugar. Then with the usual size and a very little white of egg, mixed with a small amount of white lead, you put on two coats of it thinly wherever you wish to gild. Then apply your bole just as you apply it on panel. Then lay your gold with clear water, mixing with it a little of the tempera for the bole; and burnish it over a good smooth slab, or a good sound, smooth board. And stamp and punch it likewise over this board.

Furthermore, you may paint any subject in the usual way, tempering the colors with yolk of egg, laying the colors in six or eight times, or ten, out of regard for the varnishing; and then you may gild the diadems or grounds with oil mordants; and the embellishments with garlic mordents, varnishing afterward, but preferable with oil mordants. And let this serve for ensigns, banners and all.

Since Cennini needed special lighting to see the lines through the fabric, we can tell that he used much heavier silk. He used egg tempera to color the banner instead of dye. He didn't use a resist to stop the paint from bleeding. Instead he used size, a product similar to "No Flow" everywhere he wished to paint. He also used gold leaf for crowns and backgrounds. The gold leaf was laid over a coat of gesso and bole (a red clay like material) and he could stamp or punch designs into the burnished gold. Amazingly, he says to use 6 to 10 coats of egg tempera and to varnish the silk. This must have made the ensign very stiff. Perhaps that is what was needed to make it weatherproof since it would be flying from a ships mast or carried in during all battlefield conditions.

The true meaning of the word banner refers to a stiff rectangular piece of cloth attached to a staff or spear like the one in Fig. 466. They were attached in such a way that they did not flap at all. The design would have been the arms of the bearer just as it would have been displayed on his shield. Now days we just lump all types of heraldic displays on fabric together under the term banner but in period they were quite specific with the terminology. For the purpose of the instruction I will just use the term banner.

Herbert Norris recorded many details of medieval heraldry as well as costuming in his books.

"Perhaps the earliest existing representation of a flag in Europe is in the ninth-century mosaic on the façade of St. John Lateran, Rome. The figures of both Constantine the Great (in ninth-century costume) and Charlemagne hold flags in their hands. These are shaped like the oriflamme, and are of red silk, powdered with circles and other minute motifs which might represent gold flames. The staff of one flag is surmounted by a Greek cross, that of the other by a fleur-de-lys (Fig. 458). It is said that William Duke of Normandy "allowed his oriflamme, made of simple red tissue of silk, to float in the air" at Senlac. The name "oriflamme," given to the banner which was carried before the French kings and preserved in days of peace in the Treasury of the Abbey of S. Denis, seems to have been originally the designation of any royal standard."

--from Herbert Norris, Costume & Fashion, Volume Two 1066-1485, published 1927

Standards (the proper term for 8-foot long, heraldic banners) were made of heavy silk fabric with embroidery and appliqués and used to display the heraldry and mottos of the owners. Conventionally, if trimmed, they were trimmed with a two-color border made of the main metal and color of the owner's devise. The background was divided in half horizontally and made of the same metal and color. The images nearest the banner pole (or hoist as it was called) were those of the lord or kingdom to which the owner owed allegiance and the owner. These standards were used when leading a force in battle. This served to identify the leaders of the forces and their locations on the field. The second section historically bore the badge of the owner. His fighters also wore this badge on their clothing and they would rally to his standard. The third sections would hold any other badges associated with the lord or his forces.

miniature of St. George with a gonfanonGonfanons are flown from a vertical staff and have tails on the fly. The difference between a gonfanon with long tails and a standard is that a gonfanon displays the device on the non-tailed area, and the standard displays badges down the whole length of the flag.

In the SCA, since our banners and standards are not used for battlefield signals, it is acceptable to put our kingdom badge first to show our allegiance. The second section (or the lower half of the first section) can be used to display the badge of the barony or local group (our local lord) and the third section for the arms or badge of the banner owner. Each section is separated from the others with mottos bend, diagonal bars containing words. "Atenveltus Glorious", "Honor before Victory", "Virtute et armis" (by valor and arms) are examples of mottos. Some people display amusing Latin mottos that mean things like "When's lunch" (Mistress Angela). You can leave the motto areas blank if you don't have one or you prefer to add the motto later. You will find that the motto area is useful to break up the painting into sections visually. The tail end of the banner can be left blank, or spangled with small badges. The tails were often sewn on separately and replaced when tattered. If the standard has many tails it is called an oriflamme (Fig. 459) and these tails were described as red silk, sometimes with gold tassels.

The streamer was a long tapering flag, the nautical equivalent of the standard, used to identify the allegiance of troops on board a warship. Unlike the standard, it had no motto or fringe, but consisted of a background of the livery colours and was charged with badges. A plain long, narrow, single-pointed streamer was called a pennoncelle meaning long feather.

Pennons were small single-pointed banners used on spears. The device was painted on pennons in the hanging position as opposed to the flying position.

The transparency of the silk presents a unique problem when using heraldry on standards. All the heraldry and mottos will be reversed on the backside of the pennon. There is nothing that you can do about the mottos, but there is a rule for the heraldic elements.

The banner pole is considered the leading edge of the banner and all animals, monsters, and people should face the pole (fig.466). If there are no animals, etc. in the heraldry or they are shown affronté, then the pole should be placed to the left of the device as seen by the artist and the back of the flag is a mirror image of the front. From the references in Cennini and the fact that there are rules for this implies that silk heraldic banners must have been somewhat transparent. However, most extant banners are double layered with one layer being a mirror image of the other.

Modern Silk Painting Techniques

Types of silk fabric and their properties

Silk is sold in several different weaves and weights. A plain or even weave silk is called habatoi (Japanese) or pongee (Chinese). This is the most common China Silk. Satin weaves have a random number of threads over and under that gives the illusion of a smooth surface. Crepe has a pebbly texture. Gauze is very lightweight and shrinks unevenly to make a bumpy texture, Suede Silk, and taffeta are heavy silks, too dense for serti-painting. Dupioni and Silk Noil are raw silks that have slubs and other imperfections that will cause problems in serti-painting. All silks are measured in mm for momme or threads per millimeter.

3 to 6mm
7mm to 14mm
16mm to 30mm
Habatoi (Habutai)
Crepe de Chine
heavier Habatoi
Moiré Satin
Crepe de Chine

The best weight for serti-painting is 8 to 14 mm with 10 being the most common.

Lighter weight silk Floats on breeze
Less bleeding through resist barriers
Dye spreads faster
Paler colors
Colors dry very fast, resulting in more streaks
Heavier weight silk (especially satin) Brighter colors
Less streaking
Doesn't float as easily
Takes more dye to cover
Takes longer to heat set
Resists breakthrough more

Lightweight fabric banners float on the air with ease so choose 10mm Habatoi for really long banners of more than 3 yards of fabric. Choose satin weave for smaller banners for brightest color.


Applying the resist with a squeeze bottle

The most common silk painting technique uses a resist barrier to contain the flow of the dye. This is called serti-painting for sert meaning corral or fence. Resists come in water-soluble, non-water soluble, and acrylic. We are using clear, water-soluble gutta and black and gold acrylic paint on this project. Non-soluble gutta must be thinned with a special thinner that is very toxic. In fact, the fumes can cause brain damage so it must be used in a well-vented area. It is so dangerous that it is a controlled substance, so we won't be using it.

Clear gutta smells bad but isn't dangerous and will wash out completely leaving soft white fabric. You can paint over completely dry gutta and it will still resist the dye. Clear gutta tends to spread as it dries so make your lines thin, and your dots very small.

Acrylic paint can be used as a resist but it tends to sit on the top of the fabric and dye can escape the border by capillary action underneath. Therefore you must apply acrylics generously and double border with clear gutta around white areas Acrylic paint will not wash out but it can be pealed from the fabric by hand if you want to spend the time. It leaves a black or gold line on the fabric even after pealing. Over time it gets hard and cracks making it easier to flake off. We are using black and gold but other colors of acrylic paint can be used, also.

If you have an area that must be white, like the twin moons, outline in black acrylic then again on the white side of the line with clear gutta as further insurance. When using acrylic make sure that you squeeze a generous line that is strong enough to keep the dye from flowing over, under, or through. It is easier to make a thin line with acrylic than with gutta but it will not be to your advantage. You need a thick line to penetrate the fibers of the silk.

We are using metal tips of size 7. This size is large enough for a straight pin to pass through the hole and use as a stopper or a cleaning tool. Size 5 is too small and size 9 is too large.

The acrylic paint takes 30 minutes to an hour to dry but this can be shortened to 10 minutes with a blow dryer. I like to let mine dry overnight. Gutta takes a little longer to dry but responds well to a blow dryer. Don't start painting until all the resist lines are completely dry. Steady your hand with your other hand or use a mahlstick when applying the gutta and when painting. Remove all jewelry and watches before working with acrylic paint because they can smear the resist lines.

If you make a mistake with acrylic paint do not try to blot it up. Ignore the mistake or incorporate it into the design. If you make a mistake with gutta you can wash it out with some difficulty and reapply. My best advice is "Don’t make mistakes."

Painting with a bamboo brush


Apply the dye (Dye-na-Flo® brand) with the tip of the brush about ½ inch from the resist line and let it flow to the line. Small areas will only take a touch of dye to the center of the area to fill. If over-filled you can remove excess dye with a cotton swab. The larger areas can be filled with a minimum of streaking if you keep the leading edge of the dye wet. Make sure you will not be interrupted during this operation even for a moment, and make sure you have enough dye prepared to cover the entire background. This can be tricky in large areas so it is best to break up the design into smaller areas. This also makes the design more interesting.

You can mix dyes to create new colors. For small areas mixing a few drops in a bottle cap are sufficient. For larger areas use an eyedropper and mix your colors in a small container like a custard cup or Chinese tea cup.

Stains and Drips

Dye-na-flo is easy to clean off of your hands, tables, counters, and tools with just soap and water. Be careful not to drip it onto fibers like clothing and carpeting because it will stain as soon as it dries. If you get a small drip on white silk take a clean brush and clean water and outline the drip immediately. The clean water pushes the drip inward and keeps it from drying. Take a cotton swab and lift the stain or take two cotton balls or paper towels and blot from above and blow simultaneously. Be very careful not to transfer the dye from the brush, water, or blotting agent back onto the fabric. Continue wetting and blotting until you have removed as much dye as you can. Wait until the area is completely dry before painting in that area again.

If a resist line fails and color starts to penetrate into an adjoining area, first outline with clean water, then carefully repair the resist line with more resist. Blot up the dye as best you can and blow-dry the area. The danger in this technique is getting so much water on the stain that it seeps back into the dye area and causes a plume effect. Stopping the hole with resist prevents this.

The trick to removing drips and stains is to jump on them immediately. Don't give them a chance to dry. If all else fails, try making a paste of a kitchen cleanser containing bleach (Comet, Ajax, etc.) and apply it to the remains of the stain for 10 minutes then rinse with clear water.

Background effects

You can create special effects by using the clear gutta over a pale background or dark dye over lighter dye.

Positive image: Dark decoration on a light ground

1. Paint the background with a lighter shade or color than you will use for the designs.

2. Dry with a blow dryer or wait several hours until thoroughly dry.

3. Paint a repetitive design with darker dye over the background with a watercolor brush. Diaper patterns, Fleur de Lis, or vines and tiny leaves make good designs.

Negative image: Light decoration on a dark ground

1. Paint the background with a watered down color and dry it.

2. Apply the clear gutta in an overall pattern of stems and leaves, spirals, hearts, stars or other motifs. Allow the gutta to dry for several hours or dry it with a blow dryer until it is no longer sticky.

3. Paint over the entire background with a generous layer of full strength color. Blow dry.

You can create other special effects by sprinkling pretzel salt or rock salt into wet dye. This works better with steam set dyes than with Dye-na-Flo. For a more dramatic look mix a thick paste of a bleaching kitchen cleanser. Paint dots of this into wet dye and it will bleach out a rainbow colored ring around the dot. The effect depends on the color used on and how wet the dye is. This technique has a lot of potential but may look too abstract for heraldry.


Wet into Dry Shading or Cross Hatching

If you want very distinct shading lines to show wait for the first coat of color to completely dry. Then using a very small brush and undiluted color try painting small cross hatching lines. If the dye still flows too much, coat the area with a thin coat of "No Flow", a starchy gel that keeps dyes from bleeding.


Wet into Wet Shading

For areas of graduated shading and to create blends from one color to another load two brushes with the colors you want to use. Paint the main color first then paint the second color into the leading wet edge of the first color. If you want less blending paint the second color ahead of the wet edge and let the two colors run towards each other. Layer colors until you have the effect you want.

Setting the dye

Heat set dyes are really paints and they will wash out of the fabric if not bonded to the fibers by heating with an iron or a very hot dryer. Satin silk takes more effort to heat set than Habatoi. Dry the dye with a blow dryer on the highest temp while working the piece on the frame. When it is finished, remove it from the frame and iron it for three minutes per square foot. That is a long time, but the longer you iron, the stronger the fabric and color bond will be. Cover the banner with paper to keep the acrylic paint from sticking to the iron. I toss the silk painting into the dryer for 20 minutes at the highest heat after ironing to make sure it is completely set before I wash the gutta out of it.

Final washing and drying

Add one capful (no more) of Synthapol detergent to one sinkful of warm water. Gently agitate the banner in the water for a few minutes. Then, with only your fingers, rub the areas that have clear gutta on them. Do not use a brush or sponge or rub the fabric together to remove the gutta or you will remove the dye. The water will get really dark, but don't worry. The Synthapol encapsulates the dye particles to keep them from redepositing on the fabric.

Hang or machine dry then iron your banner. Cut and sew edges if needed and attach to a banner pole. Enjoy.


Norris, Herbert, Costume & Fashion, Volume Two 1066-1485, first published 1927, latest reprint Dover, New York, 1999

Earl, Caroline, Beginner's Guide to Silk Painting, Sterling Publishing, New York, 2003

Cennini, Cennino d'Andrea translated by V. Thompson, Jr., The Craftsman's Handbook "Ill Libro dell' Arte", Yale, New York 1933, reprinted by Dover, New York, 1960

Standards and Pinsils and Pennons, Oh My! A Cursory Glance at Medieval Flags and Banners http://www.kwantlen.bc.ca/~donna/sca/flags/


Mistress Michelle's Full Achievement of Arms

Sir John and Lady Jane Gonfalon

Celtic Cross Gonfalon

© 2005 Gael Stirler
Silk Painting Lessons
Heraldic Banner (PDF) | Turkish Banner (PDF) | Lecture Notes for Turkish Banner (PDF) |

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Unless otherwise noted all art is the work of Gael Stirler.
AKA Mistress Dairine mor o' hUigin, OL

This page was last updated Monday, 16-Mar-2009 15:38:26 CDT