The Vibrant World of Silk Painting

Image | Phyllis Gordon Artist Phyllis Gordon used silk as her canvas to create “The Layers Beneath.”

Image | Phyllis Gordon
Artist Phyllis Gordon used silk as her canvas to create “The Layers Beneath.”

Using silk as your canvas is a sophisticated and intricate artistry that produces distinctive results. Gaithersburg Artist Collective member Phyllis Gordon has perfected the technique and shared her experience with the process that achieves the fluid beauty of her scarves, veils, shawls and wall art. “It is 80 percent planning and 20 percent painting,” said the artist who works out of her studio at Artists & Makers in Rockville.

Originally from Cleveland, Gordon began sewing as a teen, following in the steps of her mother and grandmother. Her interest in art, color and design sense grew from that. “I gravitated to sewing and pattern drafting and began taking art classes to see what I could do,” she said.

As a young mother living in New Jersey and then after a move to the Boston area, she began with oils and watercolors and discovered silk painting in the early 1990s. “I couldn’t find books or classes until 1996, and then I was hooked!” she recalled.

Since 2000, Gordon has been an active member of Silk Painters International, which was formed in the DC area in the 1990s, attending seminars and continuing her studies at biennial conferences. Seven years ago, she and her family moved to Rockville.

White silk is the base of all of Gordon’s creations; weight may differ, but the procedures are the same. Fluid French textile dyes, which are non-alcohol based and concentrated or diluted, create a range of colors. “I like the very traditional way of silk painting and enjoy working with the dyes,” she said.

Color mixing is her favorite process, followed closely by composition. She draws images on tissue paper and moves the pieces around, sometimes tracing them in black and white to test out ideas for her pieces. Flowers are a favorite with water lilies being her signature design. She tends to work in cycles—cherry blossom themes in spring, then water lilies and other flowers. Fall features more abstract pieces inspired by her photography. She works on about four scarves a week; one painting can take months.

The intricate method begins with the pre-washed silk being stretched and suspended in a frame. The silk’s surface may be treated with a sizing product to control the dye flow and a “resist” medium that creates barriers to keep images intact and allow flow to the background. The work is somewhat like batik, although batik uses wax for resist lines and is generally done on cotton. Light fabric pencil, gutta or similar product are applied by hand drawing on the silk to control the movement of the textile dyes. The design may also be a free-form drawing. The painting style uses many watercolor techniques. Squirrel, sable and other fine brushes are used to apply color. Additional techniques may be applied such as alcohol, starch or silk pens.

The final step is to steam-set the fabric to permanently bond the dyes to the fibers. A thorough rinse in warm water and vinegar is done after cooling to clear any excess pigments, followed by a final pressing. For wall art, the silk is mounted on canvas or foam core and then framed.

Gordon sells through her Etsy shop and customers have kept in touch to let her know how far her scarves have traveled—some as far as Italy. A recent bridal veil scarf/shawl was especially challenging, requiring her to set out long tables in her home to complete the work.

Another technique she uses is Japanese shibori, a process of manipulating silk and creating permanent pleating and design when finished. A favorite of mine is her Italian series from photographs of a recent trip to Venice. She refers to these as a “labor of love. … I have to paint what makes me happy—what I like!” Colors were encouraged to float around to simulate the canals; stucco walls and brickwork were done with a dry brush technique and some pencils. Several of these paintings were accepted for display at the Silk Painters International conferences in 2016 and 2018.

After joining the Gaithersburg Artist Collective earlier this year, Gordon’s work has been exhibited at Artists on Market. She is especially proud of this association. “We celebrate when someone sells and promote each other. They are a group of multi-talented artists with a lot of years of exposure and experience.”

Next up is the Montgomery Art Association’s Labor Day Show at the Kensington Armory. “It’s good to have a career that’s waiting on you,” Gordon mused. “There are endless options you can do with silk—paintings, wearables, home décor. Leave the door open. Always be watching for new experiences.”

You can see more of Phyllis Gordon’s work and contact her through her website at