Silk Painting Dyes: Making New Colors and Keeping Records

Color sample cut from silk and taped onto info card

Make a sample and keep a record of each color you create.

Suppose you’re working on a silk painting of a large flower and you want it to be orange. You don’t have “The” orange in your stash of colors, so you decide to mix up a nice shade. You pour a little yellow and a little magenta dye into a cup. It’s a little too yellow; add some more magenta. Now it’s perfect! You begin painting your flower and, uh-oh, you’re running out of orange. Now, how do you re-create that exact color so you can finish your painting? If you have extra orange left over, do you throw it out or save it to possibly use in a future painting? How do you remember exactly what shade of orange it is, and how do you keep track of it?

Here’s another one: You love the dolphin color you made in one of your past silk paintings, and now you want to do another dolphin painting. How did you make that color back then? No idea? Now you have to experiment again until you find a formula you like. Wouldn’t you rather be doing the fun part… painting??

When it comes to creating and saving dye colors, you should get in the habit of taking a few simple steps that will save you time and dye in the long run. There are several methods of doing this, but I’ve found the steps listed here to be the simplest way to keep colors recorded and organized.

Here we go:

Designate a small notebook for your silk painting notes. Keep it next to you while you paint. Title and date each painting and make notes on what you did and how you did it. Write down what colors you used for which objects, what techniques you used, special notes, and anything else you can think of. Take a photograph of every painting so you’ll have a complete record of what you’ve done.

open notebook showing silk painting notes

Keep notes on every one of your silk paintings.

Always have a scrap of silk taped to the edge of your work table. This will be your color tester.  The silk should hang free so the wet test colors don’t touch your work surface.  You could also clip the color tester silk into a small silk painting frame, but taping it to the the table is simpler and saves space.  It’s up to you.

Silk scrap taped to edge of work table

Keep a scrap of silk taped to the edge of your table for experimenting with dye colors.

Keep a watercolor palette (or plastic ice cube tray) and an eyedropper close by as you work. When you want to create a new color, use the eyedropper to take up dyes. Count the number of drops as you drip the dyes into a palette well for mixing. If you made a new orange color and used 3 drops of yellow and 1 drop of magenta, you know your color is 3 parts yellow and 1 part magenta (record it as 3 yel. + 1 mag.).

Dye being dripped into palette well

Count the number of drops when mixing a new color so you’ll have a formula.

Small area of dye being painted onto scrap silk next to written formula

Paint a small area of your test color on your scrap silk and label it with its formula.

Take up all of the new color with a brush and paint it in a small blob shape onto the color tester silk (make sure the brush bristles have been soaked in water for a few minutes and dried off). It should spread into at least a 3-inch circle. Let it dry for a couple of minutes and write the color formula next to it on the silk using a fine point permanent marker. Make sure you use permanent marker so it won’t run and fade out in the steamer. Label this color with your formula even if you don’t like it; it might be perfect in a future painting for something else. Continue to use this same piece of color tester silk indefinitely until you fill it with color samples; you can steam it along with some paintings when it gets full.

Silk filled with sample colors and their written formulas

Use all the room on your color tester silk before you steam it.

If you like one of your color experiments and want to make a batch of that new color, use a graduated eyedropper or syringe to measure it into a small cup or jar with a lid. Your 3 drops yellow + 1 drop magenta would translate to 3 ml. (or 1/4 teaspoons, whatever your eyedropper shows) of yellow and 1 ml. of magenta dye put into the cup. If you think you’ll need a larger amount, double the formula to 6 yellow + 2 magenta. Since you have the exact measurements, you can make this same color any time you need more.

Dye being placed into mixing cup with graduated eyedropper

Measure dyes into a cup using your formula to make a new color.

Put a small piece of masking tape on the jar and the lid. Write your formula on both pieces of tape (3 yel. + 1 mag.) using the fine point permanent marker. That way, you can see your color from the top as well as the side of the jar.

Writing color formula on masking tape applied to jar

Label your dye jar on the side and on the lid.

Several jars with formula labels on lids

Labeling the tops and sides of the jars makes it easier to find your colors when you need them.

When the color tester silk has been steamed, rinsed, and ironed, you’ll want to save your new colors individually onto index cards that can be kept in a small file box (like a recipe box). Here’s the most efficient way I’ve found to do this:

Place a strip of wide masking tape (my tape is 2 inches wide) onto a fabric cutting board; line it up straight along the inch marks. With a fabric cutting wheel, cut across the tape so that it cuts into 2 1/2 inch long pieces.  I have a designated fabric cutting wheel just for cutting tape.   That way, I don’t have to keep replacing blades when I need a sharp one for fabric.

Using a fabric cutting ruler for a straight edge, cut the tape the long way into four pieces (each little piece of tape is now 2 1/2 inches by 1/2 inch). You could also buy 1/4 inch masking tape and skip this tape-cutting step.  I use the 2-inch wide tape because I have so much of it on hand (I also use it for steaming silk and lots of other things around the studio).

Wide masking tape on cutting board with circular fabric cutter and ruler

Cut masking tape into 2 1/2 x 1/2 inch pieces.

Now cut a 2-inch square of color from your color tester silk using a fabric cutting wheel. I’ve found if you cut these color squares too small, it’s not as easy to see the colors accurately. Two to two-and-a-half inches seems to be the largest size that will fit on the card, which is about right.

Silk scrap with color swatches on cutting board with circular fabric cutter and ruler

Cut your color samples into 2 or 2 1/2 inch squares.

Next, tape the swatch to an index card with the 2 1/2 inch pieces of masking tape you cut.  Leave as much color showing as you can.

Color swatch about to be taped onto info card

Tape the color swatch to an index card.

Now label your card with the dye brand, the date (month/year), and the name of the color or the formula. You should make a card swatch of each of the colors you buy as well as the ones you mix.

Finished color card

Label the card with the date, dye brand, and formula.

In your color box, you should have a section for each color family. I have a divider for each of the following: Reds, Oranges, Yellows, Greens, Blues, Purples, Browns/Blacks/Grays, and Miscellaneous Notes.

Recipe box being opened to reveal divider labels and color cards

A recipe box makes a good file keeper for your color swatch cards.

Zoom view of color box divider tabs

Use dividers to keep your colors organized.

You will love your color box! You can use it to see what colors look best together when choosing color groups for paintings. You’ll be able to see what your colors will look like after they’ve been steamed, so you can get an idea ahead of time what will look best for what you need. You’ll be able to re-create the colors you love best.  You can keep special notes on the backs of the cards, like “great skin tone” or “perfect blue sky color”.  And you’ll save dye by knowing your color formulas before you even start to paint.

Don’t let the number of steps in this process throw you off, it’s well worth taking the time to make these cards. You will keep them for years, so they will save you time and money in the long run.



  • Grglose

    Hey, this is great.

  • Diane

    Wish I would have done this a year ago. Guess it’s not too late to start.

    • pglose

      Definitely get started as soon as you can, it will save you time in the long run. You’ll love your color box!

  • Kanwal Deep Kaur

    Hi I just went thru ur site…I mean I guess this is all the information I was hungry for since two years…
    Thanx a tonn
    Can u plz guide me a lil as to how to start off with silk dyes..I mean which brand and how much I need to buy and what all to buy..till now I have just been using setasilk paints from pebeo…ur advise will defiantly help me….
    Thanx a tonn

    • pglose

      Hi Kanwal, I like Jacquard Green Label dyes and Jacquard black gutta. They sell a starter kit which includes the three primary colors and black (2 oz. bottles), clear gutta resist, dye set concentrate, a gutta application bottle with metal tip, and a brush. You will find lots of useful info on this website about the different kinds of resists and guttas: I don’t think gutta can be shipped overseas, so you’d have to find a supplier in your country, or a comparable product. Thanks for your note, I’m very glad the website has helped you! –Pamela

      • Kanwal Deep Kaur

        Dear Pamela ….
        Thanx a tonn for ur reply…I have been using pebeo setasilk silk paints over a year or so …yes we get pebeo gutta also here…silver,golden,metallic and clear one too…but we don’t get silk dyes in our country..but I have somehow managed to get them frm US….but my query is as to which dyes are better I mean DuPont or jacquard or dharma dyes…plz guide me….as I am not interested in a starter kit….
        Thanx and regards

        • pglose

          I like Jacquard Green Label dyes for silk painting. I have also tried DuPont and Tinfix dyes, but Jacquard dyes in general seem to have a longer shelf life and fewer problems. I have never tried Dharma brand dyes. You probably already know you will need to steam-set the dyes, unlike the paints that you’re used to. It’s not hard to do, just a little more of a process.

          • Kanwal Deep Kaur

            Thanx a tonn…..regards

          • pglose

            Let me know how you like the dyes, and send a picture of what you create, I’d love to see! –Pamela

          • Kanwal Deep Kaur

            We’ll I am still working on how to get the dyes frm US…once done will update u with my experience of dyes…thanx

  • Sonali Kakar

    Dear Pamela
    what a wonderful blog with just the right information.
    love the idea of color cards. It is sad that we dont get the steam set dyes here.
    managed to get some jacquard green label ones. The colors are so vibrant.
    Paint doesnt even come close.
    am planning to get the jacquard acid dyes to experiment with.

    • I’m so glad the blogs are useful to you, Sonali. I do make an effort to give just the right amount information in my video blogs, and not waste too much of people’s time with unnecessary “fluff”, so thank you for the compliment. Also glad to hear you’re experimenting with new dyes. That’s the way to learn about silk painting! Experiment, experiment, experiment. Have fun!

  • mflindt

    I go exactly by the Jacquard mixing chart drop for drop and boy…non of the mix come out even close to the color they tell me it would.