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.
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.
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.).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.