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Technique: Sissi Siska: Transforming Silk Painting

Technique: Sissi Siska: Transforming Silk Painting

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New Jersey artist Sissi Siska reinvents traditional silk-painting techniques to create multimedia works of art.

by Stephanie Kaplan

New Jersey artist Sissi Siska transforms delicate pieces of silk into complex paintings with many dimensions. “Having had no formal training in textile arts, I learned the original French technique of painting on silk —gutta-serti resist—by trial and error,” Siska explains.

Experimentation and the willingness to try new techniques are at the core of Siska’s silk-painting technique. The artist mostly uses crepe de chine or jacquard silk, which are similar to the weight of a silk scarf. She prefers these silks because they have a tooth—similar to the tooth in watercolor paper—that accepts more dye. “I like to find unusual silk fabrics with unusual weaves,” the artist says. “When the light hits the pattern it produces a luster that adds dimension to the overall composition.” Siska prefers dyes made by Dupont or Sennelier, but emphasizes, “Each color and fabric has its own personality.” These dyes produce brilliant colors and maintain the silk’s smooth texture.

Siska begins her process by stretching a piece of white silk on an open frame to create her canvas. She works on frames constructed from soft wood. “Because I add many layers of dye to the fabric, the silk sags, and I need to keep stretching the fabric over and over again as I work,” she says. The artist also uses a special Japanese stretching system that can accommodate cloth as large as nine feet long. Because spontaneity is the key to her creative process, Siska rarely completes preliminary sketches for her paintings. She makes an exception for elaborate borders and large banners because it is difficult to create these compositions completely by eye. If needed, she will begin with a graphite sketch on tracing paper. This drawing is then placed underneath the silk when it is stretched out on the frame.

Mauve Orchids With Ginger
2004, dyes, gutta, and
wax on crepe de chine
silk, 9’ x 3’. Collection
the artist.

This painting was one of 12
banners selected to be
part of the Orchids!
Beauty and Beyond exhibition
at the United States
Botanical Garden in
Washington, DC, sponsored
by the Conservatory and
the Smithsonian Institution.

Siska’s modifications to the French gutta-serti resist technique make her silk paintings unique. The traditional gutta-serti technique involves outlining the compositions in white gutta, which is a solvent-based resist with the consistency of glue. Instead, Siska uses a vanishing marker to loosely place her composition on the silk—“I don’t outline everything in white because I don’t want the viewer’s eye to bounce around to all of the white outlines,” she explains. Next, she adds a background color to the composition. Once the background dries, she begins drawing with a bottle or pipette of gutta, changing the tip to create varied lines on the silk. Another layer of dye is applied around the gutta lines, and this process is repeated a number of times to create a multilayered background. “Because the silk and gutta are both white, the gutta saves the white lines and keeps the dye in the outlined areas in a way that is similar to watercolor masking,” Siska explains.

Siska used a wax mask
to create deep accent
details in the center
of Mauve Orchids
With Ginger.

The artist experiments with alternatives to gutta and different ways of moving the dye around the silk canvas. She often utilizes hot wax instead of gutta to mask out sections of her compositions. “Using the wax produces a freer, more organic line than drawing with the bottle of gutta,” Siska explains. Regardless of which medium she uses, Siska constantly tests the consistency of the wax or gutta, and paints layers of dye on another board to preview color combinations. She sometimes uses salt to push the wet dye around on the silk—“this makes a very interesting background,” the artist says. To create highlights with the dye, Siska uses a pipette of alcohol or a Q-tip to lift a layer of color from the silk, and then dries the highlight immediately with a hair dryer. Removing color with bleach also creates patterns in her compositions.

One of the artist’s most innovative techniques can be seen in Green Orchid. In floral paintings such as this, she uses what she calls the crackle technique. “I take the silk off the frame to crackle and break the wax—this creates great patterns,” Siska explains. “When you crackle silk, you give the color a specific place to go—the crackled areas in the silk are similar to the veins in a crumpled piece of wax paper.” Paraffin wax creates a heavier crackle, while softer beeswax yields a finer crackle. Once she has crackled the silk, Siska places it back on the frame, uses wax or gutta to mask around a specific crackled area, and then adds color to the crackled veins. She often repeats the crackle technique a few times to achieve multiple layers of color and texture. In Mauve Orchids With Ginger, the artist uses the crackle technique to create the details in the orchid centers.

Once Siska is satisfied with her composition, she removes the silk from the frame and uses a steamer from France to set the dyes in the fabric. She tends to steam a few paintings at a time—separated by sheets of newsprint—to prevent the paintings from soaking up too much moisture. The newsprint also soaks up the melting wax and any excess dye. Although the colors brighten and bond to the silk in about an hour, Siska leaves the paintings in the steamer for two hours to ensure that the composition is completely set. Finally, the silk painting is dry cleaned to remove any wax residue and scraps of newspaper that stick to the gutta.

Siska takes special pride in preserving her finished pieces. The artist uses 100 percent rag mount board and displays her pieces behind museum-quality glass to prevent the colors from fading. Because lighting conditions can have a profound effect on her finished work, the artist rarely exhibits her larger pieces for extended periods of time. As Siska reminds us, “A silk painting is like an antique kimono that needs to be preserved.”

For more information on Siska, visit her website at, or contact her at [email protected].

Stephanie Kaplan is the online editor of American Artist.

Watch the video: Hand Painted Silk Scarves (June 2022).


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