Crafty ways with silk

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The Independent Online
From furnishings to clothes and wall hangings, silk painting is extremely versatile. Sally Staples joins a course to learn how.

There are 10 of us sitting around a large farmhouse kitchen table tucking into a selection of fish, quiche, salads, fruit and home-made cake and chatting away like old friends. The scenario is not what you might except in a conventional adult education class. Although the pupils - all women on this particular course - have signed up to learn silk painting, they also have the chance to relax and make friends in homely surroundings set deep in the Wye valley.

Some are residential, using all the facilities of the converted old Edwardian coach house as though it were home. Others, who live locally, join the art centre's five-day course for just a day or two. Anyone, says tutor Liz Nash, can enjoy learning the techniques of silk painting. There is no need to be creatively talented. There is no pressure to achieve and there are plenty of laughs.

Hilary Self from Alcester has drawn a design to decorate a silk tie for her son's Christmas present. His name she admits coyly is Will. Will Self! Somehow it is hard to imagine the notorious novelist wearing a silk tie designed by Mummy. Hilary is used to the open-mouthed reaction when she reveals her son's identity. Then after just the right pause she laughs and admits her Will is not the Will. But she confesses they do have plenty of fun with other people's confusion.

She has set up her tie on a frame and is outlining the deign with a "gutta" which is similar to the masking fluid used in watercolour. Because Will has just moved house, she has designed the tie with dozens of tiny houses becoming progressively smaller as the tie narrows. Once the outlining is complete, she can colour them with water-based paint and once dry they are fixed by ironing.

Care worker Rachel Perryman, aged 25, who is between jobs, is working faster than any of the others and she has chosen to tackle a large rectangular piece of silk which she will turn into a scarf, or possibly a wall hanging. The silk is stretched across a frame to keep it in place and Rachel has outlined a selection of leaves entertained with flowers and butterflies. Now she is having fun with a selection of rich colours, mixing greens and blues and reds and progressing at great speed.

"I did art A-level and my mother has done a bit of silk painting so I thought I'd have a go. The course is brilliant and Liz gives us some useful tips to create special effects."

One of these is to dampen the silk, paint it with your chosen colours and then sprinkle salt over the pattern while still wet. When the paint has dried the salt can be shaken off and leaves behind a mottled effect.

Brenda Clough, from North Somerset, has chosen to paint an autumn scene on her piece of silk, and the skill with which she produces slender leaves and twirling vines indicates that she is not a beginner. Brenda has worked with watercolours before and admits this helps with silk painting.

Also on the course is a granddaughter and granny team who have never tried silk painting before. Nine Staniford, 23, a website designer who lives locally, persuaded her granny Dorothy to visit the arts centre and try one of the courses. Dorothy, on holiday from Cheshire, is delighted with what she has achieved in such a short time.

She bought some padded silk spectacle cases from tutor Liz and has painted them with floral scenes. "I'm not much of an artist but I copied some pictures of flowers and I don't think they've come out too badly," she said. Nina has painted a variety of design on silk bowties as Christmas presents and is now working on a large scarf decorated with flowers and leaves. She has cut out the flower shapes, pinned them to the silk and then outlined them with the gutta before chosing what colours to paint them.

Liz emphasises to her students that any mistakes made on the silk are not reasons to panic. "Use your mistakes," she charges her pupils. "You can often turn them into something quite interesting. I use water-based solvent free paints and I bring a selection on the course so that students can buy what they need if they are beginners. There is so much on the market that it does help to get some guidance on the products."

Meanwhile, the informality of the Wye Valley Arts Centre makes it very popular. Director Valerie Welham tells the story of one young student who felt so at home that, feeling a little peckish, he popped down to the kitchen in the early hours of the morning and devoured half the chicken casserole that had been made for the following day's lunch.

A five-day silk-painting course for residential students at the Wye Valley Arts Centre Centre costs pounds 280 which includes full board and tuiton fees. For further information on this and other courses contact Valerie Welham at The Old Coach House, Mork, St Briavel's, Lydney, Gloucestershire GL15 6QH (01291 689463 or 01595 530214; website: or e-mail: Liz Nash can offer further advice on silk painting (01794 301217) and also teaches evening classes at Romsey School, Greatbridge, Romsey, Hants (01794 522106).