Chinese Silk Painting: Its History and Spread to the West

Posted by Amanda Mailer & Shengfei Zhu on June 29, 2013

What is Silk Painting?

Originating from China, silk painting (Chinese: sichouhua 丝绸画) is an art form with over 2000 years of history that involves applying colored pigment to silk cloth. Like its silk embroidery counterpart, silk painting preceded the invention of paper.

The ancient art was once known as 'Bo' painting, (bo, 帛) referring to the white silk used as a surface. Compared to wood, stone or bamboo of the time, silk was the ideal canvas for painting. It was luxurious and yet easy to cut to any desired shape and light to carry.

Chinese artisans of the old first prepared silk cloths by beating it against stone to smooth the surface before applying color. Using animal hair paintbrushes, ink mixtures of soot and glue, or mineral pigments of vermilion, azurite and malachite, ancient Chinese artists created works of art that have survived centuries.

Today silk paintings can be found all around the world, using a combination of dyes and techniques developed in Europe and Asia. The silk surface is often prepared by stretching and dying silk with a background color. Because pigments spread freely when applied to silk, the artist relies less on brushes and more on creating boundaries for the pigment through the use of a resist. Gutta (a rubbery cement) and water-based resists are popular for sketching the outlines of designs on the silk.. Once the outlines have dried, dyes are applied to the silk that spread up to the resist borders. Alternatively, the silk surface may be primed to reduce the dyes' ability to bleed.

In this way silk painting differs to painting on cotton canvas or paper. The artist needs not only to consider the placement of pigment but also control its movement. Similar to watercolor, unrestricted, the ink or dyes will flow freely on the silk, creating soft and diffuse artwork.

History and Development of Chinese Silk Painting

Silk painting in China is believed to date back as far as the Warring States period (476-221 BC), reaching its height as an art form in the Western Han dynasty (206 BC to 25 AD).

Artisans of the imperial courts first used silk as a medium for calligraphy painting, which at the time was thought to be the highest and purest form of painting. They used black ink made of pine soot and animal-based glues to silk scrolls.

Over the years the art developed to include human figures and depict religious and mythological characters as well as forms from nature. The oldest silk painting artifacts were unearthed from a tomb built in the Warring States period in Changsha, central China. The two silk paintings that were discovered featured mythical beasts--the dragon and phoenix traditionally believed to help the dead enter heaven.

The first painting, titled 'Lady, Dragon and Phoenix' depicts a noblewoman on a boat praying to a dragon and phoenix. The second, titled 'Man Driving the Dragon' features a bearded nobleman escorted by a dragon and an egret. A sacred bird of ancient China, the egret is thought to represent the integrity and noble qualities of the man.

Both silk paintings show their characters in profile, a style typical for the Chu people of that period. They are thought to be burial items that may have accompanied a funeral procession as banners and were laid with the deceased to protect their souls and help them ascend to heaven.

Up until 2nd century AD silk painting was exclusive to China as a result of their efforts to keep sericulture and silk production a secret. As silk became a highly coveted trading commodity, the art form gradually spread across Asia, making its way to Europe.

Spread of Silk Painting from China

Legend has it that around 100AD, a Chinese princess promised to a Khotan prince in Central Asia smuggled silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds out of the country. In so doing she revealed the secret of silk production and ended China's monopoly on the luxury fabric. Around this time too, silk painting could be found in India where wax was used as a resist in their silk designs.

Around 300 AD, the Japanese too came to learn the methods of silk production from the Chinese. Their early silk paintings were monochromatic, using black ink and paint. It wasn't until 1300 AD that Japanese artists began to use a range of colored pigments.

Japanese bird and flower painting on silk

It wasn't until the 12th century with the conquests of the Crusades, did silk production begin to spread to Western Europe. New manufacturing techniques saw silk production boom, and Italy established itself as a major European center for silk. By the 18th century, the industrial revolution made the cloth even more widely available, and with it spread silk painting as an art form.

In Indonesia, family members of the Russian tsar, Nicholas II learned the batik method of silk painting using wax resists. They brought the art to France where the Serti technique was introduced in the 1900s. This technique of painting using gutta resists to control dyes on silk is one of the most widely used today. Silk painting as an art continued to spread and gained popularity in Britain and America by the 1970s.

Today a multitude of silk painting styles and techniques abound, and the art can be found all around the world.

Modern Chinese Silk Painting Masters

Wenzheng Dong (董文政)

Chinese silk painting master Wenzheng Dong

Currently an art professor at Suzhou University, Wenzheng Dong is considered a pioneer of modern silk painting. He developed a new technique of silk painting, called 'Wumo' or 'Silent in Suzhou' painting (wu mo hua, 吴默画). Applying Western principles of light and contrasting colors to traditional Chinese landscape compositions; the Wumo style of silk painting achieves dramatic effects. Wenzheng Dong's artwork has been well received in over 25 countries across Europe, North America and Asia, winning acclaim as a special article of Sino-Franco cultural exchange.

Wenjin Bi (毕文瑾)

Chinese silk painting master Wenjin Bi
'Chrysanthemum' silk painting, Wenjin Bi

Another highly accomplished artist, Wenjin Bi studied classical Chinese painting and is accredited with developing more than 70 silk painting pigments. These colors are praised for their ability to accommodate all kinds of silk textures, making them suitable to a wide range of painting styles.

Wenjin Bi however is renowned for his mastery of 'vermilion-azurite painting' (dan qing jue fa, 丹青觉法), using the traditional mineral pigments to enliven the dark ink of classical Chinese silk painting. He is most famous for his paintings of chrysanthemum, and their expression of traditional Chinese aesthetics.

Silk Painting Today

Silk painting has come a long way from its beginnings in the ancient imperial courts. Smuggled to Central Asia, seized by the Crusades and combined with batik inspired methods in Western Europe and brought to America, silk painting is now practiced all around the world. Modern day techniques such as Seri, with its simple outline and dye method, have made silk painting as easy as filling in a color book and accessible to all.

Meanwhile in China the art continues to develop, adopting painting techniques from the West and renewing classical bird and flower styles of the old. As silk painting evolves into a modern art form, we can be sure it will flourish for generations to come.

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Comments (12 Comments)
Posted by Dianne Desharnais on July 29, 2019

I had 8 beautiful paintings. I sent them in for framing and they creased the corners. It is very noticeable. They are trying to fix this with no luck. Do you have any idea how to get rid of the lines. It is not on the ink at all just the silk.

Posted by Barbara erickson on July 29, 2019

I have a painting on dark silk ,don’t know if it’s Chinese’s a horse and cart that has two big wheels and person driving..also hangin on to the cart or person is another figure of a person who has a pointed hat and pointed slippers on his feet in green..this is a very colourful painting and have no idea what country or what it represents

Posted by paul Parker on May 22, 2018

I have several framed silk art work that my Grandfather brought back from China in 1920’s era. His name is Lee Parker and wrote the book China and the Golden Weed. Could I send you a photo and perhaps you could give me some insight into its quality and historic identification?

Paul Parker

Posted by Jerry Kidd on September 22, 2017

Have two silk paintings in black and white. Signed on the back with what appears to be script. Signed with five characters, one is a circle and one is a box. Hard to describe the others. Any info would be appreciated.The scenes are of mountains, rivers, trees, full moon and thatched huts.

Posted by Joanie on December 08, 2016

This was awesome for my masters art assignment. Thanks for being so thorough and in depth!

Posted by joan hawthorne on April 21, 2016

I have four Chinese paintings made of silk in frames,one is a fox staring at two flying birds,two is a countryside path with trees on both sides, three is mountains and trees,same with no. four,no. three and four have Chinese writing on upper right corner on both, they were given to my father many years ago,I am trying to find the values, all in beautiful frames, I live in new York city, and moving ,I would like to sell all four, I would appreciate any info you can give,regards Joan

Posted by Mayra Frank on January 29, 2016

I have a silk painting but I have no idea what the writing on it means or the price of it. I need help.

Posted by aneeka on January 26, 2016

Is this skill painted fabric than used as apparel or home decor?? I am a student writing my dissertation on fabric painting. and it will be great to know about it.

Posted by Carla Tilghman on November 06, 2014

The image that is labelled as 12th century Byzantine silk, is actually 9th century woven silk samite known as the Shroud of Charlemagne, now housed in the Musee de Moyen Age in Paris.



Posted by Tana on July 28, 2014

How can I find out about the 4 paintings I have they are all hand painted horse and rider and it is on white silk and they say they are Chinese ?

Posted by Shahid on June 13, 2014

Really enjoyed reading this article.
Thanks for the lesson in this wonderful art form.

Posted by Jean on September 22, 2013

Thank you I found this to be very informative.

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