Paint on Silk

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In the beginning

Well- the beginning of my story anyway,

It was not until a little less than 4 years ago (Fall 2016), that I happened to pick up my first silk paintbrush to try my hand at banner painting. This was at the behest of my Partner, who had been placed on Vigil for Knighthood at that time. We both had participated fairy extensively within the SCA at that time for over a decade, nearly two and had heard that such an art existed, but had done nothing more than admire it from afar. But this was the chance to make his dream come true, to see the oft painted or depicted banner filled skies of high Medieval chivalry. Little did he know the depth of rabbit hole into which we were about to fall…

King Baldwin IV vs Saladin in “Kingdom of Heaven”, 2005

The basic terminology of banners and heraldry

The scholarly study of the history, symbolism, etiquette, design, manufacture, and other aspects of flags is known as vexillology (from the Latin vexillum, “banner”). In the Middle Ages, heraldry was known as armoury (in Old French armoirie)

A NOTE: I wanted to take a moment and highlight the fact that we are discussing specifically heraldically ornamented banners, flags, etc. Although it is beyond my ability to prove, I suspect that flags (a single colored piece of fabric or hide to wave in some attempt at communication) may have existed as soon as an early humans realized they could hang textiles/skins from a stick.

What is the difference between a banner and a flag you might ask?

“Flags of various forms and purpose are known as colours, standards, banners, ensigns, pendants (or pennants), pennons, guidons, and burgees.” (Standard Heraldry) In period they were often made of silk, wool, or canvas.

The Standard: “Was the largest and was intended, from its size, to be stationary. It marked the position of an important individual before a battle, during a siege, throughout a ceremony, or at a tournament. For the monarch it marked the palace, castle, saluting base, tent, or ship where he or she was actually present. Standards were also used at first by the greater nobles, whose personal insignia they bore. They were originally long and tapering toward the fly, ending in two points.” (Standard)

The Banner: Was “square or oblong and were borne in action (as the standard was not) before royal and noble warriors down to the rank of knight banneret. Those again bore the personal or family device.” (Standard)

The Guidon: “was similar to the standard but was rounded in the fly or had two swallow tails, both rounded. Guidons were borne by leaders in battle who were of no more than knightly rank and so not entitled to display a banner.” (Standard)

The Pennon: “a small triangular flag, was carried by each knight on his lance. One purpose of the pennon was to obviate accidents in much the same way as does a red flag tied to a long pole or rod that extends beyond the tailboard of a truck. But the pennon served also to strike terror into the enemy and to denote rank.” (Standard)

NOTE: Having now defined these, I will use a general “banner” term through the rest of this presentation to encompass all of the above as a general means of terminology.

Heraldic rules and customs

Clear and easy to pick out images were the ultimate goal with the employment of Heraldry on the fighting field, because of this it was important to make sure that your heraldry was unique AND that the charges were easy to make out from potentially long distances. This lead to customs which dictated how designs were created, and color combinations chosen- that in the 15th century were written into a set of Heraldic Rules and terms by Colleges of Arms. These institutions employed Heralds and pursuivants (apprentices) who helped to maintain consistency of claims over certain visual portrayals and “who [would eventually] replace the monarch as the power who granted or removed arms (due to cowardice or serious crimes). (Boyer)

Blazons: Are a set words used to precisely describe the layout of Heraldic arms, these were developed for continuity in discussion when visual (Emblazon) examples of arms were not available. This was particularly important in period because often the work of creating new banners for a Lord, or group would be commissioned work sent to the local artisan or painter.

“The shield, known as the field or ground, is divided into specific areas such as the top (chief), middle (fesse) and bottom (base). The right side of the shield is the dexter and the left side the sinister, with the right and left being from the viewpoint of someone holding the shield from behind, as in battle.” (Boyer)

Tinctures: The colors used for Heraldic purposes. This comes from the Latin word “Tingere” which meant Dye or Color. “An alternative background to colour was furs, that is designs which resemble the furs which were commonly used in medieval aristocratic clothing. The two most popular were ermine (from the stoat) with many small black tail tips and vair (from the squirrel) which was represented by various white and blue patterns.” (Boyer)

Green and purple were less commonly used than others, and in the 15th century CE mulberry (murrey) and orange (tenné) were added to the list.

Field: The Background color (or lack) of the heraldic device

Ordinary: The lines and their layouts on a field

Charges: The Objects on the field

Heraldic banners’ appearance

As I started to research the origin of the use of heraldic banners in historic culture, I found that there was a small problem. The vast majority of these items were created for purposes surrounding combat and war, and few of them survive as extant examples today.

Based on those that have been recovered, as well as the prominence of heraldic banners in many period art works, we can make an educated guess about the origin of these items. “Period examples of heraldic standards are found represented across nearly every art form of the medieval period. They appear on many famous tapestries, on rolls of arms, on embroiders, in patent of arms documents, funereal certificates and are very frequently depicted in illuminated miniatures.” (Boyer) It may come as a surprise that these time frames are very similar from Eastern civilizations to those in the West.

Based on the styling that we use in the SCA, and to keep this posting succinct, I will focus only on the history of these banners in Western Cultures at this time.

If you are interested in the history of Heraldic Banners in the East and other parts of the world, please see the bottom of this article for some great resources

There are several theories as to why visual Heraldry developed throughout Western Europe, the primary reason in the beginning seems to be as simple as the need to discern friend from foe on a large battle field with faces obscured by visors, they then developed into an easier way to organize armies as they grew in size.

Heraldry became “a colorful way to establish what would be called a marque or trademark in modern parlance.” (Hunt)

A secondary and complimentary reason this trend seems to have exploded during this time frame is that Heraldry served as a sort of Visual Literacy. Working peasants, surfs and soldiers had a very low literacy rate, and so as Knightly Prowess on the field, both in war and in tournaments became more tightly tied to their honor and nobility, need for easy to recognize identification became more and more important.

It may be surprising that true heraldry with distinctive armorial bearings can only be traced back as far as the 12th century, with Geoffrey V Count of Anjou’s knighting in 1127 and his funerary imagery of gold lions on a blue field around 1151 or with Richard I’s (1157-99) gold lion rampant on his shield in 1189. Richard I’s blazon is followed about a decade later with the now familiar three gold lions on a red shield used ever since for England’s heraldry, formally noted as the first royal blazon of Gules tre lions passant guardant in pale Or armed and langued Azure, using Norman French to say a “red shield (Gules) with three gold (Or) guarding lions walking but facing out toward the viewer and having blue (Azure) tongues (langued) and claws (armed).” (Hunt)

There is some debate that the banner of Edward to Confessor should also be considered the dawn of Heraldic show, and it pre-dates Richard by almost a century. While his banner was a consistent set of elements all in prescribed locations on the field, it did not have a blazon, and does not fit into the heraldic rules as we use them today.

Because Heraldry was used as a sign of rank, it became fashionable down through the ranks to develop coats of arms for a family. “The first recognised (sic) instance of a coat of arms being passed on from one generation to another is that of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou (d. 1151 CE) and his grandson William Longespée (‘Longsword’, d. 1226 CE), who both have six lions rampant on the carved shield on their tombs.” (Sicilian)

Often Charges were picked to display Chivalric virtues to highlight if you will, a family’s nobility. A Lion for prowess, a Fleur-de-lis for franchise, a lily for gentility, etc. Some were also designed based on word play, or a visual pun, a practice known as canting. For example, the Smiths’ would have a hammer and/or anvil. The Beebe’s would have multiple bees or a skep and so on.

For a long time after these charges became popular, there was no centralized control of who was allowed to have Heraldry or how it was in essence trademarked or claimed, which meant many charge/color combinations were used by multiple people, and some were “stolen” in an effort to raise a family’s status within the social arena. Even once some Heraldic colleges were created in the 15th century, their rules and reach varied by location, some localities were never governed by a body who maintained heraldic registrations at all. For this reason the family heraldry so popular in the US today is somewhat questionable in veracity.

How heraldic banners were made in medieval Europe

The very earliest flags were made of a solid color of some textile, if embellishment was put on them, it was often in the form of embroidery, and this carried well into the use of Heraldic devices. Moving into the later renaissance, as Heraldry became more popular, a change of technique had to be made to keep up with the volume and variety of banners needed for some many nobles, nights and fighting groups. It was then that we see the rise of painted banners.

Painted banners could be made much more quickly, much more cheaply and if lost (as in many wars) were not a major economic impact to their owners. Embroidered banners did not totally disappear, however they became a marked sign of wealth for the nobles and church and became a major contributor to the idea of conspicuous consumption, often displayed with cloth/thread of gold or silver lavishly incorporated in their stitching and couching.

When the request for a banner was made, the order was sent to a local artisan (not often actual painters, although in the later 1500s many courts employed court painters) to create. That order would include the size style and blazon as requested by the customer. For painted banners the use of linen was most common, due to price, durability and availability. Silk was also used, depending on the banners’ intended use, but was more costly.

The textile was stretched tightly on a frame along the seems most often with nails, or tacks. Cennini recommends to then coat the textile with “an all-over coat of this size”, this would have been perhaps an egg-white wash or a wash of gum Arabic solution. “And it would not matter if the size were not as strong as for gesso. Keep it as hot as you can; and, with a blunt soft bristle brush, lay some on both sides, if you are going to do painting on each side.” Unless a very fine weave of textile was used, it was not uncommon to need to paint both sides, however keep in mind if you wanted to use this banner on the war field, to be seen it either needed to be stiff, hung from a cross beam, or flap in the wind, so the amount and type of preparation changed depending on the intention of it’s style and use. (Il Libro)

For a stiffer style banner they would then apply a layer of gesso, by applying it with a flat bladed tool and then scraping it back off again, the intent being to fill the space between the weave of the fabric, but not making the item any heavier than it needed to be.

While this is not a diagram of a banner, the layers were laid out in similar layers as the panel shown here.

Once that was dry, a quick survey of the surface was done to make sure it was as flat and blemish free as was possible. Then the artist would take up a piece of charcoal to “Draw on cloth just the way you draw on panel; and fix it with a wash of ink”. (Il Libro) I have also heard of a technique of creating designs with a sort of tracing paper – “multiple layers of glue painted on a flat surface to dry and be peeled up, or thinly scraped parchment (to make it translucent)” and lastly a technique called “pouncing (pricking of design through a piece of fabric and “pouncing” a bag of coal over the pricks to leave dots – then connect the dots)”. (Robynson)

On some occasions, when these items were created for the church, gilding would occur as well. This included applying more layers of sizing, letting it dry and then applying gold leaf to the banner material. Then “burnish it, holding a very smooth and solid board underneath this cloth, keeping a cushion between the cloth and the board” The last important step was to add a clear varnish, this would keep it much more weather resistant if it was to be used outside. (Il Libro)

“You should paint, step by step, on this cloth; and it is more pleasant to work on it than on panel, because the cloth holds the moisture a little; and it is just as if you were working in fresco, that is, on a wall. And I will also inform you that, in painting, the colors must be laid in many, many times, far more than on panel, because the cloth has no body as the ancona has, and it does not show up well under varnishing when it is poorly laid in. Temper the colors the same as for panel. ” (Il Libro) The paints that were used were either tempera or oil based and made with naturally found pigments, so the colors may not be very vibrant, this is why multiple layers may be needed (and why heraldic rules about tincture combinations became widely adopted).

Observations of extant banners

Ceremonial standard associated with the Douglas of Cavers Family

Standard said to have been carried by Archibald Douglas of Cavers at the Battle of Otterburn, 1388

Dimensions: 1.2M high x 4M long

Housed in the Nation Museums of Scotland, this item was painted silk (although the type of paint is not stated) and I believe it to have been a fork tailed pennon whose second tail was ripped off, based on the uneven end pieces seen here. Sadly I cannot seem to find a higher quality photo of this example, but my conjecture based on the depth of color that still survives is that this was painted with oil based paints.

The Burgundy Flags

The “Burgundy flags” in the HVM collection originate from the military conflicts between the Duchy of Burgundy and the Confederation between 1474 and 1477, which went down in history as the “Burgundian Wars”. On March 2, 1476, the first major meeting took place at the Battle of Grandson. The troops of Charles the Bold suffered a defeat in the fight against the federal infantry. The victors not only got a large booty of flags and war material, but also the field camp of Charles the Bold, which was furnished with art treasures. (Main)

Main standard of an orderly company of Duke Charles the Bold — No Dimensions provided — A fork tailed pennon

Squadron Pennant of an orderly company of Duke Charles the Bold — No Dimensions provided
Guidon of a Mounted Archer Formation of the Guard of Duke Charles the Bold — No Dimensions provided
Departmental Banderole of an Archer’s Escort by Duke Charles the Bold — No Dimensions provided
Burgundian Coat of Arms of a Mounted Army Department of Charles the Bold — No Dimensions provided
“On this main banner you can see the coat of arms of Flanders with a black lion in gold as a heart shield. 
The golden lilies in blue represent France. 
The golden and quintuple areas indicate Burgundy. 
The gold-crowned lion in silver forms the coat of arms of Limburg. 
Instead of the Lion of Brabant, that of Limburg is set a second time. 
This arrangement contradicts the heraldic form of the coat of arms.”

Housed at the Hardanger Og Voss Museum in Utne, Norway these banners are listed as a painted silk pieces made “before 1476”. The details and condition of this pieces are amazing if you look closely, you can see a lot of time and work went into the shading and shaping of each charge.

The Maid of Ghent – Battle Standard of the City of Ghent

Battle standard of the Ghent civic militia emblazoned with the Maid of Ghent

Dimensions: 3ft tall by 9ft long

Housed in the Ghent City Museum, this item was painted linen canvas (although the type of paint is not stated) with silver leaf and added silk fringe. It was made by Agnes vanden Bossche in 1482.

“The fringe that embellishes the edges of the standard is an adhered green silk fringe, bought from Janne de Wilde, the same vendor from which the black linen canvas was procured. The medium appears to be oil, since the brush strokes have a great deal of texture. Although egg tempera was the most common paint medium in the early to mid-Middle Ages, it would be possible for the transition into oil tempered paints to be in use in Brughes during this time, as egg tempera was gradually being phased out in favor of oil paints and resins through the 15th century. There are also remaining traces of silver leaf which covered the lion originally; proving metallic leaf was being employed on painted military banners.” (Linder)

If you look at the top, you can see the seam where the banner was made taller to maintain the pennant shape.

Big Banner of the City of St. Gallen

Dimensions Unknown

“Old flag of the city of St.Gallen. The bear differs significantly from later depictions. His attitude is more aggressive. The head is sharply outlined, the back strong and indented. The hips are expansive, which, in conjunction with the energetic legs, increases the impression of easy mobility and gives the body the character of the sinewy and elastic. The color scheme is familiar: the black bear on white, upright and walking to the right. Tongue and tail are red, eyebrows, ear cups and reinforcement are golden. The position and shape of the claws is particularly interesting: they are bent at the outer end. The claw standing sideways is set back like a thumb on the front and back paws, unlike in the later depictions.” (Big)

This example is interesting to me, because we also have a later version of the same one, I will speak about below. This is easily identified as a linen body with the bear painted on at least one side. Based on the state of the colors, their translucence and the visible linen fibers under the painted areas, I am fairly certain that this was painted with either water colors or a very lightly mixed tempera paint. If you take a look at the outlines of the claws and teeth, as well as the top of the body of linen, you can easily make out gold leaf, apparently applied as the field of this banner originally.

Julius Banner of the City of St. Gallen

Paint on Silk, 1512, Milan Italy

Dimensions unknown

Just a few years before the Reformation, the city of St. Gallen and the other federal places received the title “Ecclesiasticae libertatis defensores” (protector of the freedom of the church). They went to war for the Pope and expelled the French from Pavia in June 1512. Julius II relied on the power of the Confederates. In 1506 he founded the Pontifical Swiss Guard and in 1510 formed an alliance for five years. The flag is an honor from the Pope. Christ is depicted on it – with the crucifixion wounds and tools of suffering. Under the influence of Christian mysticism, this representation has spread since the 14th century. It shows Christ not as a brilliant winner, but as a sufferer. The crossed Roman keys and the tiara (head covering) refer to the Pope.” (Julius)

Compared to it’s earlier counterpart, this is a much higher quality of materials overall. This looks like a very fine weave of silk, since you can’t see a weave. The colors are bold and opaque, making me believe this was done in oils. The posture of the bear is still rampant, but it is interesting to note the change in it’s perceived aggressiveness above. As it’s back isn’t arched and there is no stress in it’s limbs as if on the prowl. There is also a collar on this bear, as before there was not. Perhaps symbolic of it’s expedience to the pope who made this gift to the city for their service?

I cannot see many discernible signs of gold leaf on this rendition, but that’s not to say that it didn’t have some. If you look carefully at the keys of Rome, there are lighter, shinier spots on the small orbs that look as if they had gold on them at one time and this darker flat color we see now, was just the base paint color laid down before the size and gold leaf was attached.

Pennant of the captain Nao in the Battle of Lepanto

1571, Tempera on Linen

Dimensions: 1720 cm x 140 cm

“In the wake of the Battle of Lepanto, John of Austria was grateful for the assistance of Saint James, patron saint of Spain. He sent a variety of pieces as an offering, including a large number of badges, military standards and banners, and other military items, such as different weapons, armor, and some valuable and highly famed equipment. The “Gallardete de Lepanto” pennant is the only one that still exists today.It is made from 17 meters of linenfabric decorated in tempera with colorful scenes and coats of arms. Beginning at the top of the pennant, on a background of 3 stripes—red, gold, and blue—there are depictions of a Calvary; a Throne of Grace; the Lion of Saint Mark (Venice); the imperial coat of arms of the House of Austria; the Gryphon (Genoa); the images of Saint John the Evangelist, Saint James (dressed as a pilgrim), and Saint John the Baptist; and the shields of Castile and the House of Savoy.” (Pennant)

This one is interesting in that you can see the linen weave again through the paints (stated as temper). There is very little shading done (at least that I believe can’t be attributed to wear and tear instead), and there are very bold outlines on all the shapes except for the charges faces up near the hoist. I am not sure if what we are seeing is the original charcoal lines, or perhaps lines that have been purposefully retraced with black paint to embolden the shapes. This may have been a needed addition since this was to be used on a ship and viewed at extreme site distances. Although it does not state as much, I suspect that if this was commissioned for a ship’s use it was heavily covered in a clear lacquer or beeswax to help protect the pigments and body fabric again the weather’s wear.

16th Century Italian Silk and Polychromy

Banner, 16th century Italian, Silk, polychromy; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of William H. Riggs, 1913 (14.25.1832)

Dimensions: 21½ x 28 in. (54.6 x 71.1 cm)

This banner does not have a lot of information about it provided. It looks to be the arms of someone of Royal descent, both based on the Crown atop the gryphon’s head, and also the rampant posture it holds. Upon zooming in to take a closer look, there are no indications that I can see of ties or a sleeve into which this could be a fixed to a pole on the top or left edges. There are two quatrafoils, one containing something akin to cross blades over a small shield and the other something that looks vaguely like a seal. The fringe seems to have been added on after the banner was painted, as it has a visible backing on the left side and is therefore not a simple frayed edge of the painted field fabric.

The paint looks very opaque, and thick, the lines where the paint cracked showing the original color of the body fabric which leads me to believe that this was painted with oils which sit on top of the fabric, and not water colors that would have seeped into the fibers. Based on the color values, this looks as if it is a white field with gold quatrafoil details and possible fringe? The color of the gryphon is harder to determine, although most likely I would say it is either blue or red. The value does not look dark enough to be black against the backing and (charcoal?) outlines of the charge. I suppose there is a chance he could be purple or green, but that would be unusual for this time periods’ trends.

Banners within the SCA

Within the SCA, our primary use of banners is flavor, ambiance and pageantry. We use these displays to identify our personal locations, those of our encampments and allegiances or fealties within our lands. While I have seen some banners used in wars across the known world, most often they are left on the sidelines as decoration, I do not see them often taken into battle.

We as a society still practice a myriad of banner making techniques, and I would imagine that the preferred mechanisms may vary widely across the world based on weather, knowledge and access to materials. I have seen banners made of wool, linen and silk, both embroidered and painted. My art has turned primarily to the use of pigments on silk, and so I will finish my discussion with those as the focus.

In An Tir the prevailing methodology of creating silk painted banners has turned to a practice called batik -the use of a resist and dye to draw the charges on the silk, as opposed to painting them as you might a canvas or fresco.

As with most SCA kingdoms our registration of heraldry is centered on the principles of heraldry and display as practiced in 14th century France. This is thought to be the height of the heraldic college’s practice of creating and managing heraldic displays for the renaissance high chivalric period.

When I create my banner layouts I follow roughly the following practice of precedence: Closest to the Hoist is the Kingdom Heraldry, this can be in the form of it’s highest award (for us, the Lion of An Tir as depicted by a cheque field) or the populace badge for others that have no earned that accolade. Next comes the branch arms of the owner of the banner if they wish to include it- this could be canton, shire, Barony or Principality. After those, often comes a conglomeration of various visual charges pertaining to the owners’ accolade and their personal arms.

Note that these layouts still adhere to the basic rules of heraldic visibility:

“Colour: applying the normal rules of heraldic contrast will ensure the colours on your standard are easily distinguishable and visually striking even at distance. No metals on metals, no colours on colours.

Repetition: charges are often represented repeated down the fly of the standard, graduating in sizes. Usually seen in threes, and often interspersed with motto bands. A useful way of incorporating secondary charges is to show them strewn on the field (semy).

Secondary Charges: these would include charges from your own heraldry, or you may wish to incorporate household badges, personal badges or symbols of rank.

Diapering: this technique is used to overcome what is often called ‘le horror vacui’ which is basically an abhorrence of empty space in the design. If you are planning on using diapering, you will need to research an appropriate pattern for your time frame and culture. For an example – have a look at the argent/white sections of our St Florian Kingdom Standards, they are subtly diapered with a buttony cross pattern.

Mottos: optional design element, usually incorporated into the design in one of two ways. On motto bands which break the standard design into segments, or in the body of the design on the fly of the standard.” (Boyer)

My Methodology


I use pre-hemmed silk that I can purchase from a vendor. This is quick and reduces the labor hours per banner dramatically by not having to hem unless the banner has an odd shape. Hemming by hand is a cleaner finish, if you have the time, but it can also be done with a machine if you take it slow, and get your tension correct. If you are hemming your own silk, I always recommend you use silk thread so that it doesn’t show and dyes the same as the fabric. 

The frames I use are made of 1” PVC pipes and fittings. This is because it is cheap, easy to find and adjust to sizes as needed. There are also some pre-cut wooden frames available at many craft stores, but these, I find to be less versatile if you’re making a lot of different sized banners. 

There are pros and cons to the use of rubber bands and alligator clips, the primary method I employee. Pros are that they are flexible in set up and keep the banner taught in an even fashion when employed correctly. Cons are that sometimes the clips give out, and there’s a chance you can leave small markings from the clips on the edges of banners, where dye pools around them. I have seen others sew their banners onto a frame or use tack or safety pins on the silks surface. I find those methods take longer and have their own potential drawbacks of damaging the silk from being pulled to tight or breaking threads in the weave.

For my pigments, I use “Jacquard- Dye-na-flow_ fabric colors”. These are in fact a dye made for silk that spreads very easily over the surface of the weave and that I have found can be blended if applied properly. They are also very vibrant, have a nice opaque color and saturate the fibers well, assuring that the color stays fast and that the banners is easily seen from both sides. There are other pigments made by the same company with a thicker consistency that I find hard to work with because the color does not move or respond to the resist in the same way. The other benefit of the dye vs the paint is that it is lighter on the fabric and therefore doesn’t inhibit the banners ability to fly as much as the weight of the heavier paint might.

For resist, I use a black solvent based resist produced for silk batik. You can also get this type in several colors, or you can easily find some water base resists. I like this one as it gives a thicker consistency when applied and I find I can control it’s flow better that then more liquid versions, allowing me to include smaller and more in depth details on my banners.

Design Layout

Once I’ve decide the size that I want to make my banner (and also give at least some preliminary thought to how I’ll want to attach it to a pole later), I layout my design in 2 steps: 

Color mock up- this is more important than it may seem, as sometimes color balance looks odd once all of your elements are laid out- I use PowerPoint to create these layouts, but you can also do this with paper and colored pencils. As an example, I will use the Layout of a recent commission for Mistress Khalja of 3M, she’d requested a 14 x 72 inch banner with cheque for the kingdom, a motto, her personal arms, a laurel wreath and a pelican. My initial suggestion was this:

We also updated the laurel wreath to better match the image “weight” of the pelican.

Scale Model- Now that I know what the design should end up looking like- I go to some basic graph paper to make a scaled mock up. This will allow me to know how large I need to make each section, as well as my text and to get all of the content on the banner evenly, the first time. 


Now that the design layout is completed, it’s time to stretch the silk on the frame. When building your frame, I recommend that you aim for a size with a minimum of 1” larger than the silk, although 2-4” is best, anything larger than that will be a hassle to outfit with clips and rubber bands. 

Once the frame is the size you want, lay it and the banner out on a clean floor or table, grab your rubber bands and alligator clips- I recommend you start in the corners, always put a clip on each corner (so 2 for the 90 degree turn) and set the clips directly opposite each other as in sequential order, or as close to the same time as you can (for larger banners, having another person help is great). Start with all 4 corners, and then work from one end to the other, to ensure even stretch all the way down, it works best if the clips are complimentary on each side.

Now that the banner is stretched on the frame, it’s time to draw in your design with a pencil. I start with a yardstick and my graph paper layout. I draw in all the straight lines/divisions and borders. Then I finish by making small marks at the center point of each area, which I can use that to place the charges. 


Once you’re satisfied with the drawing of your lines, it’s time to put on the resist! I pour only as much as I think I need for this project, into a plastic bottle with the metal top, that’s the way I can get the most control and fine lines. There are some “fine tip” dispenser bottles made for this, but I have a harder time working with those for a consistent application. 

I am right handed, so I start on the LEFT side of my banner- so that I’m not smudging things with my elbow as I go. Apply from the middle outwards- so borders last. If you’ve never used this bottle, have a paper towel handy to get the first movement of the resist into the nozzle, it may sputter a bit, so don’t do this over/near your silk. Once you have an even flow, you can begin. Note that smooth strokes provide nice lines, and that a slim line looks clean, but if it’s too slim, the dye can easily jump. So you want to try and achieve a solid 1/10 cm line- **pay close attention to line transitions and corners- they NEED TO TOUCH, solidly, without being chunky. 

Lastly- when you have a line that goes over an edge of the silk, remember that it needs to extend around the back of the silk as well to keep the color from bleeding through the hem (if there is one). 

Note- You *can* use resist to write out letters or words, but if they are large enough, it may be prudent to outline them, and then paint them in with black dye. 

Once your resist is applied completely, I recommend that you set the banner somewhere safe- where it won’t be bumped or knocked over for a minimum of an hour (24 is better). 

Painting (Dyeing)

I recommend that you start with the lightest color first, and work your way to darkest, when applying dye. Lay your banner horizontally on a table or across two stable surfaces to apply the dye. I don’t recommend applying dye while it’s hanging or leaning on something as it may slip and the dye can run easily. Make sure that the middle of the banner doesn’t touch the surface! If it does, dye can transfer back and force from the banner to the surface creating color transfer you don’t want! 

Before you touch brush to banner, make sure you have a brush for application, a clean brush for cleanup, a blending brush if you need to, a cup of water, at least one paper towel, your color layout reference and ALL of the dye colors you will need for the section on which you’re working. Always keep the dyes securely closed unless you’re actively working with them. I recommend that you shake all dye bottles before applying, however do this away from your silk just in case, so you don’t splatter if there is dye on the lip of the bottle. Also- be aware that this may cause the dye to foam once you remove the lid (again with Caution and away from your silk). 

With all of your supplies ready, start to apply your lightest color first (I always recommend that you apply white to white areas- I know the silk is also white, but the dye acts as a resist in case anything darker jumps onto your white area, and keeps the other color from spreading into a larger mess. Again- apply from the left to the right (if right handed), and from middle to edge. Don’t forget to paint under your CLIPS! I do this by gently removing one at a time, painting under it and placing it back again over the dye. 

THIS DYE SPREADS- so I recommend that you paint at least ½” away from your resist lines until you get a feel for the way the color moves, especially near edges, it’s better to apply further away and sneak towards the edge cautiously, than have dye jump into a space you don’t want it. 

WHEN you make a mistake- it happens! Don’t stress, take your spare brush, wet it in clean water, and start to brush the error spot off of the Silk- you can also wet it and absorb it with your paper towel, once the majority of the error color is removed- WHILE STILL AS WET AS YOU CAN KEEP IT- apply the correct color for that space, and paint it in evenly. This will help to blend out the error further. 

I recommend that between colors, you take a five minute break, to both rest your arm, as well as let the dye dry a bit, so you have no accidental transfer. Once all the colors are applied, leave banner horizontal for at least 10 minutes- this is to avoid any unwanted drips. Once the color looks 90% dry, you can then move it to a standing position somewhere safe to dry completely. 


Color blending is POSSIBLE- and fun, however it’s considered a bit advanced, so keep playing with it and don’t get frustrated. I’ve found that it works best if you keep the area you’re working on wet, once the first color starts to dry, you can’t re-wet it and get the same smooth blend. However you CAN high/low light on top of other colors if you let the layers dry in between. 

I have found success blending light colors into dark colors (although this may take several passes) and also dark into light.

Heat Treatment (Setting)

Now that your color is done- it’s time to heat treat the color- this is a MUST or the dye will fade and run if/when it gets wet. I run silk through a 30 minute hot cycle in the dryer and then to make double sure, iron them each as well. 4 minutes per 1 sq ft of banner with an iron on high (no steam). Sandwich your banner in some light cotton scrap to keep the resist off of your iron and board.


This has been an interesting process of learning about the historical methodologies, of creation, maintenance and need of banners. The more I read, the more questions I have, and now I have an extensive reading list to spelunk through, in a quest to find out more.

There seems to be a phenomenon of the appearance of heraldic styled banners across multiple cultures and continents around the same time frame, and I am anxious to find as answer, if there is one, as to how and why this may have happened. Was there communication (albeit slow) between these cultures which could have naturally introduced the trend? Or was there some sort of social or technological threshold that no one had seen until some part of the world or society had changed?

Further, I would like to make some changes to the way I make banners: to try incorporating the methodologies of the masters of that time into my art. To look at the sources and make ups of their materials and pigments and to perhaps try my hand at the use of tempera on silks or linens and to be able to compare the methods and results to the modern version.

Lastly- I would like to see a major shift in the way we as a society manage our heraldry. There is evidence that almost every culture that existed around 1100, (at least that I’ve seen so far) had developed their own version of Heraldry, or at least proto Heraldry, be it the French and their charges, the Japanese and their Mon or the Natives of the Americas and their Totems. I see no reason that these diverse styles and takes on heraldry can’t also be displayed to better our experiences as a whole.

I am thankful to my love for setting me on this path, and I think that we’ve really found a niche to achieve what we were looking to do in the first place. I am content to see the pageantry ever increasing in our game, through efforts such as these and hope to see more in the future.


World Heraldry Resources

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16 Replies to “Paint on Silk”

  1. Hello Ana, wonderful page. Great explanation of heraldry and tincture, and flag shape. I’m glad to hear that you are using Dyna Flow as the Jacquard green label dye is not what it used to be. I think the manufacturers changed the formula on us and steaming is no longer getting me the results it used to. By the way, batik uses wax for the lines, not gutta or water resist. Our method is resist flag dying, also not period – yet – but a wonderful way to get color in the sky while you sew, applique, embroider, or oil paint something. There are more extant examples – hundreds in this one museum – that I’d love to share with you. Maybe we need a flag “talk shop” party!! I’d really like that. We could compare resists, too, because I’m not happy with Sennelier anymore.

    This is awesome, your flags are stunning, and especially good with the hand stretches. Let me know when you’d like to meet, we could talk about various attachment systems too.

    -Adrianna the Fierce

      1. Hey Ana! I sure am, “Deunan Shiruba (Adrianna)”. Let’s set up a flag talk shop party!! That would be so cool. Compare things, try things, it’d be awesome!

  2. Thank you for sharing this! I learned SO MUCH. I already knew you made beautiful banners, but the history of painted fabric banners is fascinating. I especially appreciate your comments on diversifying our extremely limited heraldry rules for the Society. I think it is a worthy and timely suggestion.

  3. So pretty! Hooray for flags!
    I loved all the research into the original medieval versions, and I agree with your assessment that it would be great to have more visibility of heraldry from a diversity of cultures. .
    I would also be super excited to see any forays you make into the realm of the older methods. I’ve done a bit of tempera now, and I think it is severely underrepresented in our current middle ages, mostly because it can be tricky to do from scratch, and we have so many lovely and colorfast modern alternatives. But how cool would it be to sport a banner made with linen and paint from an egg?
    Your layouts are so tidy and balanced and a pleasure to look upon! My itchy fingers seldom have the patience for that much aforethought, so color me a wee bit envious.
    Heraldry! Heraldry everywhere! Mwahahaha!

  4. Personally I very much enjoy the aesthetic and joy a field of banners/flags/pennons bring whether in encampment or in the field. The first part of your presentation is a lovely and detailed overview of the heraldic history of flags and would be worth a class by itself.
    The use of thin silk flags or pennons is more difficult to find, and may be lost in the face of the master works in embroidery and paint. The silk pennants and flags that we so admire in the SCA are not easily documented in period as most of the extant and documented examples are stiff and mounted on cross braced poles. I also recently came across Cellini’s instructions as you noted regarding preparation of the ground, again for a stiff work of art in oil. Fascinating stuff that I paid only slight attention to at the time because the work involved to make an authentic pennant was more than I was willing to invest in.
    I still enjoy and keep the paints and dyes for silk painting as I find it soothing and lovely. It is hard to believe that you have only been doing this for four years, and I applaud your work. It lends joy to the scene at events and inspires me to further designs.
    Oh, that was a question I meant to ask as part of your process: How much of the art is your original art? Not that original is the end all, be all, or even necessary but just as a reference point of design building.
    I can certainly agree that humans like to wave things about, decorate any surface that stands still long enough, and identification of person, place or community continues to be a goal. Every culture seems to be inspired to make things prettier or pleasing. Functional art is my favorite form. This is a true representation of functional art.

    Aryana Silknfyre, Laurel, AnTir

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read through it all. Pertaining to your question: The charges themselves on my pieces are NOT original art. 90% of them come from the awesome joint effort that is Having said that, ALL of the layouts are mine. So the pieces no, but the whole layout yes. I hope that makes sense.

      Ana de la Sara, Baroness, An Tir

  5. Wow, what a great presentation you’ve organized. I loved your effort to go through period and into what is practical for those of us without dedicated collections of minions to create for us.
    Your step by step process images and discussion were clear and well thought out.
    Thank you!
    Rauthulfr, OL

  6. I forgot to ask my question in my original comment. When you find yourself working with a larger field how do you minimize the brush stroke or spread lines. I find that larger fields mine tends to look splotchy and a second coat can help but yours are amazingly even.

    1. My method is to keep it wet. Start on one side (or in one corner) and move all the way across/around without stopping. Sometimes when I have REALLY large fields, I’ll ask a second person to help me so it doesn’t dry too fast. Also- while you’re applying the color, you can carefully hold it up to the light to see where the dye hasn’t penetrated all the way through the fibers. I tend to them sort of scrub that area with my wet brush until it does. It’s particularly easy to see that with black and blue. PS- Blue and Green dyes are the WORST to get even in my experience. 😛 I hope that helps.

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