Every Challenge has its Rewards: In Conversation with Thao Nguyen

Back in March, as the world went into global lockdown dot-art member Thao Nguyen was visiting family in her hometown of Bao Loc in Vietnam.

Eight months on Thao is still in Bao Loc unable to travel back to her home in Liverpool, however, the restrictions have not set Thao back as she has embarked upon a new creative journey inspired by traditional Vietnamese textiles.

This week we catch up with Thao and get an exclusive insight into her beautiful new body of work using dyed silks.

Thao, what inspired you to take your paintbrush off the canvas and onto silk? 

During lockdown, all of the art shops in Vietnam were closed and I could not find any painting material, I knew I would have to get creative. Whilst thinking of what I could do, I visited a friend who hand-paints traditional Vietnamese dresses with thick layers of acrylic paint, this visit inspired me to experiment with painting on to textiles such as silk.

Silk was the first material that came to mind as I grew up around silkworms in my hometown Bao Loc, a city famous for its traditional natural worm silk. I ordered in a range of dyes from the US and began my new creative venture!

What challenges did you face when painting onto silk?

Learning to paint onto silk was not without its challenges. First, the silk needs to be heat treated through a steaming process which would often leave the silk damaged, the colours would also fade after the first wash, so I began testing and experimenting with different methods.

Another challenge came from applying the dye to the silk, unlike canvas the dye would spread uncontrollably fast,  I researched methods of controlling the dye and found that Metallic in Gutta Resist allows the silk to hold fine, crisp lines that do not spread. I then struggled to find any dry-cleaning shops that could remove the Gutta Resist in Vietnam (bearing in mind that 100% natural silk is rather expensive) I ended up learning a very hard and very expensive lesson through this process!

Saying this I was determined to not give up and in the end, it was certainly worth it.

How would you describe your style of art?

I currently use the French Serti method combined with watercolour on paper to create natural-looking works. I found my niche in the wearable art and I love it!

Can you talk us through your process? Do you begin with a sketch, or do you just go straight in? How long do you spend on one piece? How do you know when it is finished?

When I get an idea of what to paint, I sketch it on paper and then transfer it to the silk or fabric. Depending on the material, I use water-based resist (washable) or Gutta Resist before I apply the dye. When the dye is dry, I treat the silk with heat or a steaming process to set the colour.

I then wash it to remove all excess colours and the resist. If I use Gutta Resist, I have to first remove it with Gutta Resist Solvent. The final stage is always washing the material to ensure the colours are set permanently. It’s a long process but the outcome is always beautifully unique.

Who or what inspires your art? 

I love fashion design and have close friends in this field who have given me a lot of support, I am truly inspired by them. They have helped me understand more about the current opportunities in this field and through exploring this niche wearable art, I have been able to learn much more about creative fashion design and current fashion trends.

I’ve been very fortunate during my time here, my parents even helped me convert their gym space into an art studio! The studio is located right in the middle of my family’s orchid farm, I am surrounded every day by flowers, singing birds, fresh air, lovely weather, lots of green trees.

All of this combined with the beautiful aromas from green tea farms closed by has created a truly ideal environment. To put it simply, I have no excuse not to be creative in this haven!

Thao Nguyen-Textile-Work

What are you working on at the moment?

Inspired by flowers, especially the wildflowers in my hometown, I am currently creating a series focusing on orchid and wild flora. I’ve also started preparing for my silk painting exhibitions next year.

I have some big orders of hand-painted scarves to be delivered to the US and some silk paintings of traditional flora that I need to fulfil by the end of this year. In a way, I am grateful for all the challenges brought in 2020 as they have led me to discover and fall in love with traditional silk painting.

What is your favourite piece of artwork?

I recently received an order to paint a very common flower called “Dam But”, which is usually found planted in Vietnamese gardens. It’s a very common flower and there is nothing particularly special about it, but after I painted it, it became very special to me. I discovered I could covert a common flower into a unique and beautiful work of art, I am very happy with it.

What’s the best advice that was given to you as an artist?
When you feel stuck, it might be a good opportunity for you to change your direction.
Look around to see what you have and make the most of it.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, after all, if you are creative, you can create anything anywhere!

What are your favourite things to listen to whilst painting? If anything! 

I have always loved to listen to classical music and jazz when I paint. Sometimes, I switch to audiobooks centring on personal development.