Smooth as Silk in Southwest Art Magazine

Smooth as Silk by Rosemary Carstens

“Painting is a meditation,” says Nancy Dunlop Cawdrey. “It’s a way to ‘show up’ in the present moment with brush in hand and color on my palette. I choose to focus on what’s beautiful, what I feel grateful about.” Viewing one of Cawdrey’s color-saturated, iridescent silk paintings is like entering another world, a place of fantastic color, and her choice of medium brings a fresh, invigorating feeling to western subject matter.

Painting on silk originated in the Far East, with wax-resist techniques traceable back to India in the second century A.D. and to Java some 200 years later, where the techniques were used in the batik industry. In the 1920s, hand-painted 
silks became popular with French fashion designers, and then the art form began to be adopted more frequently among American artists. As with other artistic mediums, there will always be a few specialists who are not content to simply do what has been done before. They push through perceived boundaries to experiment in new territory, to apply techniques to new subject matter, to create what has never been seen before. Cawdrey is one of these.

Anne Morand, curator of art at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, remembers seeing Cawdrey’s work for the first time. “I watched her create one of her paintings during a Quick Draw at a C.M. Russell Auction, and her command of the medium, her exquisite color, and her compositional skills amazed me. I was even more impressed with her ability to do very precise work with hundreds of people watching and milling around! Since that first time, I have seen much of her work, including a major painting of a bison that is owned by the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls. Her paintings are very popular here in Oklahoma, and she participates in our Small Works, Great Wonders show and sale each November.”

Although Cawdrey graduated from The George Washington University in Washington, DC, with a double major in journalism and political science, art has always been on her mind. Her first two years of college, she attended the American University of Paris, where her studies included studio painting. But in the 1960s, an era of “paint what you feel,” the essential basics of art instruction were often lacking. To compensate, Cawdrey also took workshops with such well-known artists as R.S. Riddick, Milt Kobayashi, and Carolyn Anderson. She regards Richard Schmid’s book Alla Prima as a foundational work that she reads again and again.

Following college, Cawdrey’s husband, Steve, took a position as headmaster at a small school in Devon, England, where the couple lived for several years. During that period, renowned British sculptor Tom Greenshields encouraged her to paint with just one color—Payne’s gray—for an entire year, to learn composition and values. “That advice was invaluable,” she says, “though I didn’t quite last a year.”

Steve had always dreamed of starting his own school, and in the 1970s the couple opened the Spring Creek Community, a wilderness boarding school for teenagers on 80 acres in a remote Montana region near the town of Thompson Falls. Nancy continued to develop her artwork, painting in watercolors as well as oils. It was during these years that she happened to see some small paintings on silk, became intrigued with the medium’s possibilities, and began working with it. “I spent many years perfecting my skills. It’s much like guitar playing—easy to play simple chords and very tough to play like a virtuoso. My watercolor background certainly eased the transition.” As more and more people responded enthusiastically to her work, especially her silk paintings, she began to consider making the leap into art as a career.

Toward the end of the 1990s, the Cawdreys lived in Italy for most of a year, where Nancy worked primarily in oils, although she also did a few silk paintings. For the challenge of it, she limited herself to using just three colors—ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, and cadmium yellow—plus white: “I chugged out every day and completed more than 120 paintings!” When the Cawdreys moved back to the United States, they settled in Bigfork, MT. Very quickly, her silk paintings started selling as fast as she could paint them—collectors loved their color, exuberance, and energy.

Today, subject-matter inspiration comes from all around her—from the wildlife she sees outside her studio or encounters on a walk outdoors, from reading, from travel, or from photographs. Then the itch to re-create her vision takes over.

Painting on silk is a technically difficult process, with little room for error, and Cawdrey’s talent comes from years of hard work and experimentation. She uses French and Italian dyes on heavy, nubby crepe de Chine, which she special orders from a California supplier. “Painting on silk,” says Cawdrey, “is a lot like working with watercolors, but it’s a very spirited medium—there are no do-overs. It’s more about guiding the fluid than controlling it.”

In the early stages of a painting, the silk is held taut on stretcher bars, and Cawdrey begins her work with the piece lying flat to avoid color runs. She draws her central form very lightly onto the fabric with a water-soluble pencil and then applies a resist, which is a substance that preserves the sketch as she begins to apply the dye. Later, when a painting is about 60 percent complete, she’ll move it up to her easel where she can step back and view it from 20 feet away or so, carefully adding the finishing details.

Fifteen or 20 layers can go into a painting, and color is a key element. “Color is a wonderful emotional stimulant for me,” Cawdrey says. “People ask me why I use a certain color next to another, in a shadow, on the rear end of a horse—even though I know color harmonies and mixtures pretty darned well, it’s mostly a gut-level response. Color brings me joy, especially red.”

Using large water-media brushes, she first strokes on the background areas in soft sweeps of color, blending and creating the impression of texture by applying salt granules, which pull the color toward the grains. She wants backgrounds that enhance but do not detract from the central figure, just as a photographer uses depth of field to emphasize essential elements.

Cawdrey favors rich hues and, as she layers one color over another, she achieves a deep, jewellike intensity. Each stroke must be well thought out in relation to all others. “I strive for color harmony, and I repeat colors throughout the painting to unify the overall effect,” she says. She carefully manipulates variations in values to emphasize softness, shadow, or changes in the play of light. Resist and no-flow sizing help to keep color pure where needed, allow it to blend to achieve specific effects, or to preserve brush strokes. When dry, a painting is stretched onto acid-free foam core and protected with museum-quality glazing.

Viewers often remark on the dramatic clouds in Cawdrey’s work. Cawdrey loves clouds and their endless panoply of shapes and pigmentation. She and her son, who is also an artist, get together and paint nothing but clouds for hours. Note the effect of the clouds in such works as PRAIRIE THUNDER and THIS HOUSE OF SKY—billowing, kaleidoscopic, and awe-inspiring, they provide a bold, energetic backdrop for the central subjects.

Jamie Oberloh, assistant gallery director at Hayden Hayes Gallery at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, CO, describes Cawdrey’s work as “high-spirited, visually appealing, clever, and joyful.” And it is drawing attention across the West and beyond. For her part, Cawdrey meets the challenges of her medium in progressively interesting ways, testing its limits and exceeding them. As she puts it: “I keep learning new notes and songs in the world of painting.”