Vietnam Art Books -- The Process of Making Lacquer Paintings in Vietnam

The Process of Making Lacquer Paintings in Vietnam

The technique of using lacquer for handicrafts and decorative items in the households has a long tradition in Vietnam since it was introduced from China centuries ago.

Western paintings and techniques were introduced in Vietnam by the French, in particular after the establishment of the Fine Art University: École des Beaux Art d’Indochine in Hanoi in 1925. The traditional lacquer technique which was earlier used for handicraft and decorative household items, was now applied to paintings, creating a new art form. The first lacquer paintings were quite traditional in expressing scenes of natural beauty from the country. Later, lacquer paintings were created to promote socialistic and communistic values. However, since Vietnam became more outward looking in the 1980-90’s, young artists have explored and reinvented the old art form and put it in a new, contemporary context to create highly innovative and interesting paintings.

Each artist has different ways of using lacquer to produce paintings, and some details are only known to the artist himself. However, there are common features of lacquer paintings, which are described below in order to introduce Vietnamese contemporary lacquer paintings to a larger audience. The traditional process as described below, is used by artists such as Trinh Tuan, while others like Dinh Quan use a modified technique.

1. The wood/board

The artists buy the boards ready-made from suppliers. They come in a variety of sizes. The core of the board is made from plywood. One layer of lacquer is applied to the plywood, left to dry, and thin cotton cloths soaked in clay are attached to both sides of the plywood. After the cotton/clay mixture dry up, the board will be smoothened and polished. This process will be performed five times. Layers of black lacquer are then applied, and the board is left to dry and then polished. Hence, the final product appears as a piece of black board, very smooth and durable. It consists of several layers, is very resistant, and will not crack due to fluctuations in temperature or humidity.

2. The lacquer

Lacquer is a clear sap coming from any of six species of trees growing in Vietnam. The lacquer liquid will be mixed with various natural or artificial dyes to produce the basic colours the artists want. Several shades of red colour e.g. are extracted from a naturally occurring red mineral (cinnabar?).

3. Other materials

Several other materials may be used to make lacquer paintings, the most common being egg shell – for white colour, and gold and silver leaf. A range of other materials may also be used, such as shells, sand, etc.

4. How to make the painting

It is a long and arduous process to make a lacquer painting. It may take several months, depending on the specific technique of the artist and how many layers of lacquer s/he includes.

One example may be like this: First, the design of the painting may be drawn with chalk on the board. White colour will be added through the use of egg shell. A pattern is carefully carved out in the board. Minute pieces of clean egg shell are glued to the cavities, and the surface is then made smooth. Clear lacquer is applied, left to dry and the pattern is then polished (Figs. 1 + 2).
Fig. 1 Carved pattern on board Fig. 2 With eggshell, clear lacquer and after polishing

A basis layer of coloured lacquer is applied to the board and left to dry. Silver leaf is stuck to the lacquer and a clear layer of lacquer is applied to cover the silver leaf (Figs. 3 + 4). New layers of coloured lacquer are applied, each with different colours. In between, clear lacquer is also applied. Up to ten layers or more of coloured and clear lacquer are sometimes applied. The picture is left to dry between each application and the layers are also smoothened. The most important part of the process however, takes place after the final layer has been applied. The artist will polish and rub different parts of the painting until s/he reaches the colour(s) s/he prefers for various parts of the painting. It is a long process, and has to be done carefully by using a mix of charcoal powder and human hair. The artist must remember in what layer he had put what colour, and s/he has to be extremely careful not to rub to hard since the painting will be irretrievably spoilt if s/he rubs through the layer s/he wants to keep. A specific colour nuance can be made by carefully rubbing the interface between two colour layers.
Fig. 3 Red base colour and silver leaf on board Fig. 4 Several layers of coloured and clear lacquer, but before the final rubbing and polishing

5. Care

A lacquer painting is very durable. The board is hard and strong and is not easily damaged. The surface of clear lacquer is protective, and the painting can easily been polished by the palm of the hand to make it cleaner and more shiny. A Vietnamese lacquer painting is truly a piece of art that will last for generations.

Trinh Tuan and Thavibu Gallery


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