Lacquer paintings, glory of Vietnamese art

Since the 1930s, Vietnamese lacquer art which was originally developed from the blend of oil painting from Europe and domestic materials in Vietnam has been renowned worldwide for its uniqueness, complexity and durability. In this article, The Finest Magazine is pleased to bring you a story about this traditional yet modern art of Vietnam.

The Happy Day by Mr. Tran Anh Tuan

Dating back 2000 years, lacquer art hasn’t been popularized because it has only been applied to decoration of handicrafts and religious sculptures; in addition, lacquerware were expensive and only used by royals ad nobles. When Indochina College of Fine Arts was established in 1926, this art was brought into the curriculum and more widely utilized in artistic works, especially paintings. Since then, people have had more chances to discover lacquer art thoroughly, and lacquer has gradually transformed into one unique drawing material of its kind following ingenious innovations.

Colorful lacquerware

What makes values of lacquer paintings is their look remains magnificent for years on account of a complicated procedure including 25 stages in which making boards, painting and abrading play the most important roles. Therein, the painting stage, if we can say so, is sophisticated and may take months or even years for completeness depending on desired complexity and the talent of artisans. Besides, each stage contains quintessence of east-meets-west art, and the theories about Wu xing that is said not to be found in other art forms.

Main materials and different stages of board for lacquer paintings

The main factor of a lacquer art is resin which is used in the whole three main stages as mentioned above. Resin is extracted from the son tree (known under the binomial name as toxicodendron succedaneum) in the mountains of the northern Phu Tho province.

Vietnamese traditional resin

For the first main stage – making boards, a wooden board is prepared to be the background or framework of a painting through seven basic stages in 20 – 30 days to make a perfect board. After sandpapered, the board is covered with cloth, added with various layers of the mixture between live resin with sawdust, alluvial soil, clay, or finely ground rock alternately. The board is abraded by sandpaper or water after every layer is joined, and then dried before handing over to artisans.

Eggshell is glued by resin

The second stage starts when the artist outlines a painting with white chalks, and uses resin to elaborate every detail. Afterward, he makes paint coatings by natural materials like eggshell, pearl, gold, silver and minerals, all is glued with resin. Normally, the number of layers can reach from 12 to over 20 ones based on the craftsmanship and talent of artists.

Conch shells and mother of pearl are also used to decorate lacquer paintings

Following the painting process, the lacquer painting enters the last in stage – abrading with water. Such stage requires much sophistication, sift and feat to make a desirable work. When each color layer fades out and goes along with the water, it will leave purposeful strokes but also full of random. That’s the interesting point of lacquer art: No one can know the detailed drawings will happen except the artist.

A student is abrading her paintings

After abrading, the painting is coated with the mixture of resin and sawdust, and then dried by annealing in wet spaces. Finally, the artist will use the warmth of his palms or tangled hair to keep the painting durable with a polish cover.

Another student is completing the final stage

The most attractive thing of a lacquer painting is that hidden color layers will appear after the longer time you look at it. From four traditional colors of black, red, gold, and silver, there are more colors generated for lacquer paintings nowadays. The mentioned technical changes combined with meaningful messages in each piece of art including artistic and human values bring unlimited chances for artists to maximize their creativeness.

Winter cress season by Mr. Tran Anh Tuan

In the contemporary art, besides lacquer paintings, two main streams related to lacquer art are art forms and handiworks such as lacquerware and souvenirs. For such streams, the artisans cannot maintain the whole stages as well as materials following the traditional method due to its long and sophisticated procedure. Instead, they use industrial spray paint which is easier to dry in humid environment in order to shorten time. Accordingly, the processing period may be reduced to 10 days for creating a product.


Inside lacquer class of Mr. Tuan

Lacquer School Tay Ho, a class for people interested in Vietnamese lacquer art

Address: No. 58A, Lane 31 Xuan Dieu Str., Tay Ho Dis., Hanoi, Vietnam

Photo: Tony Nguyen

Specialist Consultant: Mr. Tran Anh Tuan, Master-Professor specialized in Lacquer

of Hanoi University of Industrial Fine Art