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.
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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).
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
Several layers of coloured and clear lacquer, but before
the final rubbing and polishing
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.