What is lacquer?
Popular amongst the Chinese and Japanese as a finishing material for wooden boxes, furniture and other objects, lacquer refers to the clear or coloured resin that dries up to produce a hard durable finish, often on wooden objects. In Vietnam, the lacquer is a resin of the lacquer tree planted mostly in the Northern Vietnamese province of Phu Tho.
After extraction from trees, natural lacquer is white with a milk-like consistency. It turns brown after coming into contact with air and becomes black once dried. Hardened lacquer forms a lustrous, durable surface impervious to moisture, insects, and oxidisation, making it ideal for preserving materials such as wood and bamboo. Artists mix natural lacquer with a number of mineral pigments to produce variations of lacquer: 'cockroach' – coloured lacquer, lacquer for sticking mother -of-pearl, and duck eggshell and lacquer for aesthetic purposes.
While the common public perception of lacquer is limited mostly to decoration for wooden objects, Vietnamese artists have taken this medium and turned it into freestanding fine art. Lacquer is, in some circles, regarded as the medium of masterpieces in Vietnam. The tree sap lends durability and strength to the colours and lines of a lacquer painting, meaning to say that whatever is depicted in these paintings will last for hundreds of years.
How do you make a lacquer painting?
The process behind making these exquisite lacquer paintings is particularly time-consuming and labour- intensive. The creation of a lacquer painting may take several months depending on the technique, and the number of layers of lacquer. In the Vietnamese tradition, most artists start off with a single-coloured layer of lacquer, where wood serves as the base. Outlines are made in chalk or carved into the wood, and then picked out in white with eggshell and clear varnish, then polished. The first layer of colour lacquer is applied after the polish and varnish have dried. This is usually followed by silver leaf and another layer of clear lacquer.
Several more layers of lacquer, each with a different colour, are applied by brush, with clear lacquer layers between them. In Vietnam, artists may apply from eight up to fifteen layers of lacquer to an individual painting.
As coloured types of lacquer do not mix, each layer containing a different kind of colour is applied individually, then left to dry first before the application of another layer. This produces a three-dimensional effect in the finished work, due to the layering of several coats of lacquer. Fine sandpaper and a mix of charcoal powder plus human hair is carefully used to burnish the piece, and to reach and reveal the correct layer of each specific colour.
Vietnam included lacquer as part of its tribute to China as Vietnamese lacquer was considered the best amongst all kinds of lacquer. On the other hand, French influence from the colonial era taught western art tradition to a number of Vietnamese artists, and this bring a distinctive quality to modern Vietnamese art that comes through in their lacquer paintings as well.
Couple this history of producing what is considered the best type of lacquer with the country's multitude of artistic influences from both the East and West, and the product is Vietnamese lacquer painting, a unique art form requiring patience, skill, and mastery in technique.