Young Art – Ancient Technique

Vietnamese lacquer painting – called "sơn mài” – is a young craft. It only started in the 1930ies under the influence of the “L’ Ecole des Beaux Art” in Hanoi, founded by French artists, influenced by Western modern art. However the Lacquer technique is ancient, and goes back 8000 years in China and Persia. The sort of coloured and polished lacquer used today is based on a milky sap from lacquer trees, was found in China about 3500 years ago. Over the centuries, this fascinating material found its way to countries all over Asia and even Europe.

From Craft to Decoration to Art

The use of Lacquer materials has evolved from purely practical uses in lacquerware, utilizing its incredible functionalities and characteristics such as being waterproof, robust, resistant to heat, and protective, to decoration for religious purposes or ornamentation in architecture exploiting the shine and beauty of this material.


As part of this evolution, the specialists and owners of the lacquer secrets would become more and more sophisticated, and it was only a logic step to combine this technology with the traditions and innovations in art taking place over the last century. From sophisticated, but practical uses for beautification of wooden furniture, it was only a logic next step to create lacquer paintings on a wooden base, and combining it with Western art innovations, such as the laws of nature, perspective, shapes and figures. This is what happened in Vietnam in the 30ies of the last century.

Lacquer in Vietnam

More than 2000 years ago, during the period of the Dong Son culture, the Vietnamese already knew how to process raw lacquer to produce commodities for every-day use. Increasingly though, many household and cult objects were decorated with pictures and then coated with lacquer. They were found in ancient tombs discovered in northern Vietnam. As far back as the Ly dynasty (11th century) or even earlier, lacquer was widely used in the ornamentation of palaces, communal halls, temples, pagodas and shrines.


One of the most fascinating examples of using lacquer are lacquered objects recently discovered in ship wrecks belonging to the Nguyen Lords in southern Vietnam; they were found intact despite the fact that they had been laying in salt water for more than 100 years.


The recipes of lacquer and the production know how were always kept secret and handed down within the clans of artisans, who received high recognition in society and with the noblemen and kings. With the increasing sophistication of the craft it was only a next logical step to specialize into specific aspects of lacquerware production, either in terms of the different steps of production or the specific lacquer application.


In turn, this specializations lead to the foundation of guilds. One guild would excel in processing lacquer while others distinguished themselves in gilding or in making vermilion powder. They gathered, lived together, and produced lacquer ware in a special ward along a well-known street named after this craft. Today, in Hanoi and some neighbouring areas, many streets, quarters and villages remain, still preserving this traditional lacquer production.


Lacquer meets contemporary Art

Vietnamese art reflects a mixture of influences: Vietnamese traditional art, influences from China and influence from the French during the colonial period. The foundation of the L’Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine had given a strong impetus to the birth of a new form of painting encouraged by two French artists: Victor Tardieu (1870–1937) and his associate Joseph Inguimberty (1896–1917), the two founding directors of the school. They trained the students in Western art, including the then state-of-the-art techniques such as perspective, three-dimensionality and the visual representation of reality, which were combined with traditional Vietamese themes, objects, motifs, colours, and techniques.


It was especially Alix Ayme (born 1894 in Marseille – passed away in 1989 in Paris), who – as a professor of the “L’ Ecole des Beaux Art” in Hanoi has encouraged many students to explore this artistic heritage and further develop the symbiosis between traditional Lacquer techniques and painting. Later on, after returning from her imprisonment by the Japanese to France, she brought Lacquer to Europe, and used it herself for example in her “Via Dolorosa” work in Luc-sur-Mer in Calvados (France) and in many exhibitions in Florence (1952) and Monaco (1961), as well as – post hum – in Baltimore (2012).


Artists Tran Van Can (1910 – 1994), Pham Hau (1903–1995) and Nguyen Gia Tri (1909 – 1993) pioneered the development of the lacquer technique, from the simple decoration of architectural motifs in communal houses and temples or handicraft articles to the artistic drawings of modern lacquer pictures. They painted and did research passionately, mobilizing the traditional know-how of the lacquer craft while experimenting with new techniques. Their goal was to apply the laws of space and perspective concerning composition, shapes and figures (along with other painterly knowledge absorbed from the West) and at the same time to preserve the character and features of lacquer art.[1]


The first lacquer paintings done by Vietnamese artists were quite traditional in expressing scenes of natural beauty.  Later, lacquer paintings promoted socialist and communist values.  However, since Vietnam became more outward looking in the 1980s and 1990s, young artists have explored and reinvented the old art form, placing 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 known only to the artists themselves.  However, there are some features common to all lacquer paintings - the traditional process described below.


Basically, lacquer paintings incorporate the traditional colours — brown, black, red, yellow, white — and the technique of inlaying egg, crab and snail shells. Innovations include techniques in mixing dyes, the addition of various tones of green to enrich the colour scheme, the drawing of shapes and figures, the use of shade and light with a wide range of different tones, and methods of applying pumice and polishing. Realistic themes depicted in so many works through each historical period convincingly confirm the expressive, inexhaustible resources of lacquer art.


Another generation of artists, such as Nguyen Sang, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Le Quoc Loc, and Sy Ngoc, has put its stamp on the value of Vietnamese lacquer art. Since 1934, international exhibitions have highlighted the achievements of lacquer art as a major landmark in the fine arts of Vietnam. 

[1] One of the best books for detailed reading is “From Craft to Art – Vietnamese Lacquer Paintings” by Shireen Naziree, 2013


Making a lacquer painting may take several months depending on the technique used and the number of layers of lacquer. In Vietnam's sơn mài lacquer painting first a black board is prepared. Then outlines in chalk are picked out in white with eggshell and clear varnish, then polished. Then the first layer of coloured lacquer is applied, usually followed by silver leaf and another layer of clear lacquer. Then several more layers of different coloured lacquers are painted by brush, with clear lacquer layers between them. In Vietnam an artist may apply up to ten layers or more of coloured and clear lacquer. In Ming China processes included up to a hundred layers. Each layer requires drying and polishing. When all layers are applied the artist polishes different parts of the painting until the preferred colours show. Fine sandpaper and a mix of charcoal powder and human hair is used to carefully reach the correct layer of each specific colour. Consequently "lacquer painting" is in part a misnomer, since the bringing out of the colours is not done in the preparatory painting but in the burnishing of the lacquer layers to reveal the desired image beneath.


The Process of making a lacquer painting

A basic 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.  New layers of coloured lacquer are painted with a brush, each with different colours.  In between, clear lacquer is also applied.  The artist sometimes applies up to ten layers or more of coloured and clear lacquer.  The painting 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 he obtains the preferred colour(s) for various parts of the painting.  Since different colours are located in different layers, rubbing must be done with great care by using fine sandpaper and a mix of charcoal powder and human hair.  The artist must remember in what layer he put which colour, and has to be extremely careful not to rub too hard because the painting will be irretrievably spoilt if he rubs through the layer he wants to keep.  A specific colour nuance can be made by carefully rubbing the interface between two colour layers.


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 be polished by the palm of the hand to make it cleaner and more lustrous.  A Vietnamese lacquer painting is truly a piece of art that may last for generations.