Cristina NualART

Tag: My Art Practice

Goodbye Saigon

I’m leaving Saigon (temporarily) to participate in Contemp’art 2013, a conference on art and urbanism in Istanbul. I’ll be talking about how artists in Vietnam have reacted to the rapid urban development around them. Speedy development looks a bit like the picture here: these are 20 layers in the process of making this lacquer painting, with some additional screenprinted layers, and a dusting of cement from demolished houses.


If you’d like more information on the materials and processes of Vietnamese lacquer painting, read this post.

The Gold Digger Ate my Homework

This little painting is my donation to the Arts For Mobility art auction that will take place this Saturday in the Saigon Opera House.


The Gold Digger Ate my Homework, 2012

Acrylic, old book pages, Letraset, pencil, gold dust and ground demolished HCMC house pieces on canvas.

On a regular day in HCMC, I might easily spot at least 5 diggers around the city, tearing down buildings in their mission to renovate Vietnam. These mechanical giraffes with the power of an elephant are fed houses and shops, or whatever other constructions get in the way of their flattening path. They relentlessly cause a daily ‘fall’ of Saigon.

The paintings in this series contain actual ground up bricks and cement taken from demolished buildings. This ‘gold’ digger is painted over old book pages, torn from Vietnamese books published pre-1975, before the real estate ‘gold rush’ started. In recent decades, wealthy developers have metaphorically eaten up the homes and places of work of the less privileged, at a speed that has made the country one of the fastest growing economies in history.

Watch this short film on the wonderful, if sad, story of a Vietnamese fisherman who was moved away from the place he lived and worked. I used to see his shack regularly on my commute. Not anymore.

‘The rapid transformation of the environment was seen merely as a casualty of progress, not as the regrettable passing away of an age and the erasure of a whole set of values.’ Tay Kheng Son and Robbie Goh (2003) in  Theorizing the Southeast Asian City as Text.


Drifwood dragons

I’m working on some driftwood pieces, drawn and painted on abandoned objects reclaimed by Vietnamese beaches (and subsequently by the artist). These little dragon fruits are nearly finished. After the long weekend, they’ll be ready to welcome the new bits of flotsam and jetsam that I may find on my upcoming trip to the beach.
driftwood dragons

 Review Android Smartphone

Curated Artwork – an individual collaboration

Uniting my fascination with found materials, found art and multi-layering, I’m trying a new experiment. The ‘curated drawing’ shown here includes purchased drawings from an Indonesian artist, copies of copied artworks, pages from old Vietnamese books and a screenprint of my own work. I don’t think it’s finished yet, but it’s on the wall so I can think about it for a bit before I develop it further. A lot of what I’m making at the moment involves painting images on ‘found’ objects. The process now goes two-dimensional, which seems paradoxical since the 3D ‘collages’ are much more innovative. The creative process sometimes has to go back to rediscover old ideas.Curated drawing by Cristina Nualart 2012

KCBT and KCAT wall painters and plasterers


Anybody who has been to Vietnam has seen the KCBT or KCAT phone numbers painted on walls around the city. It took me a while when I first moved here to understand what they were, because no other country I have been to advertises in such an anonymous way.


Recently a Hanoi art exhibition by Lolo Zazar showcased paintings that are directly inspired by these hybrids between graffiti and advertising. I used some photos of the ones I have  seen in and around Saigon for an interior design project. Two hand painted luminous pink and purple phone numbers, exact copies of the ones in town, are on my walls. One final large copy of the original shown above will be finished in gold leaf.


Micro-residency at Room13

Room 13 is a creative initiative to give access to art-making to young people around the world. Today I was the artist-in-residence at the event in HCMC, Vietnam. In a major advertising agency’s office, tables were prepared with paint and paper. I brought along my art materials and some old wood (found on demolished building sites) and some props. After showing some images of my topic and of my work in progress, I spent 2 hours drawing, while the children got creative in any way they wished.


What I’m painting:

I’m making a few paintings on diggers using traditional Vietnamese lacquer, with the odd departure from tradition, to fully explore the material. Here is a detail of one of the pictures:


Art in Vietnam: censorship and traditional lacquer painting

This is how I made my first traditional lacquer painting, titled ‘The F word’.

I started making it at the beginning of August 2011, and found the process fascinating. Since it’s a very simple design, it does not employ many of the old-fashioned conventions (black outlines, contrasting layers, traditional reds, browns, ochres…). It does, however, use traditional egg shell and silver leaf. The resulting surface is uneven, a quality that is meant to show off the richness of layers. In this case, it’s a bit of an anticlimax, since the layers are all silver and blue, and the cracked and blotchy image references a clean and uniform well-known digital logo…

For those who don’t know, Facebook is one of the sites currently (but ineffectively, since most locals use the social network) banned by the Vietnamese government. For a bit more on cultural censorship in Vietnam, read this. I do sense a certain level of complacency about the restrictions, which puzzles me and frustrates me somewhat, but I’m aware that my limited Vietnamese language knowledge prevents me from really digging deep into the national psyche. And I don’t know how much it’s been damaged by a combination of fear and an educational system that does not encourage critical thinking.

The following photos show some of the basic stages of making this lacquer painting:
fensorship1First I traced my design onto the ready-made lacquer board using paper coated with a mix of white pigment and turpentine.


fensorship2The next step is use a human-hair paintbrush to paint the thick black lacquer onto the areas I want to cover with eggshell, which is carefully fitted into place and gently hammered down, so beautiful fine cracks appear.

eggshell2After a day or two of drying – and peculiarly lacquer dries best with high humidity – the eggshell can be carefully trimmed with a knife, to make the lines a little straighter.

fensorship4The eggshell is then wet-sanded, and the little cracks become full of character. This is what the first eggshell layer looks like when dry.

fensorship5A thin coat of the more liquid and transparent lacquer (called ‘cockroach wing brown’) is used to stick on hundreds of pieces of silver leaf. In this case, I used real silver, although cheaper alternatives exist. A gentle touch is all it takes for each leaf to stick to the lacquer. When the whole surface is covered, it is gently brushed to flatten out the silver and make a uniform background. The use of silver and gold leaf is essential to develop luminous colours, as the natural lacquer is not completely transparent, and the black background would suck away all brightness.


fensorship7Once dry, another thin layer of lacquer coats the silver. Here you can see the first stages of the wet-sanding, revealing the eggshell.

fensorship7bA mixture of lacquer and silver poweder coats the eggshell letters, so the black cracks aren’t so intense. Then the first coat of colour is mixed: lacquer and blue pigment are mixed together with a buffalo horn spatula, and painted on with human-hair brushes.

fensorship8A day later, fine sandpaper and water are used to even out the whole surface. In the process, some parts of blue lacquer disappear. This is normal, the layering has only just begun.

fensorship9The dry image has dull, light colours. Wet lacquer is supposed to be more indicative of the final colours than dry lacquer, beacuse the final polishing will bring out the colours and the gloss, much like water does.

fensorship11Blue lacquer is mixed with silver powder and scrubbed onto the whole surface with fingers. A day later another layer of silver leaf is put on. I’ve by now lost count of the various layers of lacquer, but there are at least 3 coats of silver.


A last juicy coat of blue lacquer seals down the silver, and a few patches of white lacquer will help protect the very thin eggshell from being sanded away.

fensorship13The final sanding not only reveals the colours by taking away dense areas of lacquers and letting the silver shine through, it should also aim to get a very smooth, flat surface.

fensorship14The final and most energetic step is to spend at least half an hour polishing the surface. This is done vigorously, with fine cotton muslin, the ball of the hand, or even scrunched up human hair. Over time, the natural lacquer is said to become even shinier and more transparent. It is a hard-wearing substance with beautiful, rich qualities, quite different from those of polyester resin, a nasty chemical substance used as a cheap substitute on much commercial so-called lacquerware.

Vietnamese lacquer painting: materials used.

I’ve now lived in Vietnam for over a year! The best thing is that I started taking lessons to learn the traditional lacquer painting technique. These are the materials needed:

LacquerMaterials_lacquerLacquer. There are two types commonly used. The black one is called simply ‘black’ in old Vietnamese. It is thicker, stickier and darker, best used for sticking things onto the wooden base. The other type is more transparent, but appropriately called ‘cockroach wing’ brown. The lacquer is spread on glass and mixed with powdered pigments.

LacquerMaterials_pigmentMineral pigments. These are semi-precious stones ground to a fine powder, they are very expensive and surprisingly heavy.

LacquerMaterials_brushesBrushes made from bamboo strips surrounding a core of human hair. The bristles are chiseled and sanded to get a fine layer of hair, suitable to paint thin layers of lacquer. They are long-lasting brushes, because as the hair wears away, cutting and sanding the wood will reveal more hair.

LacquerMaterials_silverleafSilver leaf. It comes in little paper-bound packets.

LacquerMaterials_spatulasBuffalo horn spatulas. The semi-transparent ones are more flexible, and more comfortable to mix paint with. These can also be cut and sanded to get the preferred shape.

LacquerMaterials_bowlsCeramic bowls are used to store the lacquer. Once poured in, the lacquer is covered with grease paper to prevent air getting in ‘killing’ the lacquer. I’ve been surprised at how such a simple system is effective in preventing the lacquer from drying out.

 LacquerMaterials_eggshellEggshell. Easy to get! It gives great textures and light colours that are otherwise hard to obtain, given the honey coloured base of the lacquer.


This article provides some information on the origin of the Vietnamese lacquer technique and the sourcing of materials. This one includes some information on the major Vietnamese artists who have used lacquer. Another blog post that I enjoyed is here. And more information on lacquer painting research is being done by Asiarta.



Three weekend trilogy – art from the beach

Maintaining an art practice alongside a regular job is all the harder if you live in an exciting place -in my case Vietnam – that you just want to go and spend time discovering and exploring. Paradoxically, new experiences are a well-known stimulant of creativity. I was a little surprised with myself when 3 weekends turned into an unexpected mini art project.

I have never been very interested in painting still lives, but one idea leads to another, and I came to making some. This is why: I went to Ke Ga beach one weekend, packing the sketchbook that accumulates drawings of found stones, towels and other stuff that looks gorgeous when you are on holiday. I didn’t use it much.

FloatingBenchwThe wild landscape of eroded rocks propelled me to take hundreds of photos, and long walks. Across miles of sand, seashells and driftwood squatted between the rocks. Few artists can resist the tactile urge of holding these objects. Some were too beautiful to give back to the sea, and they came with me back to the big city. The light weight of these objects is surprising. Weekend one in this trilogy was devoted to research and to collect materials.

Looking out at my neighbour’s terrace after holding my little treasures, I saw these concrete tables and benches, of a type that I have only come across in Asia. They are not labour-intensive to produce, and they are so adapted to the climate the design is unbeatable: they never blow away or get damaged in tropical storms, they don’t harbour bacteria and they dry quickly after monsoon rains. I find their functionality and stumpy shapes very attractive. And so the next weekend, both ideas collided and I was compelled to paint a chair too heavy to move by myself on a lightweight piece of wood.

I started off with some pencil sketches, which were nice but too clean and flat. On a whim I tore them up and stuck them on card and layered them with acrylic paint. The spatula and the rough surface were good practice for painting on three-dimensional objects. The finished collage, ‘Floating Bench’, has the quietness of an empty beach, but it is both an exploration of forms in space and of tactile qualities. In any case, it is a by-product of the preparatory work of the actual painted objects.

3wkndTrilogy_BenchwI was fascinated by the perfect smoothness of this piece of balsa wood, lighter than chocolate mousse, a haptic surprise. It arrived in Saigon with other found bits that went into my carrier bag too. The second weekend in the trilogy, the wooden junk had become a portable art object, tattooed with a pencil drawing that hid under layers of paint and graphite. the restfulness of the bench is an inherent quality of the natural object. Erosion and human manipulation have intervened to show the beauty of gentle sloping lines.


A hardened sponge that must have been the bumper of a fishing boat was fragile and crumbly, but so light to the touch and nicely oval that it begged a career change. The podgy concrete table, companion to the bench, was painted onto the fragile sponge, which I coated in transparent primer to give it a bit of strength after a hard life as a tidal plaything. the finished object is still quite delicate, in contrast to the image it now transports.

One further block of wood, a heavy, triangular-sectioned stake will become the third piece in the 3D trilogy. The wooden lump lacks all of the airiness, portability and lightness of this other type of chair commonly found in Vietnam:


P.S. Post updated: in December 2011, these sketches were sold in the Arts For Mobility charity auction.

Unless otherwise specified, text and images © 2017 Cristina Nualart

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Welcome to my little home on the world wide digital jungle. Previous versions of this site, with different designs and URLs, have existed since 2002.
You'll be delighted -even surprised- that this site does not brainwash you with advertising, bake cookies or spy on your digital data.
This site is also low in bullshit (excuse my colourful language...) due to a personal aversion to it.

Back to top