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:
First I traced my design onto the ready-made lacquer board using paper coated with a mix of white pigment and turpentine.
The 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.
After 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.
The eggshell is then wet-sanded, and the little cracks become full of character. This is what the first eggshell layer looks like when dry.
A 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.
Once dry, another thin layer of lacquer coats the silver. Here you can see the first stages of the wet-sanding, revealing the eggshell.
A 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.
A 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.
The 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.
Blue 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.
The 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.
The 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.