Getting lacquered in Old Hoi An

For the past seven months, I have been painting and drawing in Hoi An. I have watched the change of seasons and witnessed the drama that major weather events bring to the lives of people who inhabit this peaceful corner of Vietnam. Since October a rice crop has been planted, filled the fields with fluorescent green and then turned to yellow ochre to be harvested under the baking sun of late April. The town that had been yellow and brown through the winter months is now splashed with vivid bougainvillea at every street corner.

The art galleries that line the streets also add splashes of bright color. The warm, contrasting tones and graphic images of the lacquer paintings beckon you into the brightly lit interiors to marvel at familiar images of Vietnam depicted on these almost irresistible shiny panels.

Lacquer painting was a mystery to me so I asked a local artist, Tran Huy Chien, to explain how to tell the difference between a cheap reproduction painting that may be imported from China, and an original work produced by a Vietnamese artist. He replied by inviting me to learn the art of lacquer painting at his studio. This was an invitation I could not resist.

I arrived, full of anticipation, at a sunny studio at his home in one of the quiet neighborhoods that characterize Hoi an. Chien had laid out a table with all the traditional tools a lacquer artist needs. There was a pre-prepared, charcoal gray lacquer board, a box of small chisels for carving the board, a wicker basket full of translucent shards of duck egg shells and a large clam shell lined with mother of pearl. Two tins of lacquer were positioned next to a sheet of thick plate glass where we would mix colors. On the shelf under the table were boxes, bowls and bags of raw powdered pigment: scarlet, ultramarine, magenta, violet, gamboges, viridian, cobalt and sienna to name only a few.

We transferred my design onto the board using chalk dust. Next, I carved out my first circle to create a shallow well into which I would inlay crushed egg shells on a bed of tacky lacquer. I was completely engrossed.

Over a period of two weeks I applied more egg shell, some mother of pearl, and layer upon layer of thin lacquer between slivers of reflective silver, gold and copper leaf. This layering enables light to move through the colors and adds a depth that is quite magical.

Between each coat, the lacquer must be left to cure in a humid environment (which, handily, is the normal atmospheric condition for Vietnam). After three or four days, more gold leaf and more coats of lacquer are applied. Finally the whole picture is ground down using stones and fine abrasive papers until the surface is smooth and different layers are revealed according to the artist’s design.

My first lacquer board is a marvel of alchemy and artistry that has given me a real insight into this technique and now, I really can tell the difference between the cheaper lacquer paintings and the masterpieces.

My patient teacher, Tran Huy Chien is a graduate of the Hanoi University of Fine Arts and a member of the Vietnam Association of Fine Arts who owns Dang gallery in Hoi An. You can find out more about him and his classes at www.facebook.com/chien.huytran.

A professional artist and author of A Week in Hoi An, Bridget March specializes in urban landscapes and aims to reveal the hidden treasures of city life and small town cultures through her illustrations. Bridget is currently offering art classes and sketching tours in Hoi An until the summer. For more of Bridget’s work including news of her upcoming book visit brushwithasia.blogspot.com