The Sand Master

Art greater than the sum of its parts….

Sand art usually summons up images of intricate sand castles and sculptures created on wide open beaches that exist for only a short time before being washed away by the tide. However, Vietnamese sand art is anything but. This decade old art is created in tiny workshops around the city.


“If I had a thousand dong for every person who has asked me what Vietnamese sand painting is, I would probably be a billionaire by now,” says Nhat Quang, one among the four who created the famous collection of sand portraits as national gifts to the 21 APEC heads of state in 2006. “Only when I actually show them the process of how Vietnamese sand paintings are created, do they actually start to grasp the essence of what it is.”

Raised by artists, Quang’s parents regularly acquainted him with famous artist friends in the hope he would slowly absorb their experience and techniques. Graduating university with a degree in art, it was in those college years that he first heard about a new discipline called sand painting and later on encountered it during his work at Kim Sa, the art company that set the standard in the sand painting industry.


“I was hired as an art instructor,” he explains. “I didn’t have the necessary skill then, but years spent in university and at the knees of my elders had given me the eye of an artist and a foundation that those first sand art ‘workers’ did not necessarily have. I was paid VND1.8 million per month. In 2005, that was just about enough for gas, coffee, and two meals per day, but I was fuelled by something more than that. You see, I was suddenly in love.

“At the time, sand art was something that was still very new and most people had never even heard of it. For an artist, dedicating himself to something so new with no history or guarantee of success is a risky move,” Quang adds. “Once I acquired the skill however, I found I simply could not let go.


“The process of training for sand painting is harrowing, requiring far more patience, dedication, and commitment than any other forms of painting. To work with something as fickle as sand, one has to dedicate himself to even the smallest detail and be prepared to redo all his work for even the tiniest mistakes. To love sand painting is to never look back. That’s what I always tell my students. When my family found out I want to specialize in sand art, they protested and we fought many times, but I’ve never looked back.”

In 2006, following the collapse of Kim Sa, Quang was invited by Y Lan, the creator of Vietnamese sand painting, to work in a team of four and create the collection of sand portraits as gifts to the international leaders at APEC 2006. Upon completion of this project, he joined his current art company, My Art (27B/5 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, D1), and has been its managing director ever since.


Counting Sand

Quang pours his materials into flat and thin glass containers, using a wand-shaped ‘spoon’ to pour layers and layers of multi-colored sand in a meticulous and painstaking process that takes days to complete until a painting takes shape and can be seen through the glass. Depending on the size and complexity, paintings can range from a few hundred thousand dong to the tens of millions. The sand, taken from all corners of Vietnam and bearing a limitless gamut of colors, is poured, woven, threaded, pressed, coaxed until, held in place only by the pressure of countless grains of sand on top of each other, they create a unified vision of beauty. A true painting with defined shapes, strokes and colors, but instead of oil paints or powder, it is with sand that the artist recreates his vision in still life.

“It usually takes us four to five days to completely ‘paint’ one sand painting,” says Quang. “But that’s only the creation process. The real work starts weeks or sometimes months before that.”


Pointing at the various sand bowls on his desk, he continues: “The sand that we use cannot be bought. We sand artists cannot simply go to art supply shops and ask for a bag of blue sand and a bag of red sand and maybe that other bag of skin color sand too. The sand that is actually sold in the market is used for construction. It is coarse and unrefined and its variations of color too lacking for even the most experienced artist to mold into something worth looking at. There is only one place where we can find the tools of the trade: out in the nature.”

Every other month or so, painters organize sand collecting expeditions.

“We go to coastal towns like Phan Thiet or Nha Trang for most of our needs and take back truckloads of sand. Nha Trang has a lot of fine white grains, but in terms of colors, Phan Thiet is the place to go. There are other places for special types of sand or colors that can’t be found anywhere else in Vietnam as well.”


When all the sand is finally brought back, the next step is the treatment process. Bags upon bags of sand, already categorized based on their colors and texture, are put through days of sifting, grinding, filtering, drying and bleaching under the sun until they are transformed into appropriate materials for painting.

“Few people actually understand the hard work and dedication that goes behind a single sand painting,” says Quang. “Even fewer look into each grain of sand that make up the tiniest part of the painting and wonder where it comes from. The artist, on the other hand, remembers all of that. We know this grain came from the sand dunes of Ninh Chu, exactly one meter under the surface, and that grain came from Tru Beach of Nha Trang, collected right at the first touch of dawn when the sand is still wet with the sea and the salt, before the place is swarmed with swimmers and tourists. We remember all of that. We know where they come from. We see the stories behind the littlest details in our creations.”


Images by Adam Robert Young

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