Lacquer painting

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Lacquer painting is a form of painting with lacquer which was practised in China and Japan for decoration on lacquerware, and found its way to Europe both via Persia and by direct contact with Asia. The genre was revived and developed as a distinct genre of fine art painting by Vietnamese artists in the 1930s; the genre is known in Vietnamese as “sơn mài.”


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.


National styles


A lacquer painting over wood, dated to the Northern Wei dynasty

Pingyao lacquer screen

Lacquer had been used since the Shang dynasty (1384-1111 BCE) for decoration and preservation of wooden objects. By the Han dynasty decoration had become more intricate. Lacquer painting is sometimes used for decoration of wooden objects such as the traditional “Chinese candy box”.


In Japan lacquer painting is secondary to techniques such as silver inlay, Maki-e on Japanese lacquerware, and carving on Kamakura-bori, and Ryukyuan lacquerware. Painting featured on the “Japanning” works of industrial Britain.



Thanh-Le coromandel lacquer

Lacquer painting, known as sơn mài, from resin of the sơn tree, rhus succedanea, was developed in Vietnam as a freestanding form, separate from decoration of wooden objects. A revival and a combination with French techniques occurred in the 1930s which was closely associated with the French teachers and Vietnamese students of the École Supérieure des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi from 1925 to 1945 such as Joseph Inguimberty and Nguyễn Gia Trí. Among the prominent newer generation of Vietnamese lacquer painters is Cong Quoc Ha, who received numerous awards and his works are regularly exhibited worldwide.



Russian lacquer-painted box

Russia’s tradition of lacquer painting (Russian: лаковая живопись, lakovaya zhivopis) before the revolution was connected with folk art and production of icons. The Fedoskino miniature (Russian: федоскинская миниатюра) of Fedoskino village is a genre of lacquer miniature painting on papier-mâché, originating from the late 18th century. From the 1930s this genre also began to be used in proletarian art. Russian lacquer painting is built up through several layers of varnish, creating a three-dimensional effect.