In Vietnam, before the invention of techniques used in lacquerpainting, lacquer served different purposes; referred to as annamite lacquer.Lacquer usage can be traced as far back as the Dong son Culture. Traditionallyannamite lacquer was used as a varnish-like coating on objects. Decoratively,it was often mixed with red powder or used in combination with silver and gold.Tran Lu (also known as Tran Thuong Cong, born in 1470), is considered thefounder of lacquer industry in Vietnam. As a mandarin of the Le Dynasty, hestudied Chinese lacquer in tributary visits to China. Returning to his villageof Binh Vong (Thuong Tin district, Ha Tay province), considered the location ofthe first lacquer in Vietnam, he bought back techniques in how to use lacquer. Thelacquer industry developed during the Ly Tran Dynasty, as an decorative artmainly connected with Buddhism. During the Nguyen Dynasty lacquer gainedpopularity as it became accessible to daily life demand.
Before 1925, and the founding of Indochina Fine Arts University,lacquer was used for decorative purposes. Initially, the Indochina Fine ArtsUniversity including apartment for the production of lacquer crafts. In 1932,art student Tran Van Can and craftsman Dinh Van Thanh collaborated to discoverthe process of sanding lacquer and technique of mixing lacquer, turpentine, andcolor powder to paint with (pumice lacquer). Traditionally, lacquer paintingwas comprised with three different colors: Black, Red, and Yellow. Thistraditional color palette is accompanied by a couple pf theories regarding thesignificance of these colors. The first theory of representation is that black,according to Chinese-derived Vietnamese thought, represents the universe.Stemming from a prehistoric caveman notion that blood equal life, red is saidto represent humanity with happiness and prosperity. The clothing of monks isyellow, to represent their separation with human life and disconnection withhuman affairs, forces and emotions. Yellow may also represent the transcendenceof humanity or death. The second Vietnamese theory regarding this traditionalcolor scheme is that in unity these colors represent the human condition; blackis the hair, red is the blood, and yellow is skin. Since the development oflacquer as a fine art, other materials have been used in combination withlacquer (silver and gold, eggshells, mother of pearl, etc…). Additional colorshave been added to the palette, such as green and blue, though such colors arenot produced from natural substances.
A necessary additional material in process of lacquer painting is theboard which is painted upon. A lacquer board requires approximately on month toproduce. Despite its plain appearance, a lacquer board contains many layersnecessary to its quality. High quality lacquer boards consist of two equalsides, either of which may be used to paint upon. Five layers create one sideof a lacquer board. The first surface layer of a lacquer board is an externalcoating of lacquer. This layer needs three to four coatings of lacquer, driedand sanded between each to ensure smooth and flat surface as well as its stability.Types gioi nhi and son thit are used). The second layer, moving towards theinterior of the board, is a mix of soil lacquer and sawdust. This layer is carvedinto when eggshells are inlayed into painting. A loose-textures cloth is placedas the third layer in a lacquer board, to help maintain a consistent form andthe longevity of the board. A thin layer of lacquer (lacquer type nuoc thiec)is used as an adhesive with the cloth, may be considered the fourth layer. Atthe center is a piece of high quality plywood, the fifth and most substantiallayer within a lacquer board.
Lacquer as a fine art developed during the period of Frenchcolonization, and developed within the Indochina Fine Arts University,established under French direction. The period of romanticism (1925-1945), withthe first generation of lacquer painters produced western influencedcompositions of landscapes and figures, avoiding the social issues of the time.Included in this first generation of artists where Nguyen Gia Tri, To Ngoc Vanand Tran Van Can, highly regarded for their lacquer compositions, among thefirst to establish the fundament skills and rules in the art of lacquerpainting. The second generation of artists captured the revolutionary activityof nation through realism. Among them were: Nguyen Quang Sang and Nguyen TuNghiem. During this period, 1946- 1954, French influence waned, and Russiabecomes a prominent figure to draw upon. The function of art during this periodwas to reflect the revolution, artists were otherwise criticized. The 1960’scan be considered as the peak of the development of painting and the growth ofVietnam’s export of lacquer, though handicrafts remained prominent as well.
The first generation artists establish the rules and basic techniquesof lacquer painting, as strictly abided by such conventions. The smooth andflat surface of a completed work was necessary condition for a successfulproduction. Their com positions primarily contained decorative elements, whileperspective remained immature with no clear distinction of space (ex: sky andearth were often time and colors, the border of gold around objects may be usedto establish a distance between objects and background ). The second generationof painters continued to rely on the basic skills and techniques of theirforefathers, but also began innovating. One such example is how they begindisregarding the convention of a flat-surfaced board. Experimentation withvolume, shape and texture with some of the second generation artists, butcontinued and became more widespread among the third generation, exemplifiesinnovation and experimentation regarding volume and by combining Vietnamese andJapanese lacquer, through abstract-expressionism.
Despite the many conventions and established techniques in layerpainting, contemporary artists greatly vary in method. It can be said thatthere is a fundamental process to lacquer painting ( in mixing colors, buildinglayers and sanding ), though even this is being tested and stretched indefinition by young artists, but there are many details in stylistic techniquesthat vary from one artist to the next. Lacquer painting is an art form that canincorporate many other materials such as: gold and silver powder and leaf,eggshells, mother of pearl, bronze powder, etc. It is in the use of suchmaterials that there are no rules and varying techniques arise to create uniquecompositions. Through such various techniques the uniqueness of the medium isdisplayed; transparency in colors and texture can be conveyed through lacquerpainting unlike any other media. Additionally, lacquer painting is still a veryyoung fine art form and its mature state has not been reached nor been reachednor its capacity fully stretched; this is a contemporary development thatartists today move towards with a variety of unique techniques.