Lacquer paintings

By Bettina Ebert, Paintings Conservator and Researcher, Asiarta Foundation


Lacquer processing

Vietnamese lacquer comes from the sap of the Rhus succedanea tree. The raw lacquer is harvested and subsequently processed in a labour-intensive manner into different grades according to quality. The raw and processed lacquer is sold to artists in small shops which also supply brushes, tools, gold and silver leaf, as well as other items used in lacquer painting. In Vietnam, lacquer paint is known as sơn mài.

Sanding lacquer panels

The lacquer panels are usually ordered from a family workshop which specialises solely in their preparation, though a few artists still make their own. The process of panel production takes about one month, and involves numerous separate stages. A plywood substrate is coated in a layer of raw lacquer, before being covered with muslin. This is then given a thick coating of raw lacquer mixed with clay and sawdust, which is allowed to dry in the sun. Subsequent layers of lacquer are applied over this initial coat. Between each layer, the panel is dried and sanded down. Up to thirty lacquer layers are applied in this manner. The final layers are allowed to dry in a humidity chamber, and are carefully smoothened and polished by hand.

Lacquer panels drying outdoors

Two different types of lacquer painting have developed in Vietnam. Carved lacquer paintings – sometimes translated as ‘coromandel lacquer’ – usually consist of a black lacquer surface with the composition carved or engraved, and subsequently painted in. The other, more common technique involves the application of numerous coloured layers of lacquer, up to one hundred at times, and the subsequent sanding down of the layers to reveal the composition underneath. Inlays such as eggshell are also used to create colour and pattern. In addition, gold and silver leaf and powder are commonly used in this type of lacquer painting.

Historical background

Lacquer painting developed as a unique painting technique in Vietnam during the early 20th Century. Joseph Inguimberty, a French professor and head of the painting department at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine, realized the potential of lacquer, which was previously only used in the decorative arts. From the late 1920s onwards, he urged his students to experiment with lacquer as a painting material as an alternative to the traditional Western technique of oil painting.

A number of artists took up this new medium and worked in lacquer during the 1930s and 1940s. Nguyễn Gia Trí is considered the father of Vietnamese lacquer painting and its greatest exponent. Other artists who helped develop the medium include Trần Văn Cần, Hoàng Tích Chù, Phạm Hậu, Nguyễn Khang, Nguyễn Văn TyNguyễn Tư NghiêmPhan Kế An, Nguyễn Sáng and Thái Hà. Trần Van Ha is considered to be one of the two best known lacquer artists originating from the South of Vietnam.

Initially, the traditional palette consisted of blacks, browns, reds, silver and gold. The blacks and browns are obtained through the use of lacquer processed to different degrees, while vermilion is traditionally used as a red pigment. There are historic accounts of discussions in the early days relating to difficulties in obtaining a variety of colours with Vietnamese lacquer: artists expressed concern over the usefulness of lacquer as a painting medium, in particular its use for socialist realist painting. The earliest experimentations with different colours such as greens and blues date from the late 1940s. Subsequently, further experimentation led to the use of more varied colours and modern pigments and dyes. Often, artists employ numerous assistants for lacquer painting, since it is such a labour-intensive process. Despite the lengthy process and high costs involved, there are numerous contemporary artists practicing lacquer painting in Vietnam.


The following articles provide more information on conservation of oil paintings, acrylic paintings and paper.