In Vietnam, the process of producing fine art through the lacquering technique has its origins in neighbouring China, who ruled over the country between 111 BC and 938 AD.

Lacquerware is a truly ancient art, which first appeared in the Shang dynasty (1384-1111 BC) and has evolved ever since into a sophisticated art form, and it was during the golden age of the Han dynasty, that this art form penetrated into Vietnamese culture.

With pieces taking many months to produce, the technique involves the gradual accumulation of successive layers of coloured lacquer and silver leaf, which are later smoothed away using a variety of methods to various depths to reveal the final image.

As with so much other Chinese endeavour, the art form reached its pinnacle during the Ming dynasty, when up to a hundred painstaking layers were employed to produce ultra-bright lustrous images on furniture and other domestic artefacts, the finest of which now command eye-watering prices on the international antiques market.

In Vietnam, the art form took a unique turn under during the French occupation, when the influence of beautiful modern works from the impressionists onwards began to capture the imaginations of young Viet artists, and led to a renaissance of the lacquer medium to create their own modern art began in the 1930’s. Nowadays, many of its finest exponents in the modern age have themselves generated much enthusiastic interest on the global art market.

Although the techniques are applied to many types of object, for paintings, a Vietnamese artist will typically start from a board, which is initially primed with a foundation layer of clear lacquer and left to dry. The lacquer is produced from the sap of several different trees, harvested in the same manner as rubber.

Once dry, a layer of thin cotton, soaked with clay is applied all around the board and a layer of black lacquer applied, dried and highly polished, a process repeated five times to create a smooth durable seal that will last for centuries and provide the base layer for the subsequent painting.

The artist will typically begin his work with chalk, outlining his vision upon the primed black board, which is then refined though shallow carving before being filled with minute pieces of eggshell, before being once again smoothed to a fine surface, after which a layer of clear lacquer is applied and smoothed.

Over time, successive layers of coloured lacquer, silver leaf and clear lacquer are laid down with each dried and carefully smoothed, a process repeated with as many shades of colour as the artist requires for his artistic vision.

When all the desired coloured layers have been applied, the artist begins the amazingly delicate and skilfully precise process of revealing his carefully remembered image and layers through finely rubbing with sandpaper and an abrasive blend of charcoal and human hair to various depths all over the work to reveal the different colours underneath, with the silver leaf behind each revealed coloured layer producing a stunning lustrous quality to the whole image.

Beyond this basic and painstaking method of producing lacquerware, many contemporary artists employ the use of many other substances and techniques to produce infinitely subtle effects and extraordinary depth within their creations, many of which are known only to the artists themselves and are a carefully guarded secret, though the use of gold leaf on the final layer to create a visually distinctive light effect is a commonly known technique.

Today, many delightful lacquer paintings, contemporary homewares and furniture are produced in Vietnam, and the sheer artistic quality of many of these pieces are a marvel to behold, especially when one has the insight into the long and painstaking work involved in their creation.

Many galleries and other artistic retail outlets contain fine examples of Vietnamese lacquerware, themed on both traditional elements drawn from ancient Vietnamese culture and stunningly creative, beautifully conceived and dizzyingly reflective brightly hued contemporary pieces.