The word ‘lacquer’ is used so many different ways that it can be both confusing and misleading to the general collector, as well as to professional crafts people. It should be recognized that there are three main categories: China lacquer, lac; and finished which can be grouped under japanning or japan work, and which include the various European substitutes for lacquer such as vernis Martin. Modern lacquer paints form a sub-category of this last group.


1. Lacquer from China


   China lacquer tree, namely rhus verniciflua, also called varnish tree, grows up to 20 meters tall with large leaves. Lacquer is the natural sap stripped from that tree. A caustic, toxic sap is tapped from the trunk of the lacquer tree to produce lacquer. This is done by slashing the trunk of a 10 year old tree horizontally 5-10 times, and then collecting the grayish yellow sap exuding from the wounds.

   China lacquer tree is a species grows in East Asia, in regions of China, Korea and Japan. Lacquer-yielding trees in Thailand, Vietnam and Burma are slightly different; they do not contain Urushiol, but similar called Laccol. The end result is similar but softer than the China lacquer.

   The sap must be processed before it can be used. Raw lacquer, the resin bled by cutting from lacquer tree, sets by a process absorbing oxygen to set; placing in a humid environment allows it to absorb more oxygen from the evaporation of the water. The phenols oxidize and polymerize under the action of an enzyme laccase, yielding a substrate that, upon proper evaporation its water content, are hard and fairly resistant to mechanical stress. For this special and gilded material, lacquer skills became very highly developed in Asia, and many highly decorated pieces were produced from China.

   It is an important innovation in the chemical technology and art of East Asia. The 17th century term japan, refers to a range of lacquer techniques, but especially those developed in Europe and Great Britain to resemble lacquer work imported from the Orient. Just as china is a common name for Chinese ceramic in western world, japan is an old name for Japanese lacquer art, or to describe the European technique to imitate Asian lacquer ware. The contemporary theory held that from China, knowledge of lacquer technology was introduced to Korea, and from there to Japan. It was believed that Japan had also been using lacquer from ancient times, but the systematic process of application was developed by Chinese.


   Although there is some evidence of cultivation of the lacquer tree in prehistoric times, the art of lacquer ware most likely arrived in Japan from China and Korea along with Buddhism and the Chinese writing system in the Asuka and Nara periods (600-800A.D.). There is some evidence that its use is even older than seven thousands years from archeological digs in China. According to the red lacquer bowls and tubes of the humudu culture found in yuyao, zhejiang province, lacquer wares have been used in China for nearly eight thousand years.

   As ‘true’ lacquer, China lacquer is not only has a longest history about it, but also it is a type of natural lacquer material. The modern lacquer like chemical paint with a short life will gradually become old and ugly by the time passing. By contrast, China lacquer is a green material which hasn’t a deadline; it can be kept for a long time.


   In China, the most famous lacquer paintings come from mawangdui,a Han dynasty noble woman’s tomb in changsha,hunan province. The site was excavated from 1972 to 1974. The tomb lord had two nested screens which are beautifully decorated by lacquer painting.

   These screens are just a small part of the lacquer ware from mawangdui. There are more than two hundred pieces of lacquer ware, included furniture, toy, tableware, cosmetic box, music instrument and various household items. Their looks are still fresh, bright and brilliant after almost two thousands years.

   The China lacquer is hard and durable when it has been finished drying. For this, the lacquer painting is easier to clear and keep fresher than the oil painting and ink painting.


2. China lacquer in modern time



   The history of China lacquer in the decorative arts spans more than seven thousands years, from its origins in China though its great period of development in the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, to modern times when the art was kept alive in Paris by craft workers who rediscovered past techniques. Even during the first decades of twentieth century, technologically advanced lacquer paints and coatings were fashionable. The lacquer from Far East had been exerting its influence upon Western art since trade had been established between the two regions in the sixteenth century, and during the Art Deco period, Western artists became increasingly drawn to the skills and motifs of Eastern art. They are usually sprayed on to furniture, domestic and industrial cabinets, etc.



   There has been a major development affecting the craft of lacquer during the twentieth century: the interest in Far East art, which had so much influence on European taste around the turn of the century, and, later, the research of new ways on lacquer skills, which made possible the new coloured decorations of Art Deco and later styles. Artists like Eileen Gray and Jean Dunand in Paris were in the forefront of those who recognized the potential of lacquer and adapted this classical medium to the needs of contemporary living.


   Eileen Gray had started to train as a painter at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, but became inspired by some Oriental lacquer pieces she discovered at a London antique-restorer. In 1906 she moved to Paris to study this technically challenging art with a Japanese master called Seizo Sugawara. In 1922 she opened her own gallery under the synonym Galerie Jean Désert where she sold her lacquer art.

   Jean Dunand worked at the same time as Eileen Gray and, like her, was fascinated by the effect of lacquer, especially lacquer inlaid with other materials. One of his favourite techniques, traditional inlay using crushed egg-shell to create an uneven and highly tactile surface, has remained a stunt for modern lacquerers. Dunand himself used the egg-shell to make pictures, many furniture tops were inlaid with a random mosaic of egg-shells to create a crackled effect, similar to that on porcelain or glass.



   Eileen Gray used lacquer from Japan, but Jean Dunand’s lacquer from Vietnam. The French artists deeply affected the Vietnam lacquer art in the twentieth century, like Dunand, Vietnamese lacquer artists were also good at using egg-shell into their art creation. Along with the painterly knowledge absorbed from the West, Vietnam lacquer painting became the most important role in the modern East South Asia, and at the same time inspired the China from 1950s.

   We could say that the founding of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine had given a strong impetus to the birth of a new form of painting encouraged by two French artists: Victor Tardieu and his associate Joseph Inguimberty. The contact with European classical painting caused the Vietnamese fine arts to undergo radical changes. However, these changes were accepted and incorporated into the traditional subject matter and techniques of the lacquer craft.



   Impressed by the extraordinary tonalities and the latent resources of “black lacquer” in communal houses and pagodas, the two French artists urged their Vietnamese art students to explore this craft. Their encouragement awakened the latter’s national pride and this led to the birth of lacquer paintings, truly a major contribution to Vietnamese fine arts. Artists Tran Van Can, Pham Hau and Nguyen Gia Tri pioneered the development of the lacquer technique, from the simple decoration of architectural motifs in communal houses and temples or handicraft articles to the artistic drawings of modern lacquer pictures. They painted and did research passionately, mobilizing the traditional know-how of the lacquer craft while experimenting with new techniques. Their goal was to apply the laws of space and perspective concerning composition, shapes and figures and at the same time to preserve the phantasmagoric character and other inherent features of lacquer art.

   The Vietnam lacquer painting mainly adopts the skills such as lacquer drawing and egg-shell inlaying. But they are just a small part of the lacquer skills from China. In the Ming dynasty, a famous Chinese lacquer worker finished a book namedxiushilu , which recorded various lacquer skills more than one hundred and eighteen types. Both Korean mother of pearl inlaying lacquer ware and Japanese golden lacquer ware Maki-e also developed from Chinese lacquer skills.

   In China, a number of manufacturing hubs appeared from eighteenth century, each place specialized in carved lacquer ware of Peking, bodiless lacquer in Fuzhou, golden lacquer painting in Canton, which are most famous four types of Chinese lacquer crafts till now.



   Peking carved lacquer originated in the tang dynasty. It was so named because of the main working procedure is carving, and the main material is lacquer. In Peking carved lacquer ware, lacquer is painted on the wooden or bronze molds time after time until it is five to eight mm thick, and then carving with patterns of landscape, figures of people, flowers, birds, and animals. The process is very complicated, there are altogether over ten procedures from the design to the final polish. Nowadays, the carving skills are developed from shallow carving to relief carving, hollow carving, and circular carving, which make the lacquer wares stereoscopic. With the recent appearance of carved lacquer murals, Peking carved lacquer wares are used more and more as decorations.



   The representative objects are tea wares of bodiless lacquer ware of fuzhou. First, molds are made with wood or clay according to the design of the tea wares, and then painted with lacquer several times. Finally removing the molds, a set of simple and elegant tea wares will come out through re-painting, polishing, and decorating time and again. A set of tea ware usually consists of a teapot and four teacups held in a round or quadrate tea tray, with the same black, dark green, yellowish-brown or brownish-red color.

   Golden lacquer painting is a famous Chinese presented by painting the objects with golden lacquer. Wooden objects are the most common, with black and golden as the principal colors of lacquer. Golden lacquer painting is characterized by gorgeous patterns, as well as firmness and durability. It had the golden age in the ming and qing dynasties when the technique of lacquer painting reached such a high level that in Canton, the most important port of south China in the ancient time, a open market were specially established, which were specialized in offering Chinese production for the foreign business.

   From the 1960s, Cantonese lacquer painter being inherited and developed by lacquer painting handicraftsmen from the different regions in China, lacquer painting technique attained continuous improvement and was finally developed to be a kind of representative arts with distinctive Canton features.


3. The beauty of lacquer painting


   On appreciating a painting, we often begin to find out its background and who is the painter creates it, then discuss what subject matter is depicted in it, and how about the line, color, perspective, shapes, composition have been used in the picture. But texture is the most important element among them for a lacquer painting. It represents the best character to the lacquer material.



   Besides the lacquer liquid, lacquer painting also uses many other materials, for example the gold foil and silver foil, egg-shell and mother of pearl, precious stones like jade, coral, kallaite, and various mineral colour powder which mixes with lacquer as colourful pigments.

   The liquid lacquer must be brushed onto a substructure which determines the shape of the object. The form can be made of wood, bamboo, cane, textile, leather, metal -- or any lightweight material. Generally, the painting’s substructure is constructed of seasoned wood, with any seams or holes filled with grout. The substructure may be covered with cotton gauze and primed with ground layers(lacquer mixed with clay) until it is smooth and without any flaws which would disrupt the lacquer coating.

   It is then made the design layer. The design is applied by hand on the prepared base layer. Each piece will have a combination of gold or silver leaf application or eggshell or mother of pearl designs, or even hand-painting.

   For lacquer painting with gold and silver leaves finishing, each piece of gold or silver leaf is painstakingly pasted onto the lacquer base layer, and then polished to result in a smooth and shiny surface. And, recycled eggshells and mother of pearl is pasted and cut to the desired motif. A sharp scalpel may be used to create the designs on the eggshells.

For painted design, the artist will paint the artwork on the base. The painting of the artwork may be a multiple step process where the artwork is painted, polished and painted again to ensure the depth of the colours and effects required.

   After the design is completed, the lacquer painting is given a coat of clear lacquer, dried and polished. This process is repeated another six times to provide the shine and luster of the finished work.

   Various materials get together make the lacquer painting’s texture gorgeous. The French artist Jean Dunand had made a series of samples on practicing lacquer texture. Eileen Gray innovated a mysterious blue lacquer colour, which is unknown its manufacturing method till now.


   Another beauty of lacquer painting is the bright and smooth surface by polishing. Polish the lacquered surface with oil and polishing powder by hand plays an important role in the lacquer painting creation process. The lacquer painting, after many times rubbing in water is smooth but not shiny. Therefore, the lacquer painter applies the palm of the hand together with abrasive as diverse as charcoal and iron oxide to polish the lacquer painting surface. Polishing hardened lacquer with such materials and technique finally brings the lacquer painting surface to a high gloss. The lacquer painting, after being polishing, like a mirror as you can catch a reflection of yourself in it when you look at. Each lacquer painting bears all the hard work of the artist not less than hundred days.



   When we appreciate a lacquer painting, we are used to notice the subject matter as looking

 at the other pictures, and we find out most of the lacquer paintings’ motif focus on decorative subject, whose images are legible, but cool colours are absence. Because of the lacquer colour pigments without transitionary colours, which use for presenting the change about light and shadow, it is hard to paint a lifelike picture. On the other hand, lacquer colours haven’t white colour, and the cool colours are unstable for their vegetable element. Further more, the raw lacquer liquid is yellowish that is no obvious change to the warm colours, but change the cool colours into a dismal tone.

   The cool colour is a fascinating character in the modern lacquer paintings. So, when we face a lacquer painting with a lot of cool colours, we have to look at the artist's technique. Unlike the traditional lacquer art, which were mainly good at black, red and golden, modern lacquer painting used blue, silver and pink colours. Observe how the colours composite various textures by different skills.

   With a high level of skills, the lacquer painting also can be painted into a lifelike image. But it is difficult to get a result as oil painting has. Lacquer painting looks good or not, mostly depending on the painter’s experience is sophisticated or not.


4. The value of lacquer painting



   Most of colours and textures made by lacquer are unforeseen, because the result of reaction from lacquer colours mixing with various materials such as gold powder or silver foil is hard to be fixed. The painter can only estimate it, but can not control it completely. As a result, it produces a uniqueness to lacquer painting, which is difficult to make another one exactly alike.

   The different effect of lacquer happens in reaction during drying, according to different time, climate and water absorbing in a humid place. The condition and situation are so uncertain to catch that the textures are changeable any time. This fancy feature leads the uniqueness of lacquer painting; at the same time make it look fascinating.

   Lacquer painting’s texture is special in tactility. We can touch it by hand, when the painting has been finished drying and polishing. You could get so close to the pictures you could practically appreciate the technique and tactility of the surface of the texture. Like touching marble or amber, lacquer painting’s tactility is so good. Furthermore, the skin oil from your hand will make the painting’s surface brighter and more burnishable.

   Lacquer painting becomes hard and durable after drying. It not only forms lacquer painting’s tactility, but also helps it easily stays in the living room. The hard and smooth surface waterproofs on the lacquer painting. There is no need to use transparent glass or plastic membrane for protecting the painting’s surface. We can appreciate the painting without any obstacles, and use water clear it directly.

   Lacquer painting is easy to clear and keep fresh, more and more fans like to collect some lacquer paintings to decorate their homes. As a type of green material, lacquer painting is really a good choice to decorate our lives space. Recently, a lot of lacquer paintings with modern subjects and colours arise in various exhibitions and auctions. We can find lacquer paintings display in big and small galleries, some are beautiful but cheap in price. We have to play attention on distinguishing whether the painting is real lacquer or just a fake thing.

   If you find a lot of cool colours used in a lacquer painting, and the colours are pure and clear without any yellowish hue, maybe it is not real China lacquer. Secondly, when you notice the surface is extremely glossy and even, please take care. If you discover there is a completely transparent coat covered on it, this is chemical paint. Once you see some small bubbles contained in it, you can make sure it is a fake work.

   By the way, if you own a lacquer painting, you have probably wondered how to take care of it. The lacquer painting, if with proper care, will retain its beauty for many years. Although each China lacquer painting is unique, below are some general precautions to help you get the most use out of your lacquer painting.

1. Keep your lacquer painting out of direct sunlight and away from extreme heat. Ultraviolet light and extreme heat will fade the lacquer painting surface and result in tiny cracks. Once damaged, deterioration can happen and the beauty and life span of your lacquer painting will be reduced.

2. Avoid using chemicals to clean your lacquer painting. Instead, try to use dry or damp cloth to gently wipe away dust and moisture.

3. When you want to wash your lacquer painting, use mild soap and warm water. Rinse and dry immediately after cleaning. Do not clean with hot water or try not to soak your lacquer painting for too long.