Sơn mài is a traditional Vietnamese form of lacquer painting created using a toxic lacquer harvested from one region of the country. It requires months of application and sanding back layers of paint to build up the image.
Last year, a sơn mài painting sold at auction for $972,000. So, what makes these paintings so special?
And why are they so expensive?
Narrator: Phạm Chính Trung has dedicated almost 50 years to mastering sơn mài and knows how equally tiring and rewarding the craft can be.
It is an art form of incredible value in Vietnamese culture, for both the time and skill it requires and the exclusive natural materials needed to make it.
The process of making lacquer paint begins in the forests of Vietnam, where planters collect resin from a toxic wax tree native to Southeast Asia called the Rhus succedanea.
Planters must cut into more than 400 trees to retrieve between 1 and 1.5 kilograms of resin. Narrator: After harvesting, the lacquer must be removed of any impurities and mixed for several hours before it’s suitable for painting.
One of the principle features of sơn mài is the depth created by adding several layers of paint and sanding them back.
These layers aren’t always visible in the finished work but are what differentiate lacquer painting from other common painting styles.
With oil painting, artists paint from back to front, painting the landscape first and the details later.
The process of lacquer painting is the opposite.
Narrator: Artists mix natural ingredients to create colors, like eggshells to make white or cinnabar, a toxic ore, for red.
In some cases, artists add leaves of silver, sometimes even gold, to create a gentle sheen.
These substances can be one of the costliest parts of sơn mài painting.
Narrator: While the raw materials of the painting may be more expensive than many other styles, the skill and the work of the artist are what set the final value. Along with the immense patience sơn mài requires, each work is unique and unpredictable.
That’s because painters are never quite sure how the layers will resurface through sanding. This can either increase the value of the work or force an artist to start over.
Narrator: Painters must be careful to let each layer fully dry before sanding.
Otherwise, colors or designs could be ruined.
There’s no set amount of time a layer takes to dry, as it largely depends on the weather that day.
Narrator: After weeks of work, pieces are polished with coal powder, which creates the smooth surface and lasting shine of sơn mài. Artists have used lacquer for its glossy finish for thousands of years. One of its best-known applications is Japanese lacquerware — decorative pieces of furniture, boxes, and dinnerware. But in the early 20th century, Vietnamese artists developed an interest in lacquer painting and created a style unique to the world.
Impressive as these works can be, the process is both costly and arduous. And that’s why Phạm Chính Trung believes the future of this tradition will depend on finding more artists willing to learn it.