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  • Writer's pictureHarleen Kaur

The History Behind Son Mai

Updated: Jan 13, 2022

Sơn Mài, or also known to the west as lacquer painting, is a form of painting that was revived and made a unique form in the 1930’s in Vietnam. The name means “from the resin of the Sơn tree.” Originally lacquer was used to be the finishing coat on furniture and gold lacquer was even developed to cover household objects in palaces, wealthy homes, temples, etc. However, today Sơn Mài is mainly used for beautiful paintings.

This unique and lengthy process involves the mixing of resin from any local tree in Vietnam with natural pigments in order to create different colors of paint. First, a blackboard is prepared and a design is etched out with chalk, using eggshells and a clear varnish. After the piece is polished, the first layer of colored lacquer is painted on the blackboard and a clear coat of lacquer is applied on top. This process is repeated many times until the artist has achieved their desired design.

This form of painting requires a lot of patience because each layer must be dried before paint or clear lacquer can go on. It usually takes artists a few months to finish a traditional lacquer painting made from scratch.

Want to learn how to make your own Sơn Mài painting at home with supplies you already have in your house? Chopsticks Alley is coming out with ARTventure Down the Mekong, our first book which includes eight easy-to-make art lessons inspired by eight SouthEast Asian countries and their cultures. This book provides more information on the history of Sơn Mài and how to make your own at home.

Available for purchase on Amazon September 10:

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Harleen Kaur

Chopsticks Alley Editorial Intern

Harleen is a freshman at Foothill College pursuing her B.A. in philosophy. She ran her high school’s newspaper PHHS The Legend as a managing editor, and was later inducted into the Quill and Scroll Honor Society as a lifetime member. Growing up in San Jose, Harleen hopes to write about and amplify the voices of the Vietnamese and Pinoy community that she is surrounded by. She hopes to become a lawyer who will give back to her community.

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