Submitted by sharragrow on
Main Authors: Jingyi Zhang, Lynn Chua
Contributing Authors: Birte Koehler, Melanie Barrett, Leon Sim, Phumrapee Kongrit, and Christel Pesme
Thai lacquer art builds on a rich history that is not often well documented or accessible to other parts of the world due to language and geographic barriers. Hence in November 2022, the Heritage Conservation Centre (HCC), Singapore, held a workshop on Thai lacquerware decorative techniques. Initiated and organised by Birte Koehler, head of the objects conservation section at HCC, the workshop was led by Phumrapee Kongrit, lacquer artist and lecturer at Chiang Mai University, Thailand. This paper focuses on presenting the workshop’s content. The description of the decisions made at HCC to prepare and organize the workshop, and to optimize knowledge sharing and its dissemination with consideration of sustainability, will be presented in a future News in Conservation article.
Over five days, and through a combination of lectures, demonstrations and practical sessions, Phumrapee introduced us to his world of lacquer and taught us the history, technique and significance of lacquered objects in Thailand and Asia. Inspired by exchanges over the digital sphere during the Covid-19 pandemic, the event was also livestreamed to an international audience—recordings of the lectures and demonstrations will be made available by the end of this year.
Lacquer as a protective and decorative coating has been widely used throughout Thailand’s long history. From the ancient Siamese Kingdoms of Lanna, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, and Rattanakosin, lacquer has been applied in various ways on utilitarian, religious and ceremonial objects, as well as architectural surfaces. Different periods and regions have their own distinctive styles, and decorative motifs are often inspired by local folklore, religion and flora and fauna.
LACQUER SAP AND GOLD LEAF
Most of the materials used in decorating lacquerware are made locally. For example, raw lacquer and gold leaf are produced in rural areas and by small communities.
In Thailand lacquer is obtained from the sap of the Gluta usitata tree commonly found in the northern highlands. The quality and properties of the extracted sap are influenced by several factors including geography, season, time and method of tapping. After extraction the raw sap is filtered to remove any impurities and to reduce its water content.
Gold leaf in Thailand is painstakingly beaten by hand, forged over several hours until the required thickness of 2.5 microns is achieved. The delicately thin foil is then cut using bamboo sticks, transferred using buffalo horn, and packed between paper wrappers.
During the workshop, Phumrapee demonstrated four techniques for decorating Thai lacquerware:
Samook Rak: A modelling technique where lacquer sap mixed with clay or ash powder is hand rolled to create thin coils (or “black noodles” as we preferred to call them!). The coils are then shaped following the outlines of the design, adhered to the substrate using a thin layer of lacquer and embellished with lacquer coloured with pigments such as cinnabar and orange Thai powder (identified as red lead), gold leaf or coloured glass pieces.
Laikham Lanna: A stencilling technique used in Northern Thailand for creating repetitive patterns. Traditionally, cow hide would be used as a stencil. However, a plastic sheet is used in contemporary practice to cut out the design. Once in place, lacquer is applied through the stencil as an adhesive for the gold leaf – it is important to keep the lacquer layer extremely thin to reveal the gold’s lustre.
Lai Tam Hang: Compared to the other techniques, this was the easiest and most straightforward for us as it is comparable to painting with a brush. First, the outline of the design is traced onto the substrate using clay powder. This is then painted with a mixture of fresh lacquer, pigments and resin oil (identified as triterpenoid varnish).
Lai Rod Nam: This technique produces the most intricate and exquisite gold designs, requiring an incredibly steady hand which proved challenging to workshop participants. After transferring our design to the substrate with clay powder, a resist layer of yellow paste made from orpiment, gum arabic, acacia concinna, and water was painted on the areas that would not be gilded. A thin layer of lacquer was then rubbed onto the surface and gold leaf applied by hand. The resist layer was soaked with moistened paper and then placed under running water, removing the yellow paste and any excess gold foil. The moment of reveal of the beautiful gold design was both exciting and magical.
On the last day, Phumrapee shared a form of traditional repair for damaged lacquer objects. Minor breaks and losses on lacquered surfaces are mended and filled using a putty made from lacquer and clay or ash powder. Where further reinforcements are required, a fabric gauze is laid over the joint and the lacquer putty is applied over the area. Once cured, excess filler material is removed, and the surface is smoothened with varying grades of sandpaper. The surface of the repaired area is then coated with refined lacquer and polished to the same level of gloss as the original surface.
As a highlight, on-site participants had the rare chance to try out all the techniques during the hands-on sessions in the afternoons. The practical experience was fun, insightful and, unsurprisingly, challenging. With practice, patience and lots of guidance, everyone left the workshop with beautifully decorated lacquered panels and a deep appreciation for the craft.
THE LABOUR BEHIND THE ART
Behind the beauty of these lacquered crafts lies the blood, sweat and tears of many. The production of gold leaf is backbreaking and deafening work—Phumrapee shared that he could barely hear after visiting the factory! Some of the materials used are hazardous in nature; raw lacquer sap may cause skin irritation, and prolonged inhalation of the produced fumes can cause respiratory illnesses. Cinnabar and orpiment, which contain mercury and arsenic respectively, are toxic but continue to be used due to their attractive properties. Lastly, it takes extensive time, effort and skill to produce something that is durable and of high quality. From building up the many layers of lacquer required—with each layer needing to properly cure and be refined before the application of the next layer—to the decoration of the surface with fine detail and gold leaf, a small object can take weeks and months to produce, with larger objects taking years.
In the present day, this traditional art form is a dying trade in many Southeast Asian countries. With globalization and modernization, aesthetically similar objects are being mass produced using less durable materials at a reduced cost. While national efforts have taken place in Thailand to cultivate interest and develop local capabilities to preserve the industry, the differing values of a younger generation are proving to be a challenge.
Through this collaborative workshop with Phumrapee Kongrit, the HCC hopes to deepen and share knowledge on the production of Southeast Asian lacquered objects and encourage exchange between regional artisans, educators, scientists and conservators.
The collaboration also highlights the value of engagement with modern source communities. Local contemporary artisans possess a wealth of knowledge and skills that are vital to our understanding of cultural objects found in museums across the world.
Jingyi Zhang has an MSc in conservation practice from Cardiff University and a degree in archaeology from Durham University. She has completed conservation internships at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art (USA), Bolton Museum and Art Gallery (UK) and currently works as an assistant objects conservator at the Heritage Conservation Centre (Singapore).
Lynn Chua is currently a conservation scientist at the Heritage Conservation Centre (HCC). She conducts instrumental analysis of the national collections, including Asian lacquerware. Her MSc in research at the University of Technology Sydney centres on the micro-characterisation of painted artworks in collaboration with the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
(Read the article in the April-May 2023 "News in Conservation" Issue 95, p. 58-63)