Green's the color

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Artists say a shift from industrial to plant-based paints has been a rewarding experience

Painter Ly Truc Son with his painting on giay do, made using natural colors.

The rumors spread quickly.

Renowned painter Ly Truc Son had hung up his brushes and decided to devote the rest of his life to gardening.

Lending strength to the grapevine was the fact that neighbors saw him all the time in the garden, tending to different kinds of plants; and from his workshop, there was no let up in the sounds of pestle pounding against mortar.

Was he making traditional medicines?

He was, in a way. Medicines for his canvas. Son was experimenting with making and using natural instead of industrial colors, in the process "discovering the transformation of natural color in my hands."

Herbal color production is not a new practice internationally, but it is not something that Vietnamese artists have engaged in thus far.

Applying the dark purple color of la cam (magenta plant), the red of rau den (amaranth), violet blue of hoa dau biec (pea flower), collected during his "fact-finding tour" along the Red River in the north, on giay do (a paper traditionally made from the bark of the cay do giay - Rhamnoneuron balansae - plant in the north), Son said he is eager to see the transformation of the colors themselves.

"Natural colors have their own way of expressing beauty, so sometimes a premonition is all I need to create a painting using these colors. Unlike industrial ones, colors made from herbs, when applied on giay do, will produce a very limpid picture. For instance, blue blended with purple will produce quite a new hue that is far beyond our imagination. That is something I find interesting and challenging," Son said.

Son's experiments have shown him that "everything" can be used as a color, even nuoc voi (lid Eugenia tea), a common drink in Vietnam. For instance, Son said, the leaves of the tea, when ground and mixed with water will produce a different color than when it is boiled.

"La cam, (a leaf) used to cook purple sticky rice, is also an amazing material. Its original color is purple, yet after I boiled it in water and left it for many days, the leaves produced a very beautiful black color that I was unable to get before," Son said.

The new venture has made the painter a real-life explorer, journeying to different lands to find exotic plants as color material, planting them, and mixing colors before applying them.

Son's collection of colorful plants, picked up from northern and central areas, are now being recreated in his garden. Whenever Son returns to his house, he first visits his "new workshop," trims and waters the plants, before beginning to draw and paint.

Color for lacquer

Son's colleague, Dao Mai Hien is planting wax trees (Cay son - Rhus succedanea) imported from the northern province of Phu Tho, for use in her lacquer paintings. Hien is concerned about the overuse of Toa paint by young artists working with lacquer.

"I, of course, have no right to expert everyone to become a gardener after all the main business of an artist is to be a good artist. However, I like having good paints for experiments in lacquering," she said.

Hien's 200 wax trees in the northern province of Hoa Binh are six years old and already produce wax for paint production. Hien prefers to experiment with new variations in the traditional art, but insists on the irreplaceable value of using traditional paint instead of industrial ones like the Toa paint.

"It is not easy to find good quality paint from wax trees since their cultivated area in Phu Tho has decreased rapidly. Also, its toxicity has discouraged traditional paint makers and prompted them to turn to other jobs," the artist said.

According to lacquer paint maker Ly Khac Nhu, the sap of wax trees can cause itching and kill neighboring plants; 200-300 wax trees in total can produce just one kg of paint.

It is a long journey indeed to make paint from the wax tree, not to mention the planting period.

Hien said she has to ask locals to take care of the trees, collect the sap to prepare the colors, before she can use it.

However, she insists the reward is more than sufficient as the color lasts longer than the industrial ones and the picture is more "real and beautiful."

 "I am now able to touch the lacquer's spirit after days of living with the trees. It is a satisfying experience."

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