Ink-stained finger tips

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Hanoi's old-school portraiture still captures the moment

75-year-old Nguyen Bao Nguyen, as one of old-Hanoi's best portraitists, has been working at that easel in that 10.2 meter-square-room for nearly a half of century

The tiny old shop on Hang Ngang Street is surrounded by sparkling fashion boutiques crowded with hipsters.

But inside Truyen than Bao Nguyen (Bao Nguyen Portraits), it's a different world.

The distinguished and aging artist, thin and white-haired, sits cross-legged in repose at his easel, the way he has been doing for 50 years.

Portraitist Nguyen Bao Nguyen, 75, began working at that easel in that 10.2 meter-square-room as a young man, a whimsical bohemian from a middle class family trying to make ends meet during the war years.

He was supposed to have gained a degree in 1960, but he took a severe stomach ache the day of his graduation exam as an omen, and he's been living with ink-stained fingertips ever since.

The young Hanoian had always drawn as a self-taught artist at home, and when he decided to follow the traditional urban trade no one in his family had yet plied, Mom and Dad supported him.

The investment wasn't much compared to the possible returns. He just needed paper, charcoal, and pencil-brushes, which he made himself with the ends of incense sticks and matches.

It turned out to be a good move, as he quickly earned a reputation as one of old-Hanoi's best young truyen than artists. The 60s were an energetic time in downtown Hanoi, and Nguyen brought in a good deal of money with the art.

Old gold

Truyen than (Conveying the Soul) portraiture first showed its face in the small streets and alleys of Hanoi's old quarter in the early 20th century. The simple black and white charcoal drawings were meant to convey the essence and spirit of whatever their subject was in a non-ostentatious or sensational way.

The art came about as people wanted more personal depictions of their relatives to use for ancestor worship. The artistic renditions of family members copied from old photographs quickly became popular, especially for wedding photos.

For the first time, not only the super-wealthy could decorate their homes with realistic images of their nuptials.

And some people simply wanted copies of their photos, or to create a new image as their old photos were fading.

Truyen than family portraits became a popular ornament in many Vietnamese homes. For a small price, people could easily have a high-quality, large-size portrait hung in their living-room.


According to Nguyen, truyen than drawers are not copycats. He said that the key was in making the viewer feel both the aura and spirit of the character in the picture, whether it is a human or still-life.

"The special features of each character must be found by the artist's senses. The spirit could be expressed in any detail like the corner of one's eyes, the wrinkle on the forehead, a snub nose or just a hair on the face. No one can teach you that."

A truyen than portrait must not only look like the character but also "make viewers feel that the character is sitting there and talking to them," said Nguyen, adding that it usually takes him a week to finish a piece.

"A 10-20 percent divergence from the character's real face or figure is a success... but I only draw a portrait once, it's too hard to repeat."

He said the inspiration comes to him only once, and he does not like to copy his "emotion" again and again.

But he admitted that there were some pictures that he has had to fix four or five times before they were done.

"I looked [at the character] for a long time but the person in the drawing still couldn't talk to me," he told Sports and Culture newspaper.

He once spent two years completing a portrait of writer Lan Khai from an old and stained photo Khai's son had given him.

Over the period, Nguyen read Khai's writings obsessively to find true inspiration.

Because the photo was blurry, and Nguyen also loved Khai's writings, it took an immense amount of time, he said. He wanted to draw the perfect picture.

All paid off when he saw how moved Khai's son was when he saw the picture of his father.

"This is him," the son told Nguyen.

Bringing out the dead

Despite the abundance of imported ink now available in Hanoi, Nguyen still uses his own handmade ink.

To do so, he burns scraps of rubber tires with a kerosene lamp. He uses the soot collected from that smoke to create pitch-black ink that stands in stunning contrast with his white paper.

He also makes his own pencils.

He makes them with the slender end of an incense stick or match and then ties them tightly to chopstick-like bamboo stick with a little copper wire.

Nguyen said his most rewarding work was when families came to him asking for pictures of their dead parents, many of whom were killed or went missing during the war.

Many of his customers have burst into tears upon receiving their folks' pictures. Some say the drawings have helped them through the pain of missing their loved ones.

Blogger Hoang Duc Nha said Nguyen has a guestbook full of praise, appreciation, regards and letters.

"That is the most precious gift that I've gotten in my career."

But he worries the art is slowly fading away.

"The city used to have over 300 truyen than shops," said Nguyen. "But now we can count the number of artists on two hands."

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