In much of East Asia Lacquer is made from a toxic resin produced by the so-called ‘varnish tree’ (Toxicodendron vernicifluum, formerly identified as Rhus vernicifluum) native to parts of China that also grows in areas of Korea and Japan. Initially, this tree’s resin is processed into a liquid that may be applied over any surface such as woods, metals, cloth, ceramics, baskets, shells and so forth. To maximize lacquer’s significant protective coating, multiple thin layers are applied and each layer must fully dry before the next is added. Drying is carefully controlled to prevent cracking that would weaken the functional and decorative properties. Raw lacquer dries into a naturally dark color. Adding opaque minerals, such as cinnabar reds (mercury sulfide), orpiment yellows (arsenic sulfate) and malachite greens (copper carbonate) creates colored lacquers. In different processing stages, lacquer can be worked in a variety of techniques.
One method of decorating lacquer is called qiangjin in Chinese. Grooves are incised into the lacquer, then filled with gold.
Lacquer carving, called diaoqi in Chinese, begins with a multi-layered process. Each lacquer-layer must fully dry before the next is applied—a timely process as layers can range from thirty to hundreds of applications. The layers may be of the same or different colored lacquers. After drying, the lacquer is carved. Some examples display different colors—yellow, red and green for different layers.
Burnishing—the act of polishing an uneven surface to an even level—produces several effects in lacquer objects. So-called marbled wares (or ‘rhinoceros hide’) lacquers are created in a technique called moxian in Chinese (literally ‘polish-reveal’). Multiple layers of different lacquer colors are applied in asymmetric dollops. After multiple coatings, the surface is burnished, rubbing down differently raised layers to achieve a liquid-like, multi-colored finish. Filled-in lacquers (called cuanxi, xipi, tianqi or diaotian in Chinese) are made with areas of lacquer carved out, other colors filled in these gaps, then the surface is burnished so that the surface is even.
Lacquer As Fixitive
In addition to lacquer suspending color, its adhesive properties produce a strong bond to hold items pressed into the wet lacquer. Gold and mother-of-pearl, are two items often included in Japan, Korea and China to enrich lacquer surfaces.