New work: Tạng stands next to a newly-created painting made from sugar palm leaves. VNA/VNS Photo Công Mạo
Viet Nam News
by Lương Định
A long time ago, monks in the South used sugar palm leaves to maintain a written record of Buddhist prayers.
However, it was in the nineties that the leaves were used to make stunning, meticulous, artistic and unique paintings.
The maker of the first sugar palm paintings is artisan Võ Văn Tạng, who lives in Núi Sập Town, Thoại Sơn District, An Giang Province. He has made thousands of paintings on various topics and in different sizes, which have been appreciated and collected by many.
The first time I learned about sugar palm painting was during my field trip to Long Xuyên, the provincial capital city of An Giang, in the year 2000. In the reception of a hotel, I saw a famous horse painting, 360cm by 235cm in size, in an unusual colour, which appeared different from oil paintings on canvas, since it looked a bit like it was made with water colours.
I later discovered the use of sugar palm leaves as the canvas to paint on.
Most offices and hotels in the province are adorned with several sugar palm paintings, such as the portrait of President Hồ Chí Minh, the landscape of Bảy Núi, cedar trees and cranes, tigers and horses.
The artist behind these amazing works is Tạng, director of the Social Policy Bank in the province’s Thoại Sơn District.
He is always looking for new ways to use materials in fine arts, and is continuously searching and experimenting with techniques.
Once, while travelling with his co-workers to appraise and help the ethnic Khmer people with funds for their project to make fans with sugar palm leaves at Vọng Thê Commune, Thoại Sơn District, Tạng was inspired by the idea of making palm leaf paintings.
Following the experience of local residents who use sugar palm leaves to make fans, Tạng meticulously selected young sugar palm leaves that were over eight years old, so that when he painted, the picture was both of high quality and the colour lasted longer.
Teaching skills: Artists work at Tạng’s private painting foundation. VNA/VNS Photo Công Mạo
Key ingredient: Tạng meticulously selects young sugar palm leaves for his artworks. VNA/VNS Photo Công Mạo
The best time to cut a sugar palm leaf is early summer; it should then be left to dry for two weeks, soaked with alum, then allowed to dry once again.
“The next step is to cut the leaf into small slabs, depending on the size of each painting to make the pattern on the frame,” Tạng said.
To draw the pattern of the painting, he said that a special kind of pen is needed, such as the electric pen that helps to meticulously and painstakingly create elements of darkness and light.
Most of the paintings he has created on sugar palm leaves are copied from landscape pictures, portraits and famous ancient paintings by Vietnamese and foreign artists. Many of his large-size paintings are especially a labour of love and took months to complete.
“The artisan’s style of painting is unique. Not to forget, this style does not need paint or colour but is the combination of patterns with brown, black and yellow lines that are made by pressing and releasing the electric pen to make dark and light lines, depending on the painter’s desire to present vibrant details, in an impressive water colour-like style,” Tạng said.
When the painting is finished, it is polished with a special oil that protects the palm leaves, and is then framed. According to the artisan, this oil that helps the leaves retain their colour adds to the artistic value of the painting.
Since the day he made his first painting Tùng Hạc (Cedars and Cranes) on sugar palm leaves in 1996, up till now, Tạng has made thousands of artworks of various sizes and on different topics.
Nguyễn Khắc Trường, an art lover, said it was really a joy to look at these paintings every day. “I have been a fan of sugar palm paintings for a long time. People who collect this kind of art love it because it is natural, unique and inspiring,” he said.
Following his retirement in 2003, Tạng founded his own sugar palm producing foundation to pass on his skills to workers, implementing many different processes to create various kinds of artwork -- from landscapes of the Vietnamese countryside and portraits to paintings of worship.
His latest painting The Will of President Hồ, 1.20m by 2.20m, got him the Guinness record for the best painter on sugar palm leaves in Việt Nam. VNS