Hanging by a thread

April 01, 2022 - 18:38

Using embroidery thread, round wooden board, nails and algorithms, Lê Văn Mạnh can produce a person's portrait in seven hours.


Lê Văn Mạnh (right, front row) poses with his friends and string artworks. Photos courtesy of Lê Văn Mạnh.

HÀ NỘI — Using embroidery thread, round wooden board, nails and algorithms, Lê Văn Mạnh can produce a person's portrait in seven hours with his unusual 'string art.'

String art, or pin-and-thread art, is characterised by an arrangement of coloured threads strung between points to form geometric patterns, representational designs, and intricate paintings or portraits of people.

While the art is new to Việt Nam, its origins are from the 19th century. It is the brainchild of Mary Everest Boole, who was searching for a way to introduce children to mathematical ideas when she first experimented with the form. String art was later revived in the 1960s as a decorative craft in books and kits. 

"During the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, I accidentally watched a clip of 'drawing' with thread and nails. I was inquisitive and interested and decided to search for more information about it to try it," Mạnh told Việt Nam News.

The young man tried to read documents and watch videos on the internet, but the sources were limited because the art had not been widely developed.

"This kind of painting is a combination of technology, crafts and arts. I had a lot of difficulty with the first work. Among the problems were the poor quality of materials and my photoshop skills that caused ugly portraits, which did not look like what I imagined," Mạnh said.

"I was so disappointed that at some moments I thought of giving up."

But he did not and tried again and again until he understood how the threads and nails interacted. Finally, after many trials and errors, a portrait of Aphrodite met his satisfaction.

"I spent about six to seven days working on it, cutting a lot of thread because of mistakes, doing it again and again, but I eventually get it right."

Mạnh tried different subjects but finally decided to focus on portraits.

"I love to draw portraits and decided to follow this theme. Because whenever an artwork is done, I find a new look, a new person and a new beauty," he said.

Mạnh first uses photoshop to edit and adjust the photo that he is going to draw to contrast the tone and colour but keep the harmony and typical traits of the face.

It is a difficult step as the artist must know photoshop techniques, and it takes time because of much testing before finalising the photo for the drawing.

Lê Văn Mạnh poses with a portrait and a model. Photo courtesy of Lê Văn Mạnh

Then the image is put into an algorithm to create a guide for the artist. If this step is not good, the portrait will look soulless.

Nails are hammered into the wood board in a distinct pattern. The string is then used to follow the pattern and bring the design to life. The threat will criss-cross and wrap around the nails to fill the blank space, resulting in a seemingly complex creation.

A portrait needs 200 to 400 nails, and the thread weaves around the nails about 3,000 to 5,000 times. So it takes up to 12 hours to complete a work with the right layers, shadow and light.

"A beautiful portrait is one where anyone can see its soul and vivid vitality. So I need to focus 100 per cent on weaving because just one mistake will force me to start again from the beginning," said Mạnh.

And the final touch is, of course, hanging the work for everyone to see. 

A woman and her string art portrait by artist Lê Văn Mạnh. — Photo courtesy of Lê Văn Mạnh

"The different sizes of painting mean a different number of nails and thread lengths is necessary. So I have to calculate to make sure I have a suitable volume of materials to produce the best portraits," said Mạnh, who lives in HCM City.

"It looks complicated, but I have optimized all the steps, so when people give me pictures, I will build up the instructions so that people can draw a picture easily."

From a newbie in the art with zero income, spending a lot of money on reference items and materials, Mạnh now earns a decent amount from his artworks and says it is a passion that helps keep him going through adversity.

He has created almost 170 black-thread artworks, mainly portraits of celebrities such as Daniel Radcliffe, Cristiano Ronaldo, Vietnamese singer Sơn Tùng MTV and national head football coach Park Hang-seo, which sell for up to VNĐ6 million (US$260) a piece.

The works, which can be DIY projects, decorative paintings or gifts for birthdays or anniversaries, can last up to seven years if preserved in good conditions.

"Patience, focus and ingenuity are virtues needed in this art, but creativity is also a highlight," said Mạnh, who gives free instruction on his YouTube channel.

Currently, he has pushed it to a new level by adding virtual technology to his work. Using a smartphone to scan QR codes on the portrait, people can enjoy clips of the portrait owners.

Free instruction on string art is available on his YouTube channel. Meanwhile, his face-to-face workshops are set to be reopened in the next two to three months, after a long time of closure due to the pandemic, as a way to popularise the new art form to the wider community.

"I have totally fallen in love with this art, and I know I have found my passion," Mạnh said.  — VNS