A true work of art: The making of a Chinese lacquered screens, sometimes called Coromandel screens, lacquered room dividers or Chinoiserie screens.

GBD071113080 A true work of art: The making of a Chinese lacquered screens, sometimes called Coromandel screens, lacquered room dividers or Chinoiserie screens.

Chinoiserie screens are always a favorite with interior designers. Today, we give you a detailed glimpse into the workshop of an artist-craftsmen and let you see the many steps required to create a perfect lacquer painting.

A bit of history

The art of lacquer painting is a ancient one, originating in China thousands of years ago.  In the Neolithic age (about 7,000 years ago), while cutting down trees, the precursors to Chinese people realized that the sap of the lacquer trees could be applied to walls, furniture and other objects, thus giving birth to primitive lacquer art.

craft32_02 A true work of art: The making of a Chinese lacquered screens, sometimes called Coromandel screens, lacquered room dividers or Chinoiserie screens.
2000 year old lacquerware painting on a clothing box

Painting with lacquer is a meticulous and time-consuming process which most people fail to realize or appreciate. It is a very meticulous labor of love to create a lacquer painting and the process can take at least several weeks or in the case of a series of panels, more then several months to complete.

Lacquer paintings & screen panels (as in the specific kind in the example below) are traditionally created in three styles, which correlate to the color of the paintings background:

  1. Gold leaf
  2. Deep black
  3. Vermilion.

There are other exceptions such as silver background but these are less uncommon.

Step one: Preparing the surface.

IMG_5918-1024x768 A true work of art: The making of a Chinese lacquered screens, sometimes called Coromandel screens, lacquered room dividers or Chinoiserie screens.
preparing the surface for lacquering
  1. Like an artist preparing a canvas, the process is very similar, only in this case the  painting is done on wood. Normally solid wood is NOT the best choice for these and most vendors will use “plywood” which is less likely to expand or contract (any cracks would ruin the painting). First, a piece of wood is prepared by sanding.
  2. The board is covered with a piece of fine white muslin cloth which is glue down on the board. This fabric serves a duel purpose in that should the wood crack or expand the cloth wrapped around it will remain relatively stable (and thus the fragile lacquer will not crack or become damaged).
  3. Then the cloth is brushed a layer of “nizi” – a kind of gesso or base adhesive and is then left for the adhesive to air dry for a short period of time.
  4. This covering of adhesive is then sanded smooth to eliminate any bumps or ridges.
  5. This entire process is then repeated so that there is at least several coats of sanded “nizi.

Did you know technically this is not a Coromandal screen.

Coromandel lacquer was primarily made for export, adopting the name from the Coromandel coast region of south-east India, where during the 18th century, the Dutch East Indies Company maintained warehouses and transit ports. In most cases Coromandel screens utilize as technique called kuan cai (ie incised colors) and/or at times was combined with mother of pearl inlays.

0P2A4367-1024x922 A true work of art: The making of a Chinese lacquered screens, sometimes called Coromandel screens, lacquered room dividers or Chinoiserie screens.
A close up of Kuan Cai on a 17th century Coromandel lacquer screen

The-Dutch-East-India-Company-and-British-East-India-Company A true work of art: The making of a Chinese lacquered screens, sometimes called Coromandel screens, lacquered room dividers or Chinoiserie screens.

The Dutch East India Company and British East India Company: The History and Legacy of the World’s Most Famous Colonial Trade Companies

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Step two: Preparing the black base surface.

IMG_5935-1024x768 A true work of art: The making of a Chinese lacquered screens, sometimes called Coromandel screens, lacquered room dividers or Chinoiserie screens.
Lacquer chips in raw form
  1. The next step is brushing a coat of a specially prepared binding agent made from red lacquer flakes, which are dissolved in thinner. This binding agent helps the next coat of black lacquer to soak into the cloth below.
  2. After a thin coat its left to air dry for a short period of time.
  3. Then brushed on top with a coat of black lacquer at least two times and left to dry completely – normally about three days depending on the weather and humidity.

Step three: Laying down the gold leaf.

IMG_5937-1024x768 A true work of art: The making of a Chinese lacquered screens, sometimes called Coromandel screens, lacquered room dividers or Chinoiserie screens.
  1. Extremely thin square sheets of gold-leaf tissue (or in some cases silver) placed over-top of the black lacquer and affixed with glue. Generally the final painting will occur over TOP of the gold leaf. This is what creates the vivid yet subtle color effect you can see on the end painting.
  2. If desired, these thin sheets of gold leaf can be wrinkled slightly when they are applied which achieves an aged effect small bits of the black underneath will then show through when it is sanded one last time with a sheet of extra fine sandpaper.
  3. This is again left to air dry for a short period of time.
IMG_5891-768x1024 A true work of art: The making of a Chinese lacquered screens, sometimes called Coromandel screens, lacquered room dividers or Chinoiserie screens.
Selecting a particular design

Step four: Tracing out the design.

  1. First, a traditional design is selected typically from a painting or book.
  2. Then a sheet of white tracing paper with a pattern with small holes (basically these are the tracing lines) in the paper is tacked/taped onto the panel.
  3. A special fine talcum like powder is evenly sprinkled over the tracing paper which then sifts through the holes in the tracing paper onto the surface underneath.
  4. When the tracing paper is then removed, the patterns remain on the panel seen as a series of fine dotted outlines.


Step five: The painting

Now we start the actual painting

  1. The painter uses white lacquer to rough out the outlines of the forms in the painting.
  2. The colors are applied one by one, layer upon layer until the tones are built up.
  3. After the painting has dried, the artist will brush over it with a clear coat of lacquer . This process leaves a brilliant surface on a painting and also adds additional protection.
IMG_5934-1024x768 A true work of art: The making of a Chinese lacquered screens, sometimes called Coromandel screens, lacquered room dividers or Chinoiserie screens.

Finished! The end result is a beautiful work of art!

The last steps will be the addition of brass hinges between the panels in order for the stand to remain upright on its own. Sometimes brass feet are added as well for effect and for protection of the foot.

If you want to learn more, you can also check out this article on Chinese Mosaic Lacquer Paintings

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