"Dong Ho" paintings
Updated: 14:51’ - 13/02/2018
Dong Ho is a small village by the Duong river, at the heartland of the former Kinh Bac (Northern Culture) region, now Thuan Thanh district, Bac Ninh province, about 30 kilometers north of Hanoi. It is not yet a prosperous countryside, but its landscapes are known for their scenic beauty, and its people for their refined taste and manners. However, it is especially known for its people's craft of making traditional paintings on do, a kind of hand‑made coarse paper.
Dong Ho painting - Wedding of the Mouse__Photo: Internet
In Vietnam, any mention of traditional paintings would perhaps ring the same bell in people's mind, Dong Ho village and Hang Trong Street (Hanoi). They are the two most ancient cradles in this genre of paintings. But they are often different in their theme subjects. While artisans of Hang Trong school pursue a broad range of subjects, producing even customs works, those of Dong Ho school mostly choose to depict scenes of country life or illustrate fables and fairy tales. And they have clung to those subjects for one generation of artisans after another. This is one of the reasons why Dong Ho paintings have been a favorite home decoration on Tet (lunar new year) festivals. In fact, it was once an indispensable decorative object for every family.
In Dong Ho village, almost every family knows how to carve paintings on wooden boards and print them on pieces of do paper. In the months immediately before each Tet, especially in lunar November and December, the whole village is filled with a boisterous atmosphere and colors in every house yard. People will be busy printing and selling paintings. Buyers from other provinces are seen almost everywhere, in the village and at the marketplace. Many bring in their own products to trade for paintings. In these months alone, the village produces millions of copies of paintings, although the making itself is a complicated and difficult process.
The first step of this process is the drawing of the painting on a wooden board. Only the really talented artisans will be entrusted with this job. It is a work of real creation and recreation. It may be the same idea left from generations before, a buffalo, a pig or a wedding procession of mice (the painting is called the Mice's Wedding), but each artisan will have his or her own way of creation, even down to every stroke of the hand.
The paintings are always drawn with a brush and Chinese ink and on thin and absorbent paper. The ink will soak through the paper, making up a negative image on the reverse side. Then, they will be taken up by the carvers who transfer them to wooden boards and carve them into matrixes.
Drawers and carvers often work in pairs. The more they understand each other, the better and more expressive their creation. On receiving the drawings, the carvers will first affix them face down to wooden boards and carve along the drawn lines. For broad color masses, the matrixes are made of soft and absorbent wood. But for thin lines, the matrixes must be made of strong and fine wood so that fine details can hold fast and steady.
The printing starts when the matrixes are ready. The most difficult part now is the making of colors and the dyeing of paper, which decides the color tones and the eventual appearance of the paintings.
The making of do paper on which the paintings are printed is an art by itself. It is made of a kind of tree bark by people of the neighboring Dong Cao village. It is soft but strong and highly absorbent, and has a coarse appearance, giving a clear folk impression. Now, as the rudimentary craft of do paper making is not producing enough to meet the increasing market demand and is dying out, people of Dong Ho village are replacing the traditional pulp with other materials. The paper so produced now has a much larger size but the originality of the paintings has suffered visibly.
The colors used for Dong Ho paintings are often the base ones, hand‑made of plant leaves and fruits and such natural materials as stone, rice straw, distemper and charcoal. The colors will then be mixed with sticky rice paste to make color paints. Mixes of different colors are very rarely used. The paintings are therefore often a patchwork of contrasting color masses. Each color will be a separate round of printing. The broad color masses will be printed before the fine lines and details.
As mentioned earlier, most of the theme subjects of Dong Ho paintings have been passed down from one generation to another. For 0.7m x 1m format, there are the y mon and huong chu, depicting altar objects, altar and entrance. Of smaller format (0.3m x 1m) are paintings of young girls, four seasons and four most precious trees. Of still small formats (A4 or smaller) are paintings for Tet decoration which often feature animals that stand for each of the 12 years of the lunar zodiac. The fat, comfortable and happy mother pig among her offspring, the smiling buffalo, the imposing tiger or the alert mother hen are all expressions of the desire for a happy and comfortable life of the Vietnamese, past and present.
Now, as modernity is setting in at an increasingly faster pace, Dong Ho painting is giving room to modern paintings in more and more Vietnamese homes during Tet festivals. However, signs of its comeback have emerged, especially in the past few years. It has become better known and appreciated abroad. At home, more and more efforts are being made for its revival. Many old artisans of Dong Ho village are now busy restoring old carvings and imparting their skills to the younger generations. They are more convinced than most that their own traditional treasury would soon regain its worthy place in the country's cultural and art life.- (VLLF)