Thursday, May 17, 2012

Russian Lacquer Boxes - The Beginning

My recent endeavor into the field of arts and sciences has been learning how to make Russian lacquer boxes for the winner of the A&S competition at War of the Roses, Barony of Concordia of the East Kingdom.

I am the most recent A&S champion, so I had to decide how to run the competition for my replacement as well as prizes to give out. Recalling previous A&S champions, I looked at the prizes that they had given: all were hand made and they were the epitome of what they did in the SCA. The woman who won with her scroll work hand made books as prizes. The woman who won with her full hand sewn outfit wove napkins for the winners. But what do I do? It was then that I realized it is not -what- I do but -who- I am. I'm Russian. And so, truly, the only answer to this question was to make something Russian.

So, I began looking into various styles of gifts. Khokhloma is a very traditional looking lacquer box painting technique, but when it began in a mass production style, it certainly wasn't period. So I began to investigate further since a beautiful box, even if it was Russian in style, would certainly be perfect for any sort of won prize.

The technique used to make these boxes is the same technique that was used for a long long time in icon painting in Russia. The technique of lacquer, base paint, more lacquer, then inlaying gold leaf or abalone shell, painting, and then more lacquer... yes, it has been around since icon paintings. And lacquer painting, in general, has been around since 1600BC in China in the very least. So, my conclusion being, the TECHNIQUE was there, but were the products?

The boxes weren't technically produced until the fall of Imperialist Russia when the Icon painters were out of a job and needed to make money. So they began developing these boxes. But is there proof it was never used in period?

Not so. Icon work shows that this technique was used, and more importantly, there are extant finds of Icons that were actually created in boxes that would open and the Icon was painted inside. So, just because they stopped painting Icons does not mean that this technique was not used.

Once I felt satisfied that this was a period style of technique, I decided to get to work on the boxes. The boxes typically used were paper mache instead of wood. The reason for this being that the boxes would be painted with the lacquer and between each layer they would be put in an oven to dry. This back and forth would normally warp wood, but the paper mache has no issue. And with the months worth of layers put on the boxes, they would be nearly indestructible.

I did not have time for the months of making the paper mache boxes and pressing them until they were compact and perfectly formed, so I purchased my boxes. And it appears the paints that were normally used were tempra or oil paint. Here are the boxes as I started the lacquering process.

So I purchased my lacquer and boxes and paints and set to work. First was putting a few layers of lacquer down as a base for the paint to lay on. This was a slightly long process because the lacquer kept soaking into the paper mache so it was taking longer to dry. But once the layers were down, I started painting.

And here was my first big mistake. I didn't realize the tempra I had purchased was water based. Which means it was just beading up on the lacquer and took at least 3 layers to be thick enough that you could no longer see the box color underneath. You can see in the picture here the honeycombing effect by the beading up of the paint.

I ended up putting on three layers each of the red and black before no longer being happy and pulling out my acrylics instead. I can understand why they weren't used. It is hard to get a smooth coat, so you need to do a lot more work with the lacquer in trying to even everything out before starting the next part of the project.

Right now, that is where I am. I have put about 5-10 layers over each of the acrylic base paints and after another 15-20, I will start painting the actual design onto each of the boxes. I then plan another 20-40 layers of acrylic on top of that before doing the polish step of getting the boxes to a mirror finish.

Actual documentation for the boxes will follow after I get the boxes finished.