They get their name from the many layers
of lacquer (most often, black and red) that are applied to both
their outside and inside sections. Coats of clear lacquer, or varnish,
are the last layers to be put on and provide a stunning shine to
The boxes, which vary in size, are extremely well
crafted. It can take as long as two months to make a box out of
papier-mache, a material many artists prefer because of its ability
to withstand changes in atmospheric conditions and to avoid cracking.
Lacquer artists must not
only excel artistically, but must also have the patience to spend
long stretches of time working on the many small intricate sections
of their composition. Artists will typically use strong magnifying
glasses on these spots and very fine brushes made out of a squirrel's
The boxes most widely sought after come from one of four small
Russian villages - Palekh, Fedoskino, Kholui, and Mstera. Special
schools have been established at these places where artists train
for four years before they become members of each village's art
Artists from Fedoskino, the birthplace of Russian lacquer miniatures,
use a more realistic style of painting than the other villages.
They also use oil paints for their drawings instead of the egg-based
temperas. Three to four layers of the oil paints, along with seven
coats of lacquer, are applied to each box before it is completed.
This layering brings out a radiant quality in the drawings and the
colors seem to emanate from within. Sometimes, an underlay of gold
leaf or mother of pearl enhances this radiance and adds a lovely
iridescence of its own.
Lacquer boxes from Palekh might well enjoy the highest world-wide
acclaim. The lacquer art of Palekh has been called "a small
miracle", a label particularly fitting since that the village
specialized in icon-painting for centuries until the 1917 Russian
revolution. To many collectors, Palekh boxes have the most elegant
look to them. When you hold one in your hand, you know you are holding
something truly special. Most often in Palekh works, innumerable
fine lines of gold leaf, polished to a glow by a wolf's tooth, are
applied to the ornamental border and drawing itself. A simple one-color
background then provides a beautiful contrast to the gold leaf and
scene itself. This background, usually black, also serves to take
the observer into a new world where one's concept of time and space
is left to the imagination.
The village of Kholui, meanwhile, began painting lacquer miniatures
in the 1930's, later than Palekh and much later than Fedoskino,
where this art began in the 18th century. Perhaps because of the
late start, Kholui artists are less bound to tradition or one particular
style than the other villages, and seem to take a bolder approach
to their works. Backgrounds for Kholui works are occasionally one
solid color (like Palekh), but more often than not the artist fills
this area with swirls of tone and shade. Partly for this reason,
Kholui works appear brighter than Palekh boxes and seem to fill
up more of the available space.
Boxes from Mstera, though, usually have the lightest colors. Artists
there almost never choose black for their backgrounds, and instead
use light blue, pink, gold or ivory colors. With the addition of
these colors, landscapes generally play a more prominent role in
Mstera works, and people and objects tend to take a place within
the background setting rather than remain separate from it. In Mstera,
a wide range of artistic talent exists. While some artists paint
dynamic and elaborate scenes from fairy tales or famous battles,
others concentrate on exquisite floral designs.
Above text on villages is used by permission of www.lacquerbox.com.