vietnam Archives

Ringing in Tết with Đông Hồ Paintings

At the end of this week, Tết, Vietnamese New Year, will arrive. Vietnamese New Year and Chinese New Year often coincide from year to year, with rare minor differences.

I live out my life alone and isolated from the Vietnamese community, having been raised entirely outside it. Often I feel as if I'm just a stranger looking in at traditions the Western school system cut out of me at a young age.

Nevertheless, international New Year (January 1st on the Gregorian calendar) is part of a traumatic time for me. I still wish to welcome the change of the year, however, so I choose to celebrate Tết now.

One tradition of Tết involves art in the form of Đông Hồ paintings, printed via wood engravings. Here are just two traditional designs:

Traditional Đông Hồ designs.

Subjects include cultural stories and good-luck animals. The style features strong line art and bright colors made from natural pigments: the yellows of resin and aniseed, the red of clay, the blue of verdigris or indigo, the green from cajuput leaves, the black of the carbon ash from burnt bamboo.

Notably there's little concern in traditional Đông Hồ paintings (or much of Southeast Asian and East Asian art, for that matter) for Western-style concepts of soft shading, perspective, or lighting.

Chinese art masters through the ages emphasize the importance of capturing the spirit of the subject over the mere physical likeness of it, a principle that also applies to more Western styles of naturalism and photorealism.

For this year, I created a small painting of my own. Note: snake art incoming!

Snake in my own Đông Hồ inspired style.

The style is reminiscent of Đông Hồ, and yet also farther from it. I'm not reliant on wood printing, so I was able to use finer lines for the snake scales. Instead of using inks, I used colored pencils. In particular, I used a limited pool of Luminance pencils, which have an application so buttery they resemble oil pastels.

The challenge of using an extremely limited palette without color mixing, without even tints or shades, yet communicating life and spirit, was pleasing to me. I additionally used texture in the background.

I remain ill and exhausted, so I might not get around to creating a piece of horse art in a similar style.

But I feel like I connected with my ancestors, somehow, at long last. And that's the gift that art this Tết has given me. I'm grateful.

Thank you for following me on my journey as I seek to reclaim my heritage.

Cảm ơn. Ava