A little bit of history
Long time ago on the trade route from Europe to Asia, some local schools of icon painting were founded. Later they gave birth to one of the most amazing Russian hand crafts – lacquer miniature.
Since the old times villages – Palekh and Kholuy – were the centers of Russian icon painting. From all the schools of icon painting these were distinguished by delicate painting and by extremely fine detailed design of the clothes of the Saints. Icon painting was a family occupation and the craft was passed on from generation to generation. Palekh works were known as the most refined, complicated and they were the most famous among all the schools. It was established there in XIII century. After the Soviet Revolution religious themes fell into disgrace and many icon painters had to look for other jobs.
Under these circumstances it was necessary to find a new media to carry on the icon painting tradition. In Palekh an idea emerged to borrow the experience of Fedoskino manufacture and to form an association of icon painters, who would use something other than an icon board or canvas and paint secular scenes instead of images of saints and scenes from their lives. The leader of the Bolshevik Revolution Vladimir Lenin gave his permission to switch to lacquer miniature painting in order not to lose the skills and the traditions of the masters. This is how it all started.
The technique of making the box itself is very complicated.
Lacquer miniature boxes are made with the help of multi-layer oil painting on the primed papier-mâché surface with special lining. Most of the boxes have a black background on the outside and are covered with scarlet or bright-red lacquer inside.
The villagers work together to create their unique designs using the methods that have been passed on for generations. It is quite a long and painstaking process.
Authentic Russian lacquer miniature boxes are painted only on papier-mâché. It's not an accidental choice. Papier-mâché is a material that has been used for a long time and has proved its advantages. Wood has a serious flaw – it, if we can say so, can breathe. It can be affected by temperature and humidity. It takes up the moisture and enlarges. This of course will spoil the painting. Unlike wood papier-mâché is durable, it will be stable and will last for centuries. It is a perfect base for lacquer miniature painting.
First of all the base is made. Master cuts the cardboard, covers it with paste, then puts it in an oven to dry several times and then dips it in linseed oil. Then the box is shaped and polished. The Master applies handmade putty to each box and then polishes it for smoothness. Then it is covered with lacquer – black outside and red inside. After the additional layer of translucent lacquer is applied, the box is sent to the painter.
Palekh, Khouy painting schools work with tempera colors. It is a type of paints based on egg-emulsion, which is freshly made in a very small amount. From the old times the painters used the canons of ancient school of icon painting. The paints were not blended, masters worked only with pure colors – red, yellow, blue, green.
The Fedoskino School uses the oil paintings. It has always been a secular school. The amount of colors is unlimited.
The first layer of paint is applied to build up the basic colors and shades. The work is then dried in an oven. The final step includes applying 10 layers of lacquer which are dried in an oven after each layer is applied.
All artists make their own brushes from squirrel fur; sometimes the very small and intricate details are made with one hair brush. Often they paint especially detailed designs using magnifying glass. It is complicated and painstaking work, which requires firm hand and good eyesight.
Although different boxes may share the same theme every box is individual in its execution. Every painter has his own unique style.
The gold painting is very fine and complicated work which demands certain skills, experience and mastery of that technique. From the old times Palekh masters were renowned for their skills to decorate the boxes with an exquisite golden ornament.
Palekh School is known for elongated, graceful figures which reminds of icon painting, elaborate gold and/or silver ornamentation applied in fine lines throughout the painting; intricate decorative borders, which often cover the surface of the lids and sides of the articles completely.
A Palekh piece have one distinctive features - the gold touch up lines emphasizing the volume of the objects in the painting. A painter must have high skill to apply gold touch up lines properly; this can be done only by the best masters.
All lacquer boxes are signed with the village name and the name of the artist.
Initially lacquer miniature represented characters and scenes from real life and fairytales.With the development of their skills masters start work on a wide range of subjects. Animals, hunting scenes, flowers and butterflies, which requires a close observation of nature are among the most popular subjects.
These days Russian lacquer miniature is famous through the entire world. It can be found in private collections and museums, there are plenty of the exhibitions from the private collections, and many catalogues are published.