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Oscar P. Fitzgerald

Technique for imitating Asian Lacquer. Once Dutch and Portuguese traders imported lacquer ware from the Far East after 1700, Europeans became fascinated by this technique. Originating in ancient China, it spread to Japan where it is still practiced in the 21st century. The process involved the application of up to a hundred coats of lacquer produced from the sap of the Rhus vernicifera tree, native to China, Malaya, and Japan. Despite attempts to discover the secret, Europeans could not duplicate the process. Since the sap quickly congeals it did not travel well and was toxic like poison ivy.

In 1688 A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing by John Stalker and George Parker explained how to imitate the process by applying shellac dissolved in alcohol over a gessoed surface (see Stalker and Parker). Black was the most common color but red, white, blue, green, yellow, olive brown, and imitation tortoise shell (black streaked with vermillion) were also known. After designs were drawn on the surface, a mixture of red clay or sawdust, whiting, and gum arabic was daubed into the outlines and the raised images were sculpted with engraving tools and then colored with metal dust. A variation called ...