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Vietnamese Sand Paintings

Making art, one grain at a time.

Last Updated: December 01.2014

The Gist
  • Vietnamese sand painting is a fairly recent art form said to have been founded inby artist Y Lan
  • It’s done by carefully layering coloured sand in a transparent container, such as a glass frame
  • Vietnam is a rich source of coloured sand, with Ms. Lan having collecteddifferent colours so far
  • The tools used in sand painting are very simple, but the process of making a painting requires painstaking concentration and patience
  • The four main themes of sand painting are architecture, landscapes, calligraphy, and portraits
  • Sand paintings are popular as gifts among the Saigonese
  • Depending on the size and complexity, a painting may cost between VND,000-VND1.5m

Pass by Miss Lan’s shop and take a glance at the displays – at first you might think they’re all somewhat grainy photographs. Look closer, however, since each and every piece is a unique sand painting enclosed between two panes of glass. This relatively new art form is unique to Vietnam, and there’s no better place than HCMC to appreciate it.

Sand of Time

Artist Y Lan is widely credited with inventing Vietnamese sand painting. It all started in 2001, when she went to her husband’s hometown of Phan Thiet. On the way there, she was mesmerised by the colours of the sand dunes and decided to bring some of the sand back home to fill a flower vase. When she did, the different colours created a striking pattern, giving Y Lan the idea of trying to create a picture by carefully layering the sand.

phan thiet
The colours of Phan Thiet

What started as a simple home décor item soon became a means of artistic expression, and Ms. Lan soon went back to Phan Thiet to look for different coloured sands. After perfecting her art over the years, she created a company with her husband in 2005 and established numerous showrooms in the country since then. To date, she is the most accomplished sand painter in the country and her most acclaimed work is a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh.

The Artist’s Toolbox

Making a sand painting is a combination of simple tools and painstaking technique. There are just four things in a sand painter’s inventory: coloured sand, a transparent container for the painting, a small scoop, and a sharp stick used to pack the sand down.

sand painting
Simple tools to create a startling effect

The majority of the sands used are naturally occurring – Vietnam’s geography allows for a dizzying number of colours, and artist Y Lan has so far collected 81 distinct shades from different parts of the country. Collecting a natural colour palette like that requires perseverance – Ms. Lan has been known to go to Binh Thuan province, wait for the tide to recede, and dig deep into the sand to find new shades for her collection. Some colours, however, are too difficult to procure, so the artist has to dye the sand with the required hue.

The final appearance of a sand painting depends on the container used – the most common type is a glass frame made by connecting two glass panes with space in between for the coloured sand. However, sand paintings can also be made in any transparent container, such as crystal jars and squares.

Tiny scoops and a sharp stick are the only tools used to create a sand painting. The former are used to slowly put the sand into the frame. This is a painstaking process that takes immense concentration and patience. Unlike regular painting, where it’s always possible to cover up a mistake with a darker colour, sand painting is frustratingly unforgiving, and one wrong move can ruin the whole work. Beginner artists often make an outline of the painting on the glass surface to guide their work, but accomplished sand painters usually just use their imagination, experience, and instinct to finish the whole piece. While working, small adjustments can be made with a sharp stick, but it’s mainly used to pack down the coloured sand when it’s in the desired position.

Sources of Inspiration

Depending on the size of the painting and its complexity, it can take anywhere from a day to three weeks to finish a piece. The end quality of the painting depends on two factors: the artist’s talent and the quality of sand. Since they take so much effort and time to complete, sand paintings are a highly appreciated form of art in Vietnam.

Y Lan studio
In Y Lan’s Studio

So far, four main themes have emerged in the art of sand painting – landscapes, architecture, portraits, and calligraphy. Among these, portraits are considered to be the most challenging. Sand painters often say that to make a portrait, one has to sympathise with the subject of the painting – only a few grains in the wrong position, and the facial expression is completely ruined. It’s not uncommon, therefore, for artists to spend some time to get to know the subject of the painting before starting their work.

As the art form continues developing, it takes on new themes: religion, floral arrangements, animals, and even cartoon characters are becoming more common. The Vietnamese public has taken a keen interest in this new art form, and sand paintings are now quite common gifts among friends. Some businesses also order a sand painting of their symbol or logo to decorate the office, adding more momentum to the burgeoning circle of sand artists.

sand painting
Made of the sands

For those looking to get a sand painting, HCMC offers some of the best showrooms in the country. Take a look at one of the following shops that specialise in the art:

  • Y Lan Sand Painting | 393/21, Binh Quoi, Ward 28, Binh Thanh, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam | 84 8 35562934
  • Quynh Vy Sand Painting | 585, Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Ward 2, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam | 84 8 39381323
  • Phuong Vy Sand Painting | 214, Phan Van Han, Ward 17, Binh Thanh, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam | 84 8 35180930
  • Qua Tang Tranh Cat | 170, Vo Van Ngan, Binh Tho, Thu Duc, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam | 84 8 38960538
  • Hoang Gia Phat | 162, Ba Thang Hai, Ward 12, District 10, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam | 84 8 38338570

Since the art form is fast entering the mainstream, some sand paintings can now be found at bookstores and supermarkets. Have a look at one of the following places for inexpensive sand paintings:

  • FAHASA - Nguyen Hue | 40, Nguyen Hue, Ben Nghe, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
  • Tan Dinh | 398 Hai Ba Trung, Dist. 1
  • Phu Tho | 940 Ba Thang Hai, Dist. 10
  • Phuong Nam | 3, Nguyen Oanh, Ward 10, Go Vap, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam / 15-17, Cong Hoa, Ward 4, Tan Binh, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Depending on the size and complexity, a sand painting can cost anywhere from VND100,000 to VND1.5m.

Yen Hai Nguyen 03.15.2016

Edit: Hoang Gia Phat showroom should be Van Thien Sa, 163 Ba Thang Hai, D10

SandAndArt Group 12.15.2018

Place your order online and send us your customization requirements via your order. We ship to all over the word via Aramex/DHL/FedEx .

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