Khokhloma is an old Russian folk handicraft which to this day is the most famous type of Russian folk painting. Khokhloma is the decorative painting of wooden tableware and furniture, generally speaking, in black and red, and in rare cases in green on a golden background. Khokhloma painting is thought to have originated in the 17th century on the left bank of the Volga River in Nizhniy Novgorod province.
The word “khokhloma” was originally the name of one of the major trading villages where masters from nearby villages would bring their wares for sale. From this came the name “khokhloma painting” (or simply “khokhloma”). There is also a legend explaining the appearance of khokhloma painting: long ago lived an unsurpassed icon painter by the name of Andrey Loskut. Unhappy with the church reforms of Patriarch Nikon, he ran from the capital and in the remote Volga forests he painted icons in the old manner, as well as wooden craftwork. Patriarch Nikon, having found out about this, sent soldiers after the disobedient icon painter. Refusing to submit, Andrey burned himself in his hut, and before his death entrusted others with preserving his craft. Andrey dissolved into sparks, and ever since then the bright khokhloma paints have burned with a scarlet fire and sparkled with gold.
The rich Volga fairs were attended by merchants from all parts of Russia as well as from abroad. And just as before, local wooden tableware, painted in red, black and golden colors and decorated with stems, flowers and berries, enjoyed huge demand. Golden khokhloma was transported to all parts of Russia. It even found its way to Central Asia, Turkey, India and Europe, gradually gaining worldwide fame. By the end of the 19th century, khokhloma was represented at every domestic and international fair, and after its unheard-of success at the international exhibition in Paris, the export of khokhloma to different countries grew sharply. Much was bought in particular by trading companies from Germany, England, France and India. One German entrepreneur even started the production of wooden spoons that he passed off as khokhloma.
The process of preparing khokhloma is quite complicated and interesting.
First the wood is formed (“beaten”) into small blocks, making rough forms. Then the master goes to his lathe, and begins with his cutting tool to whittle down excess wood and gradually give the rough form the correct shape. This results in the basic item, the belye (undecorated item): cut ladles, spoons and cups. In the past masters would use a horse- or water-powered lathe to turn their pieces, but today the lathes are electric.
The dried item needs to be prepared for painting: first it is primed with liquid purified clay, and after being treated the item is set to dry for 7-8 hours and thereafter must be covered with several layers of drying oil (flaxseed oil) by hand. The master dips a special pad of sheep or calf skin, turned inside out, into the bowl with the drying oil. The item is covered with drying oil 3-4 times in a day: this is a crucial step which will determine the quality of the wooden dish that is produced and the durability of the painting. The next step is “tinning”, rubbing aluminum powder onto the outside of the item. A sheepskin pad is also applied to it by hand. The item acquires a silver color, and only then does the painter begin work. When the item is painted, it is covered 4-5 times with a special lacquer and heated in an oven for 3-4 hours at a high temperature (150 to 160?C) until an oily lacquer film forms. Underneath the heated lacquer film, all that had been silver in the painting becomes a unique copper-golden color that makes the light wooden dish appear more massive. Thus khokhloma first is wooden, then clay, silver and finally golden. This master’s secret of gilding was borrowed from icon painters.
All items are painted by hand, and the painting does not repeat itself in any place. The artists do not outline clear lines in the patterns beforehand, thus requiring a high degree of skill and hand-eye precision. The painting uses oil paints. The main colors determining the nature and recognizability of khokhloma painting are red and black (vermilion and soot), but other ones are allowed to make the pattern come alive: brown, light green, and yellow. The paintbrushes are made of squirrel tails, allowing the drawing of very fine lines.
Traditional khokhloma ornamentation consists of various plant elements: juicy red strawberries, raspberries and ashberries, flower blossoms, leaves and bent branches. Blossoming shrubs and fruits in old Rus were considered a wish of good and well-being, which is why there are so many of them in khokhloma painting. The patterns extend upwards, then are circular, then wind about. This diversity of ornamentation shows artists’ fancy. But the favorite motif is the travka (grass) ornament, bent like a shrub or just a single blade of grass. Travka is usually painted in red or black, and is de rigueur for khokhloma painting. The most complex patterns are called kudriny. The travka here turns into winding curls resembling the feathers of the zhar-ptitsa (firebird). Kudriny are always painted in gold on a red or black background. There is another type of ornamentation, the pryanik: a geometric figure (a square or diamond) usually inside the cup or dish, decorated with travka, berries or flowers. The masters use simplified ornamentation as well. For example, they use the specks made by a stamp cut from the gills of a puffball mushroom, or a specially twisted piece of fabric. More rarely in khokhloma painting one can encounter birds, fish and various small animals and scenes completely atypical for the genre.
Art experts believe that the sources of the ornaments found in khokhloma painting, with its unique combination of paints, are most likely found in the decorative culture of old Rus of the 15th-16th centuries. It is at this time that similar color combinations were found in frescos, icons and book decoration.