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The Workshop

Making a Kholui box
Coating the boxes

The Workshop consists of about 120 artists, who have all been trained at the school in the techniques of Kholui painting. Certain designs by master artists are bought by the workshop and copied to an extremely high standard.

The process of making a box is very intricate. Strips of wood pulp cardboard are wrapped round a mould [oval, rectangular, square for different styles of box]. The strips are wrapped and coated in glue in layers, until the desired thickness for the walls of the box is achieved. The mould, wrapped tightly in string, is allowed to dry naturally for one month. After this boxes are soaked and then baked again for a further month before having lids and bases fitted, and being sanded and shaped. The boxes are coated in black local clay and glue, polished, and baked for yet another month. After 7 or 8 separate coats of transparent lacquer have been applied the box is ready to be painted.

Russian artists do not have an easy life. They make their own brushes from squirrel hair. This hair is not harvested for them, but extracted from the squirrel tails. Then they have to grind and prepare their own paint. In Palekh, Mstiora and Kholui they use egg tempera, which involves grinding powdered pigment with a mixture of egg yolk, water and vinegar. This keeps for only two weeks, so making paints is a continual process.

The surface is very lightly sanded to prepare it for the paint. The process of transferring the design to the box is very ancient. The artist pricks holes along the lines of the design, and places it on the box. Chalk is forced through the holes using a rabbit's foot, so that a tracing of white is left on the black surface.

The main features of the design are blocked in white and when this is dry, the fine detail is added in full colour. The copyists generally work all together at the workshop at rows of desks, always adorned with very many green plants and flowers, which seem to be an essential element of their environment. They work in silence and very rarely use artificial magnification. The wonderful gold decoration and intricate borders, which are such a feature of almost all boxes, are painted using gold paint they have made themselves from gold leaf and gum arabic. The gold is burnished with a wolf's tooth. After a further 4 coats of transparent lacquer the boxes are polished with "goya" paste, using the palm of the hand as a buffer.

Finally the box is ready, having been many months in the making. From strips of cardboard and powder pigment to a wonderful and enduring work of art all created and completed in the same remote little village in the depth of the Russian countryside.

Village houses in Kholui
Village houses in Kholui
Kholui church
Kholui church