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The Hanoian Artisan Carving Intricate Reliefs From Leather to Make Book Covers

The enduring pages in our history deserve book covers that match their significance.

Nguyễn Ngọc Diệu Linh is a leather relief artisan in a small Hanoi-based studio. For the past eight years, Linh has created many leather artworks thanks to a unique approach to book covers, especially using tanned leather.

Having formed a penchant for leather long ago, Linh began the hobby with simple creations like handbags and wallets. During her time making accessories, she chanced upon the intricate patterns of leather artworks. She described the first time she saw these details as “3D shapes and a dye-able leather surface which come together like a painting.”

That striking first impression sparked within Linh a curiosity for the art form and a desire to delve deeper into leather carving. What’s fascinating is that the universe seems to recognize those passions in her mind as her first set of tools arrived as if by divine intervention. Using the first materials — a sheet of leather given to Linh by a friend and a tool set from her sister — Linh started creating the first few pieces.

Vietnam doesn’t have formal training classes for leather relief, so Linh had to do her own research and experiments to hone needed skills, leveling up just by making mistakes. To Linh, the success of a piece is determined by the working mindset of the artisan. “Just a moment of distraction at any step could derail my entire artwork,” she explains. Therefore, attention to detail and utmost concentration are always maintained throughout her creative process.

From the first step involving sketching the designs on paper to hammering the details in, leather carvers must focus intensely. Knife movements should be continuous and assertive, and the force behind the hammer should be consistent in order to create clear strokes and well-defined details.

Most importantly, modeling is a crucial step where the maker uses their hands to press and form shapes to bring depth to the piece. This is Diệu Linh’s favorite phase as she has the chance to do tactile work to give the elements more personality. If the knife can create “blocks,” the modeling step will breath more soul and liven up the intricacies of the seemingly plain leather skin.

It’s hard to say which step is the most important, as each final creation is the “child” of every process. Diệu Linh says: “The totality of the art piece came from my concentration on the work. It could come from a tiny detail or a contrast between different hues.”

The most distinctive attribute of carving on leather is the fact that everything is done on vegetable-tanned leather using natural ingredients with as few synthetic chemicals as possible. This helps reduce the elasticity of the leather skin to ensure the piece stays in shape after modeling. Besides, this kind of leather is also easier to dye and treated in whichever way the artisan desires.

Across her career in leather, Linh is always proud to present works that are awash in her personal touch, shown most clearly via the use of colors. For Linh, she requires the leather to retain its natural texture while creating an effect like watercolor on paper with a criss-cross of dark, light patches. She has her own dye recipe.

Material-wise, Linh’s dye of choice has to be water-based and bought from Japan. The coloring process takes place from the most dilute to the most concentrated. The first layer is the lightest and each following one is deeper until the desired shade is achieved. Lastly, a sheen of protection is spread on to preserve the lines and boost the longevity of the colors.

Most recently, Linh just completed two leather carving works — the covers of the book Nam Hải Dị Nhân Liệt Truyện and the notebook “Lưỡng Long Tranh Châu.” If the book cover impresses viewers thanks to a vintage palette that reflects the passage of time, the notebook is alluring due to its intricate details.

The “Lưỡng Long Tranh Châu” notebook.

The cover of Nam Hải Dị Nhân Liệt Truyện with Linh’s leather carving work is a commemorative version commissioned by Kim Đồng Publishing House and the book’s illustrator Tạ Huy Long. Most prominently featured on the cover is Nguyễn Hiền, a noted academic in ancient Vietnam. Despite not having many features, facial expression was a challenge for Linh. “Creating a portrait is very important, even one slight adjustment can turn them into another person,” she says. Looking at this book cover, viewers can observe the modeling techniques that Linh applied in the recreation of Nguyễn Hiền’s temperament via facial expression.

The leather-bound version of Nam Hải Dị Nhân Liệt Truyện.

Working on “Lưỡng Long Tranh Châu,” Linh was inspired by a relief found at a Lê temple in Ninh Bình Province. The artwork comprises two components: the carved cover and the inner pages made of dó paper. The cover’s composition is divided into two with the border carved like cascading waves. The motif at the center depicts two dragons fighting over a precious pearl, just like its name suggests.

Even though Linh has created many fascinating projects in her career, to Linh, this medium is still an unfinished book. Once a new idea manifests itself, she always resolves to pursue it to the end. Each finishing line leads to yet another beginning — that’s how Diệu Linh prepares for the 8th year on her journey with leather carving.

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