The art of truyền thần portrait drawing developed in Hà Nội during the early years of the 20th century, mainly as a means of creating artistic renditions of deceased family members from old photographs which could then be used for ancestor worship on the family altar.
As recently as 1995 more than 250 truyền thần portrait artists were still active in the capital, but since that time, as more people have been able to afford cameras and digital photography has become widespread, the art form has waned in popularity. Today there are believed to be less than 30 truyền thần portrait artists, operating mostly in the Old Quarter.
The traditional truyền thần portrait is created by applying charcoal powder to paper with a special pen and takes around four or five hours to complete. Some artists also create full-blown paintings. There are no truyền thần training courses; the skill is handed down within families.