A unique Vietnamese artist who finger paints in reverse

By Kim Anh   January 29, 2019 | 01:32 am PT
Doan Viet Tien is a special artist whose uniqueness goes beyond using fingers to paint images in reverse on glass.

Tien recently set an unusual record that was recognized and rewarded. He set his fingers dancing on four glass panels, creating paintings that were auctioned on the spot for $6,234. The money was donated to the HCMC Children’s Hospital 1.

His non-materialistic approach and special painting method has earned Tien accolades from artistic peers, authorities and the public at large.

The fact that he is the only Vietnamese artist to reverse paint images on glass has also given Tien a sharper profile.

A painting at Doan Viet Tiens recent exhibition. Photo by VnExpress/Kim Anh

A painting at Doan Viet Tien's recent exhibition. Photo by VnExpress/Kim Anh

Born in 1961, Doan Viet Tien is a native of Phu Duc Commune in the southern province of Ben Tre. Drawing was his passion from a young age.

When he was in the military, he drew and etched images of 32 battles that his unit was involved in, using a ballpoint pen, charcoal on paper, on shells and on leaves.

After completing his service, Tien made a living by drawing illustrations for advertisers and hawking his wares in as many as 69 markets in the Mekong Delta region.

One day, after it had rained, he saw a glass frame in the corner of a garden that shimmered in the sunlight. The thought struck him then that a painting on the glass would make it shine, as it would not be on canvas or paper.

However, implementing the idea was difficult. For one, an image had to be painted in reverse so that it would come out right on the other side of the glass. The next difficulty was in using a paintbrush on a slippery surface. Works in progress got smudged and were difficult to correct. After several successive failures, Tien thought of using his fingers instead of the brush.

Painter Doan Viet Tien works on a glass panel at his studio. Photo by VnExpress/ Kim Anh

Painter Doan Viet Tien works on a glass panel at his studio. Photo by VnExpress/ Kim Anh

While he continued to be a market vendor during the day, he devoted nights to using his fingers to paint images in reverse on glass panels.

After 10 years of hard work, in 1999, his first glass painting became a huge hit. It was a portrait of President Ho Chi Minh. That painting changed his life. He received many offers from museums to portray historic figures in Vietnamese history.

Around 2008, Tien was emotionally traumatized by some family affairs. As he puts it, his "active subconsciousness broke his consciousness.

"As I tried to come to terms with my illness on my own, I realized that if I turned all the dark emotions into art, their pressure on me would lighten."

It worked. The more he painted, the better his mental situation became. He got to stage where he could complete a work in just a few minutes. From June 2018 until now, he has completed about 200 paintings.

"Using his fingers to paint directly on the glass, his emotions are expressed seamlessly," said Ngo Doan Ngoc Uyen, deputy chairman of the Mekong Art Club under the HCMC Fine Arts Association.

Uyen said the art of painting in reverse on glass has existed for several centuries, but most artists sketch and paint using brushes. He said he has never seen anybody work on glass using fingers as Tien does.

The method is challenging because to know which color layer has to go first and which layer later, so that when the glass is turned around, a full picture can be seen. Tien is the only artist who employs the "stream of consciousness" in his work, Uyen said.

"Tien's paintings are special works done with extraordinary ability. Viewers can see themselves in them and slip into imaginations that don’t necessarily match Tien’s imagination when painted. He does not impose his imagination on the viewer," Uyen commented.

One resident of Long An Province has a strange experience to report after buying one of Tien’s paintings. After his family went to sleep, he lit candles to observe the painting and felt as if it was talking to him. What seemed to be a flower turned into a butterfly, said the Long An resident who preferred to remain anonymous.

It is perhaps this extra dimension that has made Tien’s work very popular. In both his solo exhibitions, which took place in June 2018 displaying 63 works and in January this year with 85 works, all the paintings were sold out in a few days after the opening.

A member of the Young Film Company, which helped Tien organize the exhibitions, said this was a rare event among the artist community in Vietnam. She did not want to be named.

"A buyer paid VND30 million ($1,289) for Tien's painting at the June exhibition and took it to Hanoi where many liked it so much that they offered several hundred million dong for it," she said.

Glass paintings by Doan Viet Tien exhibited early this month sold out in quick time. Photo by VnExpress/ Kim Anh

Glass paintings by Doan Viet Tien exhibited early this month sold out in quick time. Photo by VnExpress/ Kim Anh

Not in it for the money

Tien’s altruism goes beyond the money he donated to HCMC Children’s Hospital 1.

Even though he did not have his own house, he has used a lot of his earnings to build charity houses in his hometown. Until now, he has built 117 houses for needy residents of Ben Tre Province.

Today, he has a home in HCMC’s Hoc Mon ward. His friends contributed half the cost of building the house.

"To give each other trust" painting was completed in less than 5 minutes.

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