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Craftsman shows art through the looking glass

VietNamNet Bridge – We've all seen glass bottles with model ships inside, often sold as quirky souvenirs. An altogether rarer sight is a bottle with a painting on the inside. In Viet Nam, one man has made this delicate art form his trade.

VietNamNet Bridge – We've all seen glass bottles with model ships inside, often sold as quirky souvenirs. An altogether rarer sight is a bottle with a painting on the inside. In Viet Nam, one man has made this delicate art form his trade. His name is Le Cong Tuan.


A glass act: Some of Tuan's main products, which depict the beauty of Vietnamese young ladies and soldiers.


Tuan's apartment, situated in the northern city of Hai Duong, is a space filled from top to bottom with beautiful artwork. Hundreds of bottles and vases of all shapes and sizes stand in rows, decorated with intricate paintings of people, flowers and towns and rural villages. All are the work of Tuan's gifted hands.

Born in rural Gia Loc District, where almost all the residents face the daily grind of tending to their paddy fields, Tuan decided to follow a different path from his peers. He first became interested in artistic pursuits when he was a young student. He was the star of his school art class and would regularly help his classmates with their homework.

After he finished his education, Tuan joined the army as a reconnaissance soldier in Quang Ninh Province. During this time a fortuitous meeting inspired him to pursue his love of art more devotedly.

"During my time there, I was destined to meet a man named Phong, the deputy commander of our battalion. We soon became soulmates, as we both shared many common interests, particularly art and paintings," Tuan recalls.

"Whenever we had time, we would compete against each other to see who could paint prettier pictures. We would set a different subject or theme each time, from portraits, to landscapes, to geometry. Phong was a teacher and mentor to me. He gave me so much life experience and taught me so many lessons, particularly about art. He was a real inspiration."

After leaving the army in 1990, Tuan's love for painting stayed strongly in his heart. During the day he worked at his new job at Hai Duong rice mill while at night he spent his time painting.

"For me, painting is a truly spiritual activity that enriches my soul," he says. "I soon became addicted to it."

People looking at his work can see the time, thought and feeling that has been put into every stroke. This is particularly apparent in his bottle paintings.

"The idea of painting inside bottles hit me when I read about a foreigner who had mastered the technique. He used his clever hands to create really beautiful scenes. My first thought was, ‘how can he do that?' My second thought was, ‘if he can do it then why shouldn't I give it a shot?'" Tuan recalls.



Bottling inspiration: Tuan checks a product's quality in his workshop on Hoang Hoa Tham Street.


Out of curiosity, he started experimenting with the technique, which involves using a very thin brush and carefully manipulating it to make paint strokes on the inside of the glass. When he mastered the method, he began to practice with bigger glasses and vases, and his scenes became more and more detailed.

At that time, Tuan's family was financially dependent on him. He had to carefully make sure he earned enough to provide for them, and he would use any spare money to buy bottles from street vendors for painting.

"Over one year, I studied extensively the different sizes of stroke and how to paint in bottles of different shapes. I now know over 100 different techniques. After I became confident with the process, I spent a further three years learning about how to preserve the pictures from being peeled off or burned by creating a special kind of glue which can endure heat (if you want to put a light bulb inside the vase) and water. After five long years, I proudly finished my first complete work, which was similar to a Dong Ho folk painting," he says.

So skilled did Tuan become at the art, he even invented a new stroke of his own, allowing the artist to achieve extremely close detail.

The variety of his strokes mean that his repertoire of paintings is wide, ranging from historic figures to lovingly rendered scenes of his home town. He now receives many orders from buyers, including traders in Do Son City who sell hundreds of bull fighting bottle paintings to tourists.

Tuan says his most memorable piece of work is a portrait of president Ho Chi Minh. "I used countless strokes to finish that painting. Some were as small as a needle to depict his hair and beard. The ‘canvas' I used was a French wine bottle with thick and curved sides. I had to struggle for a week to paint it. A war veteran asked me to sell it to him for VND500,000 which at that time was a big price."

Over the last ten years, Tuan has created 2,000 works utilising materials as varied as plastic, glass, pottery and porcelain. He also paints inside ostrich eggs to create night-lights and souvenirs.

His work has received acclaim from the country's artistic community.

"The art of bottle painting is very unique and requires a combination of patience and cleverness that few people are capable of. Tuan's work has enriched this city's cultural life," says Tran Trong Tan, director of Hai Duong's Culture Centre.

So, now he has achieved his goal of mastering a unique art. What other targets has Tuan set himself?

"Now I wish my two sons can receive a good education at the Ha Noi University of Fine Arts. I would like them to follow in my footsteps and I am working harder every day to make that dream come true," he says. These days, few would bet against him turning this dream into reality.

Source: VNS


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