Reverse glass painting, or souwer in the Wolof language (from the French "sous verre") is an art form in Senegal that has been popular for over a century. Reverse glass painting itself is an ancient technique that came to Senegal from Northern Africa in the late 1800s. When it was first introduced, the subject matter was mostly of religious scenes like Noah's Ark or Abraham's sacrifice or of religious heads. After Senegal gained its independence from France in 1960, subject matter took on new directions. Scenes were, and are, painted to depict every day life, like a marabout (holy man), a scene in courtyard, women pounding fufu, a Koranic school, a thief caught by a policeman, a ritual tea ceremony, the market, and peanut selling - these are but a few examples. Contemporary paintings also include portraits, social commentary and wild animals.
These paintings are done in the naive style, that is to say not focused on formal drawing or needing the painting to look exactly like the subject. Bright colors are used, and perspective is ignored.
|This painting is a depiction of the slave trade, with white traders offering weapons in exchange for slaves (c.1987)Source: Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute|
To be a reverse glass painting, the paint is applied directly to the glass and then viewed through the glass. What I mean is that once the glass is painted, the side with the paint on it gets a backing covering it, and you see the painting through the clear glass side. This means the process of painting is done in reverse. Any words or letters (or signatures) need to be painted in reverse. Details are painted first, then color filled in over it.
|Al-Buraq by Gora Mbengue, 1975|
This painting follows the tradition in Islamic art of not directly depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Al-Buraq, depicted in this painting, was the angel that carried Muhammed to the throne of God upon his death.
Source: Brooklyn Museum
Take a look at Senegalese Reverse Glass Painting
I love the simplicity and bright colors of this art form. Before making your own, take a few minutes to appreciate some of the paintings produced in Senegal by going here, here and here.
The Virtual Musee de la Femme "Henriette Bathily" shares its collection of Senegalese glass painting. This is an excellent site for an overview on the different themes - each painting is accompanied with a description of that aspect of life in Senegal. However, the paintings themselves are fairly small, and we needed to zoom in on each one to get a better view.
|Mor Gueye's Portrait of a Real Person.|
Make you own Senegalese Reverse Glass Painting
All three of us really enjoyed this project, and they look so great and vibrant up on the wall! The paint needs a couple of layers (at least) for each color, so each of our paintings were done sporadically over the course of a few hours (paint dried pretty fast at our art table next to the wood stove).
After looking at all the examples included above, we each chose our subject matter. Elle decided to paint a Senegalese Express bus, the main form of public transportation in Senegal. She was inspired by this painting and looked at these photographs to sketch her painting (aren't those bus' fun?!). I love portraits in general, and would love a gallery wall of the Senegalese women portraits of this genre, so I based my painting on these portraits. Pea painted towers of Senegalese baskets, based on a photograph .
I hope you find inspiration to draw your own painting, but if you feel daunted at the task, don't miss out on this fun painting activity. I'm including a printable template of Elle's bus and a woman's portrait.
Reverse glass painting printable templates:
- 8 1/2 x 11 glass frame - I got ours at the Dollar Store, they're the simple glass "frames" with no edge, but the glass clips onto the back.
- Acrylic paint, paintbrushes, water and rags
- Small piece of parchment paper (if you want to add a signature)
- Black sharpie marker (if you want to add a signature)
- A white piece of paper (optional, but helpful if you want to add a signature)
- A general sketch of what you want to paint (or printable template)
Remove the backing from the glass and set aside. Wipe the glass clean of any dust on the side you'll be painting. Protect your surface (and your clothes) from the paint.
If you want to include your signature, do this first. Place a sheet of white paper under the glass. On you piece of parchment paper, sign your name with the sharpie. Turn the parchment paper over, slide it under the glass where you want the signature to be, and trace over it with acrylic paint as a reverse signature. I recommend giving your signature a second coat once it dries or it might smudge a little during the later steps of the painting.*The larger your signature, the easier it will be to paint it
Now it's time to start your painting! Having a sketch to follow is much easier, but you don't need one. You can start painting your image immediately on the glass. I recommend a sketch because the process is different than a regular painting - we start off first with the outlines and finer details. It's easy to forget that. Luckily, wet paint on glass wipes off very easily, just wipe away. If it dries, it can still be washed off with a damp cloth.
Slip your sketch under the glass. Start tracing your sketch outlines and any fine details. With the portrait, facial features were outlined first. Then the first colors of the jewelry, then the details in the fabric. As mentioned earlier, I recommend at least a second coat of paint for everything - not only will the finished painting look less streaky, the finer details are less likely to smear off when adding the background colors. Once both layers of paint are dry for the fine details, start painting over it all with the background colors. I painted the fabric making sure to get two to three coats for the larger sections of color (if you lift the glass up, you can see where it's streaky). Once that was dry, I painted her skin, and then the whites of her eyes. Once all coats were dry, the background color.
*For each new background layer, paint over the edge of the front layer, so that with your finished painting there won't be any slivers of clear glass showing.
In Elle's case, she started off by outlining her sun, the details on the Express bus, and the passenger heads in the windows. Then she painted the major colors of the bus, then the clouds, then the sky and road.
If any paint ends up on the front of the glass, it will wipe away with a damp cloth.
Like I said, all three of us really enjoyed this project - it was something we'd never tried before and the results are so colorful and fun. I hope you give it a try!
If you're interested in exploring other aspects of Senegalese culture, find all of our posts here.
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