A Thangka is a painted or embroidered banner which
was hung in a monastery or a family altar and carried by lamas
in ceremonial processions. In Tibetan the word 'than' means flat
and the suffix 'ka' stands for painting. The Thangka is thus a
kind of painting done on flat surface but which can be rolled
up when not required for display. The most common shape of a Thangka
is the upright rectangular form. One does also find horizontal
oblong banners influenced probably by the format of Chinese horizontal
On the basis of techniques involved and materials
used thangkas can be grouped into several categories. Generally
they are divided into two broad categories: those which are painted
(called bris-than in Tibetan) and those which are made of silk
either by weaving or with embroidery called (gos-than). The painted
thangkas are further divided into five categories:
Thangkas are painted on cotton canvas with water
soluble pigments, both mineral and organic, tempered with a herb
and glue solution. The entire process demands great mastery over
the drawing and perfect understanding of iconometric principles.
The execution of a Thangka painting can be divided
into six steps:
Tibetan painters pay great importance to the
preparation of the painting surface since Thangka paintings are
to be rolled up for storage and then unrolled for display. Any
sort of defect due to neglect may cause cracks or make the paint
peel off. A piece of cotton cloth of slightly open weave is stitched
on to a narrow wooden frame along all its four sides. This lightly
framed cotton is then tightly stretched over a larger wooden frame
or stretcher with a stout thread by a system of crisscross lacing.
After setting up the cloth in the frame it is treated from both
the front and back with a thin layer of gesso, which is made up
of glue and zinc oxide. The canvas is then burnished on both sides
with a stone or conch shell to produce a smooth and lustrous surface.
Before sketching different parts of the composition,
eight major lines of orientation are drawn. These include a central
perpendicular, two diagonals, a horizontal and four outer borders.
Now with charcoal or graphite the rough drawing of the deity in
full accordance with the canonical proportions is delineated.
Within a given composition, the center stage is invariably occupied
by the principal personage, while all acolytes and attendants
are greatly reduced in size to further emphasize the majesty and
enormity of the central figure.
Color is more than a visual proposition in Sacred
Buddhist Painting. The five basic colors white, yellow, red, black
and green have different symbolic meanings. Black symbolizes killing
and anger, white denotes rest and repose, yellow stands for restraint
and nourishment, red is indicative of subjugation while green
is the known hue of exorcising practices. The palette of the Thangka
painters has been classified into 'seven father colors' and one
'mother color'. The seven father colors are: deep blue, green,
vermilion, minimum orange, maroon, yellow and indigo. The mother
color is white which interacts perfectly with all these hues.
The lighter shades resulting from the mixture of 'father' and
'mother' were referred to as their sons. Written evidence from
the eighteenth century identifies fourteen such 'sons'.
For any large project, the master painter first visualizes the
final color scheme and indicates them on the sketch with an abbreviated
While applying the colors the painter proceeds from the distant
parts to those parts stationed near him.
After laying the initial coats of flat color
the painter proceeds to apply thin coats of dyes diluted in water.
Shading in Tibetan Thangkas is always done to add effects of volume
and dimension to the form be it a human figure, an anthropomorphic
image of some deity or clouds, water, flames, rocks, flowers,
curtains, seats, etc. Cast shadows and highlights are unknown
aspects of the pictorial imagery of the Thangka. Very often the
empty green field of the foreground is shown fading gradually
into the horizon and such effects are obtained with 'wet shading',
a technique of gradual blending of two adjoining areas of wet
In an essentially linear pictorial expression
like the Thangka, the art of outlining plays a significant role.
To set off objects from the background or to demarcate subdivisions
of a certain form, or to emphasize a swirling mass of flames,
painters select the indigo and lac dyes for perfect results.
At this final stage the facial features are finished
and the eyes of the deities are painted. For this 'eye opening'
an elaborate consecration ritual on an auspicious full moon day
is fixed and only after the vivification ritual does the painter
complete the eyes in swift sure strokes. The whites of the eyes
are softened with orange and red at the corner ends, eyelid edges
are darkened and then the iris is added according to the required
stance of the deity. The two most commonly fashioned varieties
of eyes are 'bow eyes' and grain eyes' besides a few fearsome
looking ones for the wrathful deities.
In order to turn the areas of gold shiny they are burnished gently
with an onyx tipped tool after placing a wooden support against
the back of the canvas.
Next, the cord fastenings are cut with a knife and the painting
is removed from the stretcher. The Thangka is then mounted with
Chinese silks. Often the Thangka is provided with a cover of gossamer
silk. When the Thangka hangs on an altar the cover is gathered
up to the top and acts as a curtain. Two narrow sticks are attached
to the top and the bottom so that the Thangka can be easily rolled
up for storage or for a journey.
Most Tibetan artists do not sign their works.
Every act of creation is considered to be divine with the artist
simply serving as a mortal instrument, and so his own identity
is inconsequential. Also, attaching one's name to a work is considered
an egotistical act, and it is the duty of the artist, like all
pious Buddhists, to destroy the ego.
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